RogerBW's Blog

The Amateur Cracksman, E. W. Hornung 30 November 2017

1899 thriller, collection of short stories from 1898 with new material. A. J. Raffles, prominent society man and cricketer, leads a double life as a burglar.

There are eight short stories here, all narrated by "Bunny" Manders, beginning with The Ides of March: Bunny is ruined by gambling, goes to Raffles to beg him not to present a cheque he knows will bounce, and ends up joining him in the burglary of a jeweller's shop. In A Costume Piece Raffles steals diamonds from a South African self-made millionaire (and stage-Jew, complete with red hair and hook nose), and in Gentlemen and Players he goes to a country house party and comes up against a professional cracksman. The next two stories were written for this volume; in Le Premier Pas Raffles relates his first crime (in Australia), and in Nine Points of the Law he's on the side of the angels, if not of strict legality, in recovering a dubiously-sold painting. The final two stories are The Return Match, where the professional from Gentlemen and Players returns with a threat of blackmail, and The Gift of the Emperor, set on an ocean liner where Raffles steals a fabulous pearl – and Bunny is caught, while Raffles throws himself overboard and is gone even if not dead, in an obvious attempt at a conclusion to the stories.

(Although Hornung wrote other things after this, just like his brother-in-law Arthur Conan Doyle he was eventually unable to resist the urge to bring back his most successful character; indeed, he would hold out for only two years before cracking.)

Some of the plotting is frankly rather shaky. In The Return Match, for example, the burglar Crawshay blackmails Raffles to force him to get Crawshay out of the country; all Raffles actually does is to get Crawshay out of his own flat, admittedly under the noses of the police, while the rest of the proceeding is quietly forgotten. On the other hand, the stories are very modern for 1899: impecunious young men of the upper middle classes were nothing new, perhaps, but this particular iteration is firmly rooted in its time (giving up baccarat and tailors in favour of trade or going to the Colonies is unthinkable), and The Gift of the Emperor is clearly inspired by the Kruger telegram and the outrage it generated in Britain.

While modern critics seem to be required to find homosexual implications in any friendship between two men, it's a bit less of a stretch when one knows Raffles is explicitly modelled on a mixture of George Cecil Ives and Oscar Wilde, and Bunny Manders on Bosie. Raffles is described as clean-shaven, when that was a style that mostly tended to be associated with accusations of "gross indecency" (i.e. homosexual acts between adult men); Bunny gets pettily jealous any time Raffles talks with anyone female. Still, as far as the stories are concerned, this is less the love that dare not speak its name than it is an utter psychological dominance of Bunny by Raffles, who clearly doesn't care for his sidekick except insofar as he can be useful. Raffles makes some noise about his code of ethics, but in practice he's always ready with an excuse for stepping round it when it would be inconvenient for him; and he keeps Bunny out of his plans, then apologises fulsomely when he wants something, which while it may be convenient for the narrative in that it lets Bunny be surprised by Raffles' cleverness is also very much in the manner of the traditional serial abuser.

There was some resistance to the idea of having criminals as protagonists (the first publication of The Ides of March had a foreword indicating that Bunny was now imprisoned, and an illustration showing him being dragged by a cloaked and hooded skeleton). Critics focused on this concern, but the collection was a success nonetheless. By modern standards it's pretty crude storytelling, full of contrivance, but considering the style of the time it stands up reasonably well. There's at least enough characterisation here that one can work out the relationship between Raffles and Bunny, which is more than one ever gets from Holmes and Watson.

Freely available at Project Gutenberg. Followed by The Black Mask.

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