Tag Archives: Edwardian Crime

The Riddle of the Sands

Erskine Childers’ novel “The Riddle of the Sands – A Record of Secret Service” has never been out of print since it was first published in 1903. It has influenced a great many thriller writers since, a god-parent, if not quite the father, of the modern thriller novel.

It is very much a creation of its time – Edwardian England, when the British Establishment was becoming increasingly concerned about the way Germany – still a relatively new nation – was equipping itself for war. It was also a period when new techniques of espionage were being defined, though, thankfully, before anything approaching modern technology had taken over.

Anyone who has undertaken any sort of covert observational work would attest to the accuracy of the pace of the spying and the scale of the operation. There are no master-villains, just ordinary Germans, something like Carruthers and Davies themselves, carrying out their own strategy at a time of increasing international paranoia and the race to an inevitable war. There is a baddie, though I won’t spoil the story if you haven’t read it by going into any more details. All I will say is that he is both a towering and tragic individual, torn by conflicting loyalties, not really a villain at all in the traditional sense. There’s a girl too, though fortunately the romantic elements of the novel are understated.

This is very much a feet-on-the-ground spy story, perhaps I should say sea-boots for this is one of the great novels about sailing.

The plot line is relatively simple, and I won’t give too much away. The story is told by Carruthers – a name to conjure with, a kind of byword for an Establishment figure in the century or more since – who is invited to join his old friend Arthur Davies who is sailing his yacht amidst the Friesian Islands, off the German coast in the North Sea or, as it was popularly known at the time, the German Ocean.

Carruthers takes up the invitation expecting his friend to have a comfortable yacht in the luxurious sense, complete with servants. Instead the Dulcibella is barely big enough to cope with the two of them. Carruthers works for the British government – the Foreign Office – but is on leave. A lot of the book is taken up with the details of this sailing voyage (the book comes complete with maps and charts – if you had a yacht of your own you could follow their adventures and route with little difficulty.)

This is not a page-turning thriller in the modern sense. There is as much about their voyaging as there is about espionage, those gripping scenes being scattered throughout the book. But this does give the yarn an air of reality. And you do keep wanting to turn the pages to find out what happens as the two young men are drawn into a German plot to invade England.

This is espionage as it really was, and perhaps still is. The book is presented with an introduction and epilogue by Childers, suggesting that Carruthers has related the account almost as a kind of report to him – a literary device, admittedly, but it is worth remembering that Childers worked at Westminster for much of his career, and also in Intelligence. Writing for him was very much a side-line. “The Riddle of the Sands” is his only novel.

It was published to great success, soon achieving both a popularity and also a great fear in the public mind; waking up the political establishment and the people of Britain to the possibility of a war with Germany. It’s said that, before the novel was published, the east coast of England was little prepared for defence and all the great naval bases were elsewhere. The British had always assumed that the traditional enemy would always be France. Few novels and thrillers have led to a rethink of defensive strategy – “The Riddle of the Sands” is probably the only one to make a significant tactical difference.

There is an element of verifiable truth in the novel. Childers had undertaken a similar voyage to his two heroes just a few years earlier. The details of the islands, the movements of the tides, the hazards of the sea fogs are taken from life, and conjured up on the pages. Childers is very good at evoking a sense of place, in much the way his admirer John Buchan did a few years later. You can smell the salt water and the mud of the islands even as you read. The sights and sounds of the journey are brought to life by the skill of the author.

Interestingly the plot inspired two Royal Navy officers, both amateur yachtsmen, to undertake a similar voyage in 1910, where they genuinely did spy on German naval defences.

Erskine Childers’ book is not just a thriller but a considerable work of literature. It might not race along like a Robert Ludlum, but it really does give a flavour of spying at the time.

Erskine Childers’ end was tragic. He sympathised with the cause of Irish Nationalism, joining the Nationalists when the Free State was established. In the Civil War that followed the schism between the Nationalists and the proponents of the Free State, he was arrested and executed by firing squad. Today we might call it judicial murder. A tragic end for a brave and far-seeing individual.

“The Riddle of the Sands” has been filmed, in a British version with Simon MacCorkindale, Michael York, Alan Badel and Jenny Agutter – a beautifully photographed film, made on location, which really captures the essence of what Childers wrote. There is, interestingly enough, a German version, though I’ve never managed to see it.

But even well over a century after its publication “The Riddle of the Sands” is well worth seeking out. And unlike some of the thrillers published today, I think it’s safe to say that this is very much how Edwardian espionage must really have been. Childers’ novel not only inspired a generation of spy novelists but almost certainly a whole generation of real-life spies.

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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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Arthur and George

Arthur and George is a three-part British television production based on the historical crime novel of the same name by Julian Barnes. Now I make all of my judgements from the television series as I haven’t read Mr Barnes’ novel.

Arthur and George is a fictionalised account of the successful attempt by Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to clear the name and criminal conviction of the Anglo-Indian George Edalji in 1906. Edalji had served a period of imprisonment following a conviction for animal mutilation. The case attracted the attention of Conan Doyle after he read about it in the newspapers.

In reality, Conan Doyle was successful in clearing Edalji’s name. Much like his creation Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle interviewed all parties concerned, visited the scenes of the crimes, sifted the evidence and, finally, was successful in exposing the folly of the original prosecution.

You can read some very good accounts of what actually happened in the better biographies of Conan Doyle. It was in many ways a most important case in the annals of British jurisprudence. It led to the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal. In itself, it is a gripping yarn that might well have come from the pen of the master himself.
The television production is, I think, a bit of a mixed bag. It is extremely well acted, though I find – as a Black Country boy myself – some of the Midland accents rather on the dodgy side.

Martin Clunes makes an admirable Conan Doyle, catching something of the bluff and determined nature of the man himself.

(For collectors of TV trivia, this production has some interesting Doylesian and Sherlockian links: Martin Clunes is the cousin of Jeremy Brett who played, I think, the definitive Holmes on television in the 1980s; Charles Edwards – who plays Conan Doyle’s secretary Wood (almost his Watson) in this programme – portrayed a younger Conan Doyle in the wonderful TV series Murder Rooms; the Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes, alongside the late Ian Richardson as Dr Joseph Bell. Both series are well worth buying on DVD.)

There is a sub-plot in Arthur and George dealing with Conan Doyle’s guilt over his long relationship with Jean Leckie (later the second Lady Doyle) following the very recent death of his first wife Louise.

The production, certainly in the first episode, portrays the Edalji case more or less accurately. The second (the third is on this Monday night – you can see the first two on ITV catch-up TV) goes wildly astray from what actually happened, with chases, fights, and a good old-fashioned murder thrown in.

Now I know that fictionalising a real event is perfectly permissible, but in an account of the Edalji case it really wasn’t necessary. What actually happened to Edalji is gripping enough.
Despite these flaws the production has much to commend it. The acting (Midlands accents ignored) is generally very good. The set dressings and photography are quite superb. You really have the feeling that you are there. There have been some criticisms of Clunes’ Scottish accent. I thought it was rather good for an English actor.

It is worth seeing Arthur and George and it would be pleasing to see Martin Clunes play Conan Doyle again in some of the other real-life cases that the creator of Sherlock Holmes investigated.

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