Thursday, May 7, 2015

Friday's Forgotten Book: The Amateur Cracksman (E.W. Hornung)

A.J. Raffles periodically re-surfaces as a classic character of popular fiction, and just as quickly drops out of sight again, exactly as E.W. Hornung frequently describes him doing in the 26 short stories and single novel that he devoted to Raffles - about half the output that Arthur Conan Doyle produced about Sherlock Holmes. Hornung, famously, was married to Conan Doyle's sister, and patterned his stories of the gentleman thief and champion cricketer Raffles, and his sidekick Bunny Mander, after the Holmesian example, while inverting the moral system. Conan Doyle was flattered and praised the stories, but was also troubled by them: "You must not make the criminal a hero."

Of course, it's exactly this inversion that has always provided Raffles' fascination. Should we root for him or not? Hornung comes up with ways for us to do so rather painlessly, but still, it's a dicey business. Each new Raffles story you read raises the issue all over again, and that, obviously, is an awfully good fictional hook.

The Raffles - Bunny relationship is also, in a different sense, "inverted" - a whole lot gayer than the Holmes - Watson partnership. Hornung was friendly with Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, and is said to have based his duo partly on them. In the first Raffles story, "The Ides of March," a distinctly down-on-his-luck Bunny Mander is actually contemplating suicide over some gambling debts, but his old schoolmate Raffles persuades him that criminality is sometimes a better course of action than giving into depression. To become Raffles' partner-in-crime for the rest of the series, Bunny has to get off on shared improper behavior, and boy does he:

I'll do it again...I will...I'll lend you a hand as often as you like! What does it matter now? I've been in it once. I'll be in it again. I've gone to the devil anyhow. I can't go back, and wouldn't if I could. Nothing matters another rap! When you want me I'm your man.

If no sexual interpretation occurs to you while you are reading that, you have a cleaner mind than mine.

The first 16 Raffles stories were collected in two volumes of eight stories apiece, The Amateur Cracksman (1899) and The Black Mask (1901). Wordsworth Classics reprinted all these in one volume, Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman, in 1994, and it was in this form that I read and was delighted by them.

These first two volumes of Raffles stories are decidedly different from each other, because at the end of the first, Raffles disappears and Bunny is packed off to prison. Their adventures after their reunion in the second collection cannot have the same carefree tone as before, and indeed do not, a fact that some decried as a diminution of the original impulse, but which I simply read as fictional development. Things have to happen in stories, as in life, and in good fictional series, the author follows through on the consequences of them happening. 

Raffles comes to a rather improbable glorious end fighting in the Boer War in the last of these 16 stories, and when Hornung decided to revive the character with 10 more stories in A Thief in the Night in 1905, and a single novel Mr. Justice Raffles in 1909, he didn't "bring him back to life" a la Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Empty House," but set the stories in a period before Raffles' demise a la The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Raffles has been incarnated by at least 13 actors on screen and television, including John Barrymore, Ronald Colman, and David Niven. Anyone who can play elegant-but-larcenous has been eligible. Cary Grant would have worked.

There is a lot more to Hornung than Raffles: he published 28 volumes of fiction altogether, and quite a number of them are set in Australia, where he spent two formative years during his late adolescence. I am eager to get to those, and most of them are available at Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg Australia, and ebooks@Adelaide.

Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (Wordsworth Classics)


  1. I found the two-volume collection in an English-language bookstore during a trip to France 20 years ago. I read the whole think on the flight home and found it an awful lot of fun.

  2. I have read the short stories, and enjoyed them very much, but I have never yet read the novel. Someday I mean to remedy that but who knows when.