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: