Charles Belfoure meets me at a construction site half a block south of Baltimore’s bustling Lexington Market. “I wanted to show you these buildings,” the author and architect says, “but my contractor’s not here yet.” He describes the work he’s overseeing on this row of 19th-century structures, pointing out the newly completed work on the oldest building and describing the process of stripping the interior down to the beams and brick.
Belfoure is extremely knowledgeable. In tone and manner, he’s at the exact middle point between professorial and avuncular, and it’s interesting to hear him talk about this preservation project and the others he’s working on this summer—four as the lead architect and another 10 as a consultant.
It quickly becomes clear that Belfoure is more comfortable talking about his life as an architect than his work as a writer. His new book, House of Thieves, is due out in September from Sourcebooks. His debut, The Paris Architect, was published in 2013 (also by Sourcebooks), when Belfoure was 59. It was a finalist for the International Dublin Literary Award and an American Booksellers Association Indie Pick. Malcolm Gladwell told the Guardian that The Paris Architect was the best book he’d read that year, noting that he happened upon the novel in an airport. That would have been a providential turn for any author, but it was an especially lucky one for a debut novelist who, in truth, hadn’t planned a literary career.
“Going into this, I had no real writing background and certainly no creative writing background,” Belfoure says. “The only way I recently felt better about that was when I found out that one of England’s greatest writers, Thomas Hardy, had been a full-time architect.”
I ask Belfoure if, like Hardy, he would like to earn enough through his novels to eventually write full-time, but he shakes his head before I’ve finished the sentence. “Architecture wasn’t for Hardy some side job: it was a real career. He was a church restoration specialist. I didn’t feel like such an outcast after learning that.” I point out that it’s an impressive accomplishment to write and publish a novel, and that it’s rare for a book to have the success of The Paris Architect. Isn’t that proof enough that he’s no square peg?
Belfoure is unmoved by that observation and answers with an anecdote: “I was on a panel with the author who wrote Wicked [Gregory Maguire], which was turned into that Broadway megahit, and I couldn’t quite believe it. I mean, these are real writers, and I’m just sitting up there with them wondering why in the hell they invited me.”
Even as Belfoure describes his ambivalence about being an author, I’m aware that he shares something with John Cross, the architect protagonist of House of Thieves, and it’s not just their vocation: both author and character lead double lives.
Cross is a society gentleman who falls into his double life as a high-stakes burglar through circumstance and coercion. His son, George, has wracked up an enormous gambling debt owed to James Kent, a notorious New York gangster. Cross can either collude with Kent on a series of burglaries or stand by as the latter murders George for his inability to settle up.
Cross’s gambit to save his son is risky, of course, but it also presents him with a unique opportunity to escape the restrictions of his decidedly upper-crust existence. As Belfoure puts it: “From the outside, Cross’s involvement with the gang was about saving his son, but I wanted John Cross to be forced to step out of his high society world and to do something criminal, something forbidden, and I wanted to see what would happen when he did. I wanted Cross to evolve into someone who would enjoy committing crimes.”
As premises go, that’s straightforward enough. Cross’s efforts to save George form the driving line of tension in the book, but—as with any good thriller—the road to redemption isn’t nearly as straightforward as it seems. While there’s plenty to enjoy in the details of Cross’s impeccably planned burglaries and the plot twists that accompany them, some of the novel’s finest moments come from Belfoure’s research into late-19th-century New York architecture, etiquette, and society. Cross simultaneously navigates the city’s sleazy underworld and its refined townhouses, and the reader is treated to vividly described streetscapes and interiors laced with revealing facts about the world of New York’s famously conservative Knickerbockers.
“The Cross family leads a privileged and comfortable life,” Belfoure says, “but it’s a fragile privilege—one that’s dependent upon reputation, behavior, and adherence to the rules. If you had one misstep and got yourself talked about, you could be completely ostracized by society and by your family. It’s hard to imagine that today, when we all live so much more publicly.”
Living publicly gets under Belfoure’s skin after he’s immersed himself in New York society in the 1880s, when people were offended by ill-timed pop-in visits and public drunkenness. Cross was able to lead two lives by strictly concealing his criminal activity. Belfoure doesn’t even like having his photo taken, which is difficult for anyone writing novels in the 21st century.
“The publicity is tough,” Belfoure says. “You could have the best book in the world, but what does it matter if nobody hears about it?” I note the attention The Paris Architect got from Gladwell, and Belfoure says, “It was just pure luck that he bought the book, read it, and later mentioned it in the Guardian.” He thinks for a moment, shrugs, and says, “That was really helpful.”
In March, Belfoure was invited by Jane Pauley to appear on a segment for CBS’s Sunday Morning—an opportunity that would have most authors champing at the bit—but he initially wanted to decline. “I was going to beg out of it, but my publisher called me on my cellphone and asked me to do it. My agent called me and told me to do it, so I just had to get over it.”
Belfoure admits that it was worthwhile: “Jane Pauley is really charming and down-to-earth, which made it much easier, and taping the segment was interesting. But hovering over me was the fact that my face was going to be on television in front of all of these people, and I found that troubling. I don’t really have any problem with public speaking at a live event, but the televised stuff or photography... I don’t like that at all.”
The issue of author photos has come up three times during our conversation, and I point out that if Belfoure continues to publish novels, the pressure to make media appearances will only become more intense. He suggests that help with his discomfort with author photos and publicity might come from his Irish setter: “I was thinking that I could take a new author photo with a dog because people really like dogs. If I had a closeup of me with, you know, my hand around my dog’s shoulder or something, maybe that’d appeal to people. And it’d take the attention off of me, because people would focus on the dog.”
Belfoure laughs at this, and I ask if he’s pitched this idea to his publisher. “No,” he says, “I haven’t talked to the publisher about it yet! It was really hard for me to go up and film that CBS segment, and I know that this issue of doing publicity is going to be an ongoing struggle for me.”
Belfoure shrugs and laughs again, apparently resigned to the idea that if he’s going to write novels—he’s drafting his third now—he’s going to have to continue promoting them. But that’s not going to deter him, he says. For now, he seems more than content to write books while also working full-time on his preservation projects.
What remains to be seen, and what Belfoure seems to wonder about more than even the reception of House of Thieves, is whether his editor and publicist at Sourcebooks will let his dog be in his author photo. “If not for this book,” he says, “maybe the next one?”
Nate Brown is the managing editor of American Short Fiction.