London: the urban explorer/jewel thief's guide

In April, Geoff "BLDGBLOG" Manaugh will publish A Burglar's Guide to the City, a new book about London's rich history of heists and the network of tunnels, catacombs, sewers, and caves that London such a paradise for would-be superthieves.

The Daily Beast has an article about the book, in which Manaugh describes the spectacular Hatton Garden Heist, in which a group of elderly thieves patiently drilled into the underground vault of the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit company in the city's jewelry district (I ate lunch out front of this place for several years, when I had an office around the corner). The robbers got away with between £14m and £200m worth of loot (the discrepancy between these upper and lower bounds hints at the kind of things that people hide in their private vaults, which they may not want to talk about explicitly, even to the police or their insurers), and some was later recovered from under a graveyard headstone.

I love the subject of London's hidden places. I relied on Peter Laurie's definitive Beneath the City Streets to figure out placements for the hidden movie-theaters in my novel Pirate Cinema.

Geoff adds: "A quick note about the book: while the Daily Beast article is specifically about heists in London, the book itself actually takes on burglary in a much larger context. There is actually more of a focus on contemporary Los Angeles (including some flights with the LAPD's Air Support Division), some Toronto stuff (including a cat burglar I think you'd love for his insights into what I might call an alternative use of the city's fire code), and various other heists, bank jobs, and jewel thefts, even going back to ancient Rome. There are panic room architects in New Jersey, ATF door-breaching raids, Chicago lock-picking clubs, and camouflaged police traps in Northern England – but the London aspect is relatively contained to that Daily Beast article."

As I explore in my book A Burglar's Guide to the City, what are commonly thought of as "burglar's tools"—such as lock picks, crowbars, and bump keys—are far surpassed in both efficiency and function by the official tools of breaking and entering used by maintenance crews, SWAT teams, and fire departments. That is, the equipment already exists for near-unlimited entry into even the most secure architectural structures in the world; but, thankfully, public access to these tools is carefully regulated. In many cases they require training so specific that criminal suspects can often be deduced from lists of qualified operators. So when a concrete drill like the one used by the Hatton Garden gang is found at the scene, it immediately opens a trail that can lead investigators back not to the criminal underworld but, interestingly, to the construction industry. Indeed, London police were able to trace the Hatton Garden gang's drill to a theft at a nearby construction site.

Seen in this context, burglary becomes the flipside of the architectural world: a dark twin to the world of building renovation and maintenance.

When news of the crime broke, Google queries for the Hilti DD 350 noticeably spiked—perhaps implying something more than mere idle curiosity about the capabilities of a power tool. Indeed, sudden public interest in a previously obscure concrete drill suggests that the promise of a new super-tool, allowing illicit access to buried vaults, was something that, in however metaphoric a sense you want to look at this, people had been hoping for all along. It promised a true key to the city, putting you always just one extension cord away from secret treasure.

Further, the hole itself, so cleanly produced by the machine's diamond-tipped teeth, later became part of local mythology. This was true to the extent that an enterprising jewelry designer created a gold necklace shaped like the hole, forming a portable entryway you or your loved one could wear like an amulet. The idea that a bank heist could produce a geometric symbol so recognizable as to become iconic reveals something about the imaginative hold a crime like this can hold over a city.

A Burglar's Guide to the City [Geoff Manaugh/Farrar, Strauss, Giroux]

Why We All Dream of Being Jewel Thieves
[Geoff Manaugh/The Daily Beast]

(Image: Hatton Garden robbery drill-hole necklace – buy of the day