Friday, January 20, 2012

Book review: The Art of the Heist

As someone who often has a hard time making small talk at a cocktail party, I admire people whose cups overflow with self-confidence. Well, in person I might not admire them after a few minutes, but certainly reading a cocky person's account of all the daring, crazy, illegal things he's done in his life, that I find interesting.

Such is the case with Myles Connor Jr.'s memoir, The Art of the Heist. I breezed through this book in less than a week, which, considering most of my reading is done on the can, or while waiting for one or the other of my kids to take a shower, is pretty quick for me.

Written with novelist Jenny Siler, The Art of the Heist is the work of a man who is completely self-assured in all that he does. Born in the early '40s in Milton, MA, Connor is by age 14 leading a band and finding success playing in restaurants and clubs in the Boston area. Short in stature but unafraid, Connor sticks up for himself and his buddies, taking on (and winning, or so he says...countless times) much bigger foes and knocking them out of the way.

Connor's high opinion of himself can be annoying, and made me question some of his exploits. His co-author, Siler, however, points out in notes at the beginning of the book that she interviewed many eyewitnesses to the events and crimes, and also reviewed documents, including police records, newspaper archives, court records, FBI transcripts and personal correspondence, in an effort to ensure Connor's integrity.

Assuming that at least some of Connor's tales are crap, this book is still a fascinating read. Connor is nearing 70 years old, and has spent close to half his life behind bars. Bank robberies and museum heists are his cup o' tea. He caught the antique weapon collecting bug when he was young, and would case small museums around New England and find items he wanted. Then, either by breaking in after hours through the mostly lax security systems, or by getting into the good graces of museum staff through use of ruses and alibis, he would simply take stuff from curators' offices or from storage rooms into which he'd been allowed access.

Before starting the book (somebody gave it to my wife as a gift), I was familiar with Connor because he's long been associated with what is considered the largest art theft in American history, the infamous 1990 heist at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Nearly 22 years after the fact, that heist remains unsolved. While Connor was in prison at the time of the heist, investigators figured he had been in on the planning, given his long rap sheet and love of art and antiques. Connor maintains he had nothing to do with the job at any level, although he fingers two associates and admits that he'd toured the museum with one of them, years before the heist, and talked about knocking the place over.

This most intriguing information, however, doesn't come until the book's closing pages. Will Connor write more about the Gardner job in a future book? I can only hope.

Is Connor lying when he says he wasn't involved in the Gardner heist? That's the big question. He seems to have no problem doing the time for his crimes, and spares no details of the numerous museum and bank break-ins for which he served time over the years. So it seems that if he were on the team that ripped off the Gardner, he'd admit it, as it would be quite the crowning achievement to a long criminal career.

But like OJ Simpson professing his innocence and pledging to find his wife's killer, Connor claimed he was clean, and would go to Europe to try and find the stolen paintings.

What I found most fascinating about Connor's book is the detail he offers of his crimes, getaways and, in one minutely constructed tale, the return of a Rembrandt he and his gang stole in broad daylight from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. (Side note: I also marvel at the ability of Connor and other memoirists to recall such details as what people were wearing, the cloud patterns in the sky, the exact words from conversations. Yes, I know they're given artistic license with such details, but it's just an ability I don't have, given my increasingly poor memory.)

Bottom line: this book is a quick, entertaining read, but as with so many memoirs I find myself wanting more information, or at least different viewpoints. Connor is certainly a bold man and one to be admired for his self assuredness. But there's no sense of remorse in his book, no sense that by stealing art and antiques, he also steals from the public the right to experience these often exquisite and rare objects. Unfortunately, a memoir written by the museum curators and bank tellers whom Connor victimized, wouldn't find as much of an audience as The Art of the Heist.

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