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.