Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman by E W Hornung
Those of a certain age like me, may well remember the 1970s TV series Raffles with some fondness. It starred Anthony Valentine (right) as the titular gentleman thief, and Christopher Strauli as Bunny, his sidekick. A pair of dinner-suited scoundrels fleecing a bunch of toffs to fund their own lavish lifestyle, combined with a bit of cricket, made for fun watching. Since his first appearance in the late 1890s, Raffles has been adapted many times, notably in films portrayed by Ronald Coleman in 1930 and David Niven in 1939.
After the dolour of reading Hardy’s Jude the Obscure for Book Group last month, we chose its contemporary, the first set of Raffles stories – Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman for our February read – the two couldn’t have been more different.
The Raffles stories are narrated by Bunny Maunders, and the first one, The Ides of March, tells how Bunny who is on his uppers and near suicidal, meets his old school pal Arthur Raffles. Desperate to save his reputation, when Raffles suggests a burglary will solve both’s financial woes, Bunny goes along with it, and so starts his life of crime.
In the following chapters, Raffles and Bunny have many adventures, sometimes only escaping by the skin of their teeth. They steal jewellery, paintings and more and end up on an ocean liner after a giant pearl…
Raffles is also a sportsman; cricket is his game, and he is, Bunny tells us, ‘a dangerous bat, a brilliant field, and perhaps the finest slow bowler of his decade,’ but is not really interested in the game per se, for ‘What’s the satisfaction of taking a man’s wicket when you want his spoons?‘ To Raffles, cricket is a game of mental exercise, looking for weak spots and using your cunning in bowling – all good practice for thieving.
Raffles never does anything for anyone else; Bunny is only tolerated because he can’t do jobs alone. This amoral quality made one of our group give up on him after just a couple of the stories, and it stands out in one tale where another thief is onto Raffles, and he and Bunny contemplate what more they can do…
‘What more?’ said Raffles. ‘Well, murder – for one thing.’
‘A matter of opinion, my dear Bunny; I don’t mean it for rot. I’ve told you before that the biggest man alive is the man who’s committed a murder, and not yet been found out; at least he ought to be, but he so very seldom has the soul to appreciate himself. Just think of it! Think of coming in here and talking to the men, very likely about the murder itself; and knowing you’ve done it; and wondering how they’d look if they knew! Oh, it would be great, simply great! But, besides all that, when you were caught, there’d be a merciful and dramatic end of you. You’d fill the bill for a few weeks, and then snuff out with a flourish of extra-specials; you wouldn’t rust with a vile repose for seven or fourteen years.’
Raffles’ lack of morality aside, we mostly enjoyed these tales which are entertaining, but lack a je ne sais quoi, something that a certain great detective has in spades, which brings me to Sherlock Holmes …
You see, Hornung was Doyle’s brother in law, and this volume is dedicated to him. Raffles comes across as something of a parody of Holmes, but he is no Moriarty. Bunny is no Doctor Watson either; he hero-worships Raffles and happily lets himself be Raffles’ doormat. We found ourselves wishing that Raffles had more to him, a bit more Holmes, a dash of Flashman perhaps. It is not quite enough that Raffles’ marks mostly deserved what they got.
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Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman by E W Hornung. Atlantic Crime Classics paperback, other editions available.