Monthly Archives: July 2015

Raffles – The Amateur Cracksman

A.J. Raffles, gentleman about town, celebrated amateur cricketer, notably at Lords, and – most importantly of all – amateur cracksman, burglar and thief without parallel.

In these short stories by E.G. Hornung, first published in book form in 1899, Hornung gives us the idea of the gentleman-burglar. Not original in itself. There were a number of gentlemen-burglars in the popular literature of fin de siècle England. And in France the great Arsene Lupin was still to come. John Creasey was clearly inspired by these stories with his creation John Mannering, The Baron as late as the 1930s.

But Raffles is special. Not least because of the links between Hornung’s character and that of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was Willie Hornung’s brother-in-law, and it was a roundabout comment by Doyle that led to the birth of Raffles. Doyle had admired a public school rogue that Hornung had killed off in an earlier story, and remarked that such a character would feature well in popular fiction.

There are considerable likenesses between Sherlock Holmes and Raffles. Both are based in 1890s London, both are gents of the middle class, both have rooms in nice parts of town. Both have companions; Holmes has Dr Watson, Raffles has Bunny Manders. Indeed, some of the stories have a vague similarity, though whether this is conscious or not in debateable. “The Amateur Cracksman” as a volume is dedicated to Doyle.

And here I owe Hornung an apology. Since I last re-read the stories decades ago, I had pictured in my mind that some of Hornung’s major plot developments had been lifted from the Holmes stories. Particularly the way Raffles fakes his own death and re-appears in disguise to an astonished Manders. I was quite wrong. In fact Hornung came up with the idea first. And it was Doyle who lifted the plot device for his Holmes resurrection yarn “The Empty House”.

But I think there is no doubt that Bunny Manders, from whose point of view we are given most of the stories, is a deliberate aping of Watson. To Hornung’s credit they are both very different men. Bunny is taken on by Raffles initially so that the former can pay off a gambling debt. Bunny had been Raffles’ fag at a possibly inferior public school. Raffles likes him because of the innocent look Bunny always seems to have on his face – a useful counter to the suspicions of the Scotland Yard detective Inspector Mackenzie.

And here we have another departure from Doyle. In Sherlock Holmes, the various police detectives are usually not terribly clever and are outshone by Sherlock. Not so Mackenzie. He suspects Raffles is the gentleman-burglar plaguing London almost from his first appearance. He just can’t prove it, though he has some darned good tries.

Now I like Mackenzie in his own right. He is one of the great fictional detectives, worthy of a series of his own. In a way you kind of want him to succeed, even if it means bringing Raffles to heel.

Bunny’s one talent is his aura of innocence. He really has no others. He is quite incompetent as a thief, and his hero-worshipping of Raffles can be quite annoying. Some critics have tried to imply a kind of homo-erotic motivation to the feelings of adoration that Bunny has for Raffles. I think that’s going too far. Victorian men often had strong masculine friendships, without a hint of homosexuality. And Hornung counters any suggestion by having Raffles occasionally besotted with a female or two along the way – though nothing ever comes of it very much. You might imagine Raffles and Bunny nodding a greeting towards Oscar Wilde at their club, but that would be as far as it would ever go.

In later years Conan Doyle frowned a bit at the Hornung stories. The idea of making the hero a villain. The morality of the Raffles stories is worth reflecting upon. Here is A.J Raffles, famous cricketer and gentleman about town. He is often invited as a guest to the mansions of the rich, and then proceeds to burgle them while he is being entertained under their roof. And not just for the financial profit of stealing her ladyships’ jewels. More than that. For the thrill of it! Raffles hunts these family treasures in much the same way, and for the same motivation as his hosts might pursue foxes.

And why is Raffles invited to their homes at all?

Certainly not because of his social background. In the snobbery of the English class system – and Hornung is really very good at exposing its silliness – Raffles in himself is a nothing. He knows a lot of people who are members of what we might call the Class, but he is never one of them. They invite him as a guest purely because of his talent on the cricket field, his ability as an all-rounder. The fact that he gets mentioned in the newspapers.

Though Raffles has been to a minor public school, he is really not at all a member of the Class. He has no ancient lineage, and, though he might have a set of rooms at Albany, very little in the way of cash – except what he makes from fencing stolen goods. He has a moral code of sorts – he never robs anyone who can’t bear the loss. Hornung was, I think, very clever to root his hero in the middle-class, who in the 1890s were eclipsing the upper-class and the aristocracy. There is something in Raffles as a middle-class of the entrepreneur, even if it is by the way of crime. His is the class on the rise. His victims are effectively social dinosaurs.

Doyle’s concerns about Hornung making the hero a villain tend to be disregarded by the reader. The morality of Raffles’ situation tends to be ignored because of what George Orwell called the ‘sheer efficiency’ of the storytelling. The reader gets so wrapped up in the telling that scruples are banished from the mind.

In the later stories, featured in the volume “The Black Mask”, Raffles comes back to life, after his Holmesian fake death, as Mr Maturin, a supposed invalid living quietly in the London suburbs. Raffles of Albany has been exposed. His cricketing and gentleman’s club days are over and Raffles is in hiding. He meets up with Bunny and they resume their life of crime, this time in a more covert way.

There are no invitations to the homes of the ‘Grand’ this time round. But the stories are every bit as good. Hornung can do the suburbs of London every bit as effectively as the great houses of England. There is a kind of wistful, autumnal feel to some of these later tales. Wonderful portrayals of late Victorian England. Hornung is in many ways a considerable literary stylist. He could probably have built quite a reputation writing more mainstream novels.

Raffles has featured a great deal in the theatre, in films and on television. In the cinema he has been played notably by Ronald Colman and David Niven. There were some quite early stage productions. More recently Graham Greene penned a modestly successful play “The Return of AJ Raffles.”

On television in the 1970s Raffles was played very successfully by Anthony Valentine with Christopher Strauli as a very innocent-faced Bunny, and the late Victor Carin as a quite superb Inspector Mackenzie. We’ve just watched them again and found them thoroughly enjoyable this time round. More recently, there was a one-off television production with Nigel Havers as Raffles. This was interesting because they ditched the character of Bunny altogether and gave Raffles a companion who was East End working class with criminal abilities worthy of the master himself. If you enjoy classic television do seek them out.

Hornung was one of those authors who gave a word and an image to the English language. Today, when we hear the name Raffles, we hardly think of the imperialist Sir Stamford Raffles, but usually only of a gentleman-burglar in a top hat and crape mask, forcing open the casement of a country house and filching a diamond necklace from a safe hidden between the bookshelves of a sumptuous library.

Quite an achievement for any writer.


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Death Walks In Eastrepps

Death Walks In Eastrepps by Francis Beeding is one of the most famous detective novels from the Golden Age and deservedly so. Published in 1931 it is an early example of what we would now call a serial killer plot. Don’t let this put anyone off. It is no more gory than Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders which came out a year earlier.

Francis Beeding was the pseudonym of two interesting writers John Palmer (1885-1944) and Hilary St George Saunders (1898-1951). They wrote over 30 detective novels and thrillers together as well as individual works and other collaborations.

The setting is based on a thinly-disguised Cromer in Norfolk, which is still a small seaside town of great charm. Eastrepps in the novel is a select resort, home of genteel spinsters and retired Colonels. A pretty town of fishermen and cliff-top villas, tennis courts, tea-rooms and tamarisk hedges. The story begins in July with the summer season at its height.

The novel is filled with fascinating detail of summer at the seaside in the early thirties. The East Coast Revellers are appearing at the theatre, featuring minstrels, “men with blackened faces carrying banjoes and girls in white pierrot dresses.” Eastrepps is gay with playbills, sunlit and safe. “Young men in blazers and grey flannels, accompanied by young women in white pleated skirts and brilliant jumpers, swarmed in the streets and on the sands.”

As the murders pile up, the atmosphere changes to one of fear and suspicion, the streets empty by dusk and the theatre dark. The white-haired gentlemen of the hastily formed Vigilance Association patrol their beats, armed with mashie niblicks. Holiday-makers flee, boarding-house bookings are cancelled and their owners fear ruin. The press descend on the town and questions are even asked in the House. Chief Inspector Wilkins of the Yard is sent to take over the case.

The sense of terror permeating the resort is extremely well realised. In a particularly effective passage we share the final moments of the sixth victim, from the creeping sense of menace in the warm night streets to the terrible realisation that he is face to face with the Eastrepps Evil.

If Death Walks In Eastrepps has a flaw, it is that eventually it is fairly easy to work out the identity of the murderer. In a sense this is partly because the novel was written eighty-odd years ago. We crime fiction fans have read so many cunning plot permutations that we’re a highly suspicious bunch. The authors here use a device that we’re more likely to consider these days.

At the time of writing, plot twists we now take for granted were being newly thought up to surprise the readership. When The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926, its astounding conclusion caused a literary sensation. Sadly there’s not much new under the sun for us now – which is why we value so highly, a crime novelist who can pull the wool over our eyes.

And even if the canny reader guesses whodunit, there is much more to come. A gripping court scene is followed by an exciting denouement with further revelations. The motive of the murderer is interesting and unusual. The novel delivers a really satisfying and thought-provoking finish.

Death Walks In Eastrepps is a wonderful classic, not to be missed.

Every summer Cromer stages the last end of the pier show surviving in the U.K. These variety performances were to be found throughout the summer season on every pier in Britain. They’re part of our seaside history and great fun. It’s good that the tradition is kept going and in such an attractive setting.

By the way we’re currently writing the final chapters of a detective yarn set in a seaside resort in 1930s Sussex.

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Writing a Revenge Thriller

Writing a Revenge Thriller

by John Bainbridge

When you think about it a large proportion of published thrillers are about revenge. It is one of the great sub-genres of fiction. Vengeance is a considerable motivating force. And the quest to mete out vengeance keeps many a reader turning the page.

The need to seek revenge is an unpleasant but undeniable human instinct. Turning the other cheek might be the best real-life policy, but it simply won’t do in a thriller. The Bible tells us that “vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay.” Admirable, but not quite what thriller readers want to hear.The-Shadow-Of-William-Quest

I was much amused at a recent Amazon review of my Victorian thriller “The Shadow of William Quest”. The reviewer suggested he had seen it all so many times before. The poor boy making his way in the world and seeking retribution against those who had crossed him. Too right you have, chum! That was the whole point of my Quest novel. I deliberately set out to write a book in this very sub-genre of revenge thrillers. That’s what my William Quest book is really all about. It’s not for nothing my anti-hero is called William Quest. I was gratified that the reviewer saw, and mentioned in his review, that it was Bruce Wayne and Batman territory. A terrific compliment to be mentioned in the same sentence.

Remember Batman? Bruce Wayne, a young lad at the time, sees his parents gunned down in an alley. When he grows up he becomes the caped crusader imposing his own version of justice on sundry villains. In a nutshell there you have the basic plot of a revenge thriller. It might be as blatant as Batman or rather more subtle.

Geoffrey Household’s classic thriller “Rogue Male”, opens with the unnamed hero in pre-war Germany, aiming his rifle at Adolf Hitler. The first-person narrator describes his actions throughout much of the book as a ‘sporting stalk’ – to see if he can get away with it. He even denies ever intending to take the shot. Only later do we discover the revenge thriller aspect. That he had every intention of shooting. And that he has a good reason for doing so. In his later novel “The Watcher in the Shadows”, Household twists the whole premise around by telling the whole tale from the point of view of the victim of the avenger, a novel and very exciting twist. Another neglected novel well worth seeking out.

Even going back to medieval ballads, we have Robin Hood. Why is he in the greenwood as an outlaw? Because the Norman overlords have put him there because of their harsh laws. Much of the rest of the stories of the famous wolfshead are about his quest for vengeance.

The motivations in the modern revenge thriller are manifold. The hero, or very often the anti-hero, might be fighting back for very personal reasons. Someone has wiped out his family, or launched a war of attrition against him personally. Or he might be what I call a second-person revenger, where he seeks vengeance or at least intervention for something that’s happening to somebody else, but where he is emotionally or politically engaged.

My William Quest might take up the armed struggle of vengeance to settle personal scores, but he then goes on to recognise that there are other victims in society who might benefit from having an avenger on their side. One of my American reviewers kindly mentioned Rafael Sabatini’s “Scaramouche” as well as Baroness Orczy’s “Scarlet Pimpernel” novels when trying to describe my Quest novel. I was very flattered at such comparisons.

“Scaramouche” is a wonderful example of the revenge thriller. It might technically be an historical novel, but at its roots it is one hell of a thriller. Set just before the French Revolution Andre-Louis Moreau is set on the path of vengeance by the murder of a friend by a decadent aristocrat who just happens to be the finest swordsman in France. He swears revenge. And then spends much of the book getting himself into a position where he might strike back at his adversary, and solving the knotty problem of just exactly how you teach yourself to cross swords with such a noted duellist. It’s all cracking stuff, a real page-turner by a novelist who is sadly neglected these days. It’s worth reading as it demonstrates quite admirably the plot-structure of the revenge novel, whether you describe it as a thriller or not.

And the avenger can very successfully be a woman, and the plot domestic. A great example is Magdalen Vanstone in Wilkie Collins’ classic novel “No Name”. Here the need for vengeance comes from the the unfair laws on illegitimacy that prevailed at the time. Collins was the master of the Sensation Novel. Thrillers have deep roots in those Victorian Sensation novels.

The Victorian novelist Charles Reade suggested that the great plot-line of most fiction should be along the lines of ‘Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait!’

And if you want a thriller to work you need to build up very slowly to the final vengeance, the bloody denouement. That doesn’t mean that the novel should be devoid of conflict up to that point. There have to be lots of other minor conflicts, near-misses, moments when the tables are turned. Times when those who are targeted by the avenger come close to removing – usually violently – the avenger himself.

In a way I made this easier for myself in “The Shadow of William Quest” by making Quest a kind of social functionary, taking on the evils – and the evil – of society on behalf of a wider and persecuted population. He only gets near to his real quarry at the end of the book. Though there are run-ins long before that. And as my novel is set in the 1850s, we don’t have to bother very much with the constraints of political correctness. This was the age of sword-sticks, lead-weighted life-preservers, bludgeons, coshes, and great hulking walking canes of hard-wood and blackthorn. Society was unsafe. People rarely travelled into the sinister hinterlands of Victorian England without some form of protection. My William Quest has quite an armoury at his disposal. Believe me, he needs every last weapon!

I’m currently writing the second William Quest novel, which will be out later in the year. Having devoted much of the first to the genre of the revenge novel, I’m aiming to go even further in the new one. I always have liked thrillers where the hunter becomes the hunted. Which is all I’ll say about it at the moment.

But to conclude, I would just like to make the case of the revenge thriller being an important sub-genre of the thriller as such. Revenge is a dish best served cold? Maybe, at least for a while in the pages of your novel. The dish best served cold builds up both the tension and the excitement.

So that when the cold revenge become the hot revenge, the thrills burst out of the page.

If you would like to try my “The Shadow of William Quest” please do click on the link. It’s out in paperback and for most eBook readers.

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A New Lease Of Death By Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell’s second Chief Inspector Wexford novel is set in her fictional Sussex town of Kingsmarkham in 1966. (Copyrighted in 1969 and first published in the U.K in 1971). It is in some ways the most unusual of her Wexford series and perhaps has more of the feel of her later Barbara Vine novels, in that it is concerned with psychology more than detection. It’s interesting to see that Ruth Rendell was experimenting fairly early in her writing career and possibly at that time considered taking the Wexford police procedurals in a different direction.

Although Wexford and his sidekick Inspector Mike Burden are interwoven in the plot, much of the narrative is seen through the eyes of a vicar. The quotations heading each chapter are taken from The Book Of Common Prayer. Sixteen years previously an elderly woman was bludgeoned to death by an employee who was subsequently hanged. The case was Wexford’s first murder inquiry when he was in charge.

The vicar, Henry Archery comes to Kingsmarkham to delve into the past in the hope of proving that Wexford made a mistake. Wexford is certain the verdict was correct but as Archery is an old friend of the Chief Constable, is tolerant of his tentative attempts to investigate. In the time-honoured fashion of ‘cold-case’ novels, probing the past leads to disturbing consequences in the present. The past is always with us was a favourite theme in Ruth Rendell’s work and it’s hard to think of any writer who handled it better.

The story expertly weaves between exploring what really happened on the day of the murder, the psychological effect on those involved and the greater understanding that ensues for Henry Archery. I thought Rendell’s writing about love – romantic and parental – was absolutely spot on. However much social mores change with the decades, human emotions haven’t yet done so and Rendell conveys them superbly.

It’s fascinating to see Wexford and Mike Burden in the early days of their relationship, before their close friendship has really begun. Burden is still calling Wexford ‘sir’ rather than Reg, when they are alone. You can’t yet imagine them having dinner together with their wives as they do in later novels. Wexford is slightly coarser in manner, wears heavy horn-rimmed glasses which I can’t recall being mentioned again and we don’t yet have the background of his wife Dora and daughters Sheila and Sylvia.

The setting, which I remember well as a child, seems as far off as another century. Rendell vividly describes a vanished Britain where people smoked Weights and kept budgerigars in cages, hotels held dinner dances and served tinned fruit salad. Rural Georgian Kingsmarkham has begun to be disfigured by ugly Sixties architecture (don’t get me started), including the new glass and concrete police station. Wexford’s office has new lemon venetian blinds and plastic seats to go with his own rosewood desk.

It is a hot July and Burden’s wife Jean is away with their children at the seaside. Ruth Rendell was not as famed for her sense of place as was her close friend P.D James but I think she should be. Her descriptions of Kingsmarkham – which is almost another character throughout the series – and the changing weather are superbly evoked.

A fine and intriguing novel.


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Reginald Hill’s “The Woodcutter”

Reginald Hill’s “The Woodcutter”

“The Woodcutter” was Reginald Hill’s last published novel (2010), a standalone and in many ways it harks back to his earliest novels set in Cumbria such as “Fell of Dark” and “The Long Kill”. A long novel of nearly six hundred very gripping pages.

And the theme of his book takes some of the elements of those two novels and re-presents them in a startling and dramatic way. It is as though all the shackles of the crime genre have been removed from the author and he has a free hand to experiment with narration, character and plot reliability.

The leading character Wolf Hadda is a rich and successful businessman, whose world suddenly comes crashing down. He finds himself accused of child abuse and importing child pornography. Is he guilty, or has he been set up, and who by?

Wolf is a man with many enemies, in business, on the fringes of the security services, and in his personal relationships. Having served his sentence he returns to his ancestral background in Cumbria, living a rough life with his dog (and the dog is a magnificent literary creation in his own right!) in a lonely cottage.

It is from here that he begins to investigate what happened in his own past. But is he a reliable narrator of events, or just telling people what he wants to hear? You are never quite sure until the end of the book.

And there is something quite fairy-tale-ish in the idea of someone called Wolf living in a wood. A feeling of the Brothers Grimm about the whole tale. And Hill plays with our senses magnificently, the book has some quiet darkly comedic shades. There is tragedy, comedy and wit in the narrative. There are subtle jokes and a great deal of word-play. His descriptions of the Lake District are often stunningly beautiful, very realistic and the tale comes to a dramatic conclusion amidst the Lakeland mountains.

Every character is well delineating, from the sinister JC of the secret service to the women in Wolf’s life such as his wife Imogen, and his prison psychiatrist, Alva Ozigbo, who has to try to unravel the very complicated web surrounding the life and past of Wolf Hadda. “The Woodcutter” is a novel of multiple viewpoints, all of which have to be constantly questioned, for the novel takes you in many directions you weren’t expecting.

I shan’t say any more about the plot, for this is a book you really should seek out and read for yourselves. I think it is Hill’s masterpiece. A book that will haunt you long after you close the covers.


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