Piccadilly was a trench of raw white fog …

Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman, by E. W. Hornung

When he created Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle created something of an industry. For a few years lone, brilliant detectives were ten a penny. Even today they’re hardly rare, Gregory House M.D. is the most recent example that springs to mind but without Holmes I doubt we’d have Monk or The Mentalist or a dozen other shows.

Of all those pseudo-Holmes, most are now long forgotten. A few, The Glasgow Detective, John Silence, Sir Denis Nayland Smith, Thomas Carnacki still have their readers (well, I still read them anyway). One of Holmes’ spiritual children though stands head and shoulders above the others and, became for a while a household name with multiple TV series and films made about him.

E.W. Hornung was Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, and while most characters based on Holmes were essentially Holmes-lite, Hornung did something much more interesting. He created an anti-Holmes. Where Holmes is a brilliant gentleman-detective, Hornung created a gentleman-thief: A.J. Raffles.

Raffles first appears in this collection, Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman. The eight stories it contains cover the career of Raffles and his answer to Watson, Bunny Manders. The stories open with their first meeting and end with what was supposed to be their last. Hornung though had his own Reichenbach falls, Raffles was too popular for just one book and more stories followed.

So, how do the stories stand up today? Pretty well actually. Raffles is a fascinatingly sociopathic character. He is charismatic, well born, a brilliant cricketer, a master of disguise (just like Holmes) and blisteringly intelligent but he’s also a rogue – an amoral criminal who indulges as much for sport as he does from need.

Again I see him, leaning back in one of the luxurious chairs with which his room was furnished. I see his indolent, athletic figure; his pale, sharp, clean-shaven features; his curly black hair; his strong, unscrupulous mouth. And again I feel the clear beam of his wonderful eye, cold and luminous as a star, shining into my brain–sifting the very secrets of my heart.

The first story opens with Bunny ruined. He fagged for Raffles at school, and goes to him seeking help. If he doesn’t receive it he has but one option remaining:

The barrel touched my temple, and my thumb the trigger. Mad with excitement as I was, ruined, dishonored, and now finally determined to make an end of my misspent life, my only surprise to this day is that I did not do so then and there.

It’s no spoiler to say that Bunny does not pull the trigger. Instead he receives an extraordinary offer. Raffles too is insolvent. Raffles however has quite different ideas as to how to remedy the situation. Raffles plans to steal what he needs. The only issue is that the job Raffles has in mind needs two men to successfully pull it off…

Like Watson, Bunny both assistant to the main character and also his scribe. Conan Doyle’s conceit is that his stories are written by Watson and exist within his fictional world. Here Bunny writes up his and Raffles’ adventures and publishes them with the names changed.

Another similarity to the Holmes stories is the closeness of the central characters’ to each other. That said, the two relationships aren’t quite the same. Holmes and Watson are roommates, colleagues and to an extent friends but I’ve never been persuaded by interpretations of their relationship as homo-erotic (I think it’s an anachronistic reading of the text). Raffles and Bunny enjoy a more complex situation, with Raffles almost a seducer of Bunny and Bunny tempted into criminal acts he would never otherwise have countenanced. There’s a resentment at times, and for me at least the homo-erotic reading is was much more tenable (though far from the only possible interpretation).

The stories enjoy a surprising amount of continuity. Characters recur, situations which arise in one adventure may impact another. The collection ultimately forms a coherent whole which is slightly greater (not hugely though) than the sum of its parts.

As the stories continue, Raffles’ character becomes both clearer and more disturbing. He fantasises about murder, mere robbery perhaps no longer enough for him.

I have often thought that the murderer who has just done the trick must have great sensations before things get too hot for him.

For all his criminality though, Raffles remains a gentleman. He is at pains to distinguish himself from professional criminals (one story is even called Gentlemen and Players, if you don’t know the significance please feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll explain) and in one story carries out a robbery merely because he has been offended by being invited to play cricket as if he were a professional at the game rather than a gifted amateur. Yes, he he needs the money he steals, but that’s not why he steals. He steals because he enjoys it. He steals because it’s one of the few things that still excites him.

My dear fellow, I would rob St. Paul’s Cathedral if I could, but I could no more scoop a till when the shopwalker wasn’t looking than I could bag the apples out of an old woman’s basket.

These are fun stories that I think would be enjoyed by anyone who enjoyed Holmes and Watson. Raffles is an inversion of Holmes, but the appeal is similar. There are adventures, exotic characters, cunning stratagems and bags of Victorian charm. One key difference is that unlike Holmes Raffles doesn’t always succeed. Sometimes his robberies are foiled and the uncertainty of outcome adds to the fun in reading them.

I do have one caution. This is a period work and some language is offensive by modern standards. In one story a robbery target has Black servants, and the language used with respect to them both by the characters and at times by the descriptive text would not be acceptable today. Where it’s used by the characters it’s by definition in character, and would therefore only be an issue if seeing such words at all is a problem. Where it’s in the descriptive text it’s a bit trickier. I don’t expect a book written over a century ago to meet modern standards of appropriate speech, but I do mention it for those who might be upset by it.

I read the Raffles’ stories on my Kindle and as they’re out of copyright they’re easily available for free online. A paperback version can be found here though for those who might like one. The cover sadly isn’t that great, so while it’s out of print if you do want a physical copy of this I’d suggest tracking down the old Penguin Classics edition which had this marvellously appropriate cover:



Filed under 19th Century, Crime, Hornung, E.W., Short stories

13 responses to “Piccadilly was a trench of raw white fog …

  1. I loved bunny and raffles when I read them years ago ,it seems to sum up the age perfectly ,he is a crook but a gent so never really fall under suspicion due to his position how fitting for the time ,it is in some way the closed to the flip side of Holmes like a Moriarty if doyle had written from his perspective ,all the best stu

  2. This looks a lot more funny than the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes I recently stopped reading. (see why in my last post, if you’re interested)
    Raffles makes me think of Arsène Lupin.
    I’ll look for it, thanks.

    And of course, I don’t understand what “gentlemen and players” means…

  3. I’m offline until Monday. Stu, that’s spot on for the appeal. B, U’ll explain gentlemen and players on my return and read your take on Holmes then.

  4. BATC: I was thinking Arsene Lupin too. I wonder if there was an influence there?
    And thanks, Max, for the Kindle tip. I downloaded some obscure stuff for the Kindle yesterday.

  5. Max: for the Kindle, there are free Arsene Lupin stories. The author is Maurice Leblanc.

  6. Excellent timing on this, Max. Our DVD set of Raffles arrived just this week and is on tap for viewing soon — now I can view it as a serious exploration visualizing serious literary work instead of merely escapist entertainment.

  7. The Kindle obviously has many advantages – not least the vast range of out of copyright books which are available for free. I haven’t read Raffles but know about the book(s) of course so was interested to read what you thought of them.

  8. Gentlemen and players comes from cricket originally.

    Essentially, the English had a concept of the gentleman amateur. A gentleman did things for the love of them, the activities he pursued were their own reward.

    This extended to many spheres of life. The gentleman, by reason of breeding and temperament, although an amateur was often assumed to have a certain native competence at various different pursuits. Sport was among these (and as noted above the phrase derives specifically from cricket, though it saw much wider usage).

    Players were working class men who lacked the gentleman’s innate advantages. Where the gentleman acts from love of sport, the player expects to be paid. Players therefore are professionals who play for money.

    So the distinction is between the amateur and the professional, with the implication being that the amateur is a better sort of person (in part because working for money was considered vulgar). This may explain much about British decline in the latter half of the Nineteenth century but I leave that for others…

    Raffles is a gentleman, both as a cricketer and as a thief. He does not play for money but for love of the game. He does not steal for money but for love of the crime.

    Except, of course, that he does in fact steal for money which raises issues about the honesty of his self-assessment.

    Raffles despite being an amateur is an expert cricketer. In one story he is invited to a houseparty to make up numbers for a cricket game and to show his skill. In other words, he is treated not as a gentleman but as if he were a player, he is invited to display his skill as if he were being paid to do so. He is however a gentleman and so is deeply offended.

    Welcome to the English class system.

    The terms don’t really get used anymore, though in my own lifetime I’ve twice heard people refer to themselves as being players, not gentlemen. Both times they meant they saw themselves as professionals rather than amateurs, times change and what people take pride in changes with them.

  9. There’s quite a few of these Lupin stories. I’ll pick up the first soon and see how I find it. Looking at it, I do wonder if the character was based on Raffles.

    Kevin, I’ll be interested to hear how you find the series. I saw some repeats as a child, but I was too young to have any real view on them.

    Tom, it is handy for that, though I still tend to buy Penguin Classics on it for the notes and essays.

  10. Thank you for the explanation, it very clear. That’s the kind of references I miss when I read in English.

    Arsène Lupin’s nickname is “Gentleman thief”, that’s probably why I thought about him. He also steals for sport, I believe.

  11. The point you make between gentlemen and players reminds me of the main character in Maupassant’s Alien Hearts. He’s good at everything but wonderfully talented at nothing. Maupassant makes the point that the character could have excelled at some things if he’d had necessity nipping at his heels.

  12. Nick

    Arsène Lupin is fantastic… I’ve read them all as a kid.

    Maurice Leblanc claims that he had not even heard of Conan Doyle at the time he first wrote of Lupin.

  13. With all these plaudits, I clearly have to check out Arsène Lupin. I’ll download the first of them and see how it plays out. It does sound a lot of fun.

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