Raffles: The Gentleman Thief
by Richard Bleiler
Throughout the late nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century detective and mystery fiction were dominated by one character as never before or since. Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the most successful fictional character in the history of literature, very quickly made his creator, the unknown Scottish physician Arthur Conan Doyle, an internationally famous and best selling author. It was not long before other writers of the time realized that there was a ready market for parodies and pastiches of Conan Doyle’s work and that a living could be earned by using his formula.
One author, however (who, interestingly was part of Conan Doyle’s family, having married Conan Doyle’s sister Constance in 1893), went about this in a different way. E.W. Hornung achieved considerable success by inverting Arthur Conan Doyle’s formulas with his stories about the gentleman thief A.J. Raffles. Raffles, the perpetual houseguest, mingles with the upper class but is, in fact, a jewel thief-a master cracksman who makes his living by stealing from his wealthy acquaintances. His adventures are detailed by his friend (his Watson), Bunny Manders, a struggling journalist who first met the young Raffles while they were at school together. The first of Raffles’ adventures, “The Ides of March,” appeared in the June 1898 edition of Cassell’s Magazine, and though Sherlock Holmes would forever remain the most popular fictional character, Raffles would rapidly become the second most popular fictional character of the time.
E. W. Hornung (as he was to sign himself, though he preferred to be called Willie) was born in Middlesborough, Yorkshire, on 7 June 1866, the youngest of eight children. His father, John Peter Hornung, was a Hungarian-born iron and coal merchant. Hornung was educated at Uppingham School, and although he suffered greatly from asthma he became a cricket enthusiast (explaining Raffles’ excellence in the sport). In December 1883 he left school and went to Sydney, Australia, where he remained until February 1886. It was Australia which provided the setting for his first works of fiction, works which have ensured him a permanent spot in that country’s literary history. The first literary history of Australia, H.M. Green’s An Outline of Australian Literature (1930), notes Hornung’s contribution to Australian letters, and in both the 1949 Dictionary of Australian Biography and the 1983 Australian Dictionary of Biography, Hornung is accorded articles. Hornung continued to feature Australia in many of his works including Irralie’s Bushranger (1896), The Rogue’s March (1896), Dead Men Tell No Tales (1899), and Stingaree (1905).
Upon returning to England, Hornung began to write seriously and eventually became a professional writer, publishing ten novels between 1886 and 1889. In 1893, he married Constance Aimée Monica Doyle, daughter of the artist Charles Altamont Doyle and sister of Arthur Conan Doyle. He and Constance had one child, a son who was killed at Ypres during the First World War. Hornung mourned the death of his son Arthur (called Oscar) in several volumes of verse. In 1919, he described his own wartime adventures in his last book, The Notes of a Camp Follower on the Western Front. His asthma having worsened during the War, Hornung retired to St. Jean de Luz, in France. He died of pneumonia on 22 March 1921.
As the Raffles stories were conversely (or inversely) based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Hornung generously paid tribute to his brother-in-law by dedicating his first volume of stories, The Amateur Cracksman, to him: “To A.C.D., This Form of Flattery”-ran the dedication. In his 1924 autobiography, Memories and Adventures, Doyle makes few mentions of Hornung, but those references are consistently fond. He recognized himself as Hornung’s inspiration, stating: “I think I may claim that his famous character Raffles was a kind of inversion of Sherlock Holmes, Bunny playing Watson. He admits as much in his kindly dedication. I think there are few finer examples of short-story writing in our language than these, though I confess I think they are rather dangerous in their suggestion. I told him so before he put pen to paper, and the result has, I fear, borne me out. You must not make the criminal a hero.”
As popular as Raffles was, his adventures are described in only three collections of short stories-The Amateur Cracksman (1898), The Black Mask (1901; published in the U.S. as, Raffles: Further Adventures of the Amateur Cracksman), and A Thief in the Night (1905; published in the U.S. as, A Thief in the Night: Further Adventures of A.J. Raffles, Cricketer and Cracksman) and one short novel, Mr. Justice Raffles (1909), generally considered one of Hornung’s less successful attempts. There are in all but twenty-six short stories. A dramatic version of Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman played for two years on the London stage, with Sir Gerald du Maurier in the lead role. Several film versions have been made, including one made as early as 1905 and one in 1917 featuring John Barrymore in the starring role. Both Ronald Colman and David Niven went on to play the part of Raffles-Colman in the 1930 Raffles and Niven in the 1940 film of the same name.
Few though the Raffles stories are in number, they are memorable for a variety of reasons, the first being the narrator, Harry “Bunny” Manders, who relates Raffles’ adventures in tones that range from adulatory to fawning. In Bunny’s eyes, Raffles can do no wrong. Contemporary critics have tended to deal harshly with the character of Bunny. Robert Sampson states mordantly: “The difficulty with Bunny is that he is the stupidest character in the literature of Western Civilization. Beside him, Bertie Wooster towers as a pillar of intellectual force”. While this is arguably accurate, it also misses a significant point, which is that Bunny develops as a character and is highly memorable because of his flaws, not in spite of them. Bunny is, in fact, significantly more memorable than virtually all other Watson-like characters, the majority of whom exist merely to describe the glories of their subjects For all his deficiencies, Bunny is arguably a more vivid creation than the generally stolid and unexciting John Watson, M.D.
“The Ides of March,” the first of the Raffles adventures, begins with a despairing Bunny confessing to fellow gambler and old schoolmate A.J. Raffles that he has just written a number of checks for which there are no funds. Bunny is prepared to commit suicide rather than face dishonor, but Raffles stops him and offers to help. The seemingly successful Raffles then reveals that he is as broke as Bunny. “Do you think that because a fellow has rooms in this place, and belongs to a club or two, and plays a little cricket, he must necessarily have a balance at the bank? I tell you, my dear man, that at this moment I’m as hard up as ever you were. I have nothing but my wits to live on-absolutely nothing else.” Raffles then questions Bunny about the lengths to which he would go to earn money, and after Bunny says he would stop at nothing, Raffles takes Bunny with him to assist in burglarizing a jewelry shop. An entrance is effected, the jewelry is taken, and Raffles and Bunny are instantly wealthy. The story concludes with Bunny, after a few pangs of conscience, pledging to join felonious forces with Raffles: “I’ll lend you a hand as often as you like! What does it matter now? I’ve been in it once. I’ll be in it again. I’ve gone to the devil anyhow. I can’t go back, and wouldn’t if I could. Nothing matters another rap! When you want me I’m your man.”
“The Ides of March” is simply told yet is, at the same time, suspenseful. Within the parameters of the fiction of the time, it is quite realistic, with a very good sense of detail and place. place. In it, Hornung gives no indication of what direction he would take with the characters in future stories. The sole explanation offered by Raffles for having chosen a life of crime is stated late in the story and provides only the dimmest hint of a subtext that would gradually emerge as the series developed: “It was in the Colonies, when I was out there playing cricket. It’s too long a story to tell you now, but I was in much the same fix that you were in tonight, and it was my only way out. I never meant it for anything more; but I’d tasted blood, and it was all over with me. Why should I work when I could steal? Why settle down to some humdrum uncongenial billet, when excitement, romance, danger, and a decent living were all going begging together. Of course, it’s very wrong, but we can’t all be moralists, and the distribution of wealth is very wrong to begin with.”
Successive stories in The Amateur Cracksman become more sensationalistic while revealing more about the history of both characters. In “A Costume Piece,” one of the characters, Reuben Rosenthall, is described as “the most astounding brute to look at, well over six feet, with a chest like a barrel and a great hook nose, and the reddest hair and whiskers you ever saw.” Rosenthall brags about his diamonds, which Raffles undertakes to steal. Rosenthall rapidly emerges as a brute in behavior as well as appearance-to say nothing of being an illicit diamond buyer-but he is resourceful, and Bunny is fortunate to escape with his life. Moreover, he and Raffles fail in their theft and the diamonds remain in Rosenthall’s possession. In the third story in the series, “Gentlemen and Players,” Hornung permits Raffles to demonstrate his prowess with a cricket bat as well as his general athletic ability. He also introduces a motif-rival thieves competing for the same prize-that he would reuse in later stories.
The Amateur Cracksman concludes with “The Gift of the Emperor,” in which Raffles, captured aboard the liner The Uhlan during the course of a robbery, appears to commit suicide by jumping overboard, with Bunny restraining those who prevent Raffles’ escape. A heartbroken Bunny concludes the story by mentioning in passing his “final punishment, my long imprisonment, my everlasting disgrace,” and by wondering if he perhaps saw a head in the distant waters.
Just as Arthur Conan Doyle was forced by popular acclaim to bring Sherlock Holmes back to life (after he had sent him cascading over the Reichenbach Falls), E.W. Hornung had to resurrect Raffles. Hornung brought him back three years later, in The Black Mask, which opens with a preface in which Bunny explains “in what wise we did actually meet once more, how we went in together as before, and how I strove yet again to keep up a worthless wicket while my dear old Raffles flogged the bowling, is all set forth (and nothing extenuated) in the following fresh chapters from our common life.” There is little point in detailing the individual stories in The Black Mask and A Thief in the Night, nevertheless these stories are more than mere repetitions of the earlier situations. Bunny is now an ex-convict, a struggling journalist who, with Raffles’ encouragement, is working on an account of prison life. Raffles still has rooms in the Albany and remains enormously fond of Sullivan cigarettes. However, in the later stories, Hornung further elaborates on Raffles’ history. In “The Fate of Faustina,” readers learn that he had a youthful love affair that ended unhappily for the woman. In “A Jubilee Present” it is revealed that he will steal almost on a whim and not always for personal profit, and that, despite his unorthodox ways, he is patriotic and loyal enough to send a stolen gift to the Queen, concluding the story with a toast: “The Queen . . . God bless her!” Raffles remains patriotic to the end. In the last two stories of A Thief in the Night (“The Raffles Relics” and “The Last Word”), he joins the British Army to fight in the Boer War and sacrifices himself by unmasking a spy, though not before he leaves word that he wishes to atone for having dragged Bunny into a life of crime.
In addition to the fact that Raffles is a cracksman with a conscience, there are times when he emerges as a justice figure, using his skill at theft to right wrongs and to resolve grievances. Raffles’ abstract justification at the conclusion of the first story, “The Ides of March,” that “the distribution of wealth is very wrong to begin with” achieves concrete expression in a number of later stories. This recognition of the problems of the distribution of wealth is the recurrent subtext that gives many of Hornung’s stories their peculiar power. However, it is best realized by focusing on Raffles (without the distracting lens of Bunny-who surely should be considered an early example of the ultimately unreliable narrator) whose motivations are clearly shown to be revenge and class hatred. Although he attended good schools, Raffles recognizes that he is accepted by society only because his athletic prowess can be exploited; were he not a talented cricketer available to play for the landed nobility in their personal competitions, he would be utterly dismissed. This recognition is shown explicitly in the third story of the series, Gentlemen and Players, in which the condescending Lord Amersteth receives Bunny “with much dry courtesy, through which, however, it was not difficult to read a less flattering tale. I was accepted as the inevitable appendage of the invaluable [cricketer] Raffles, with whom I felt deeply incensed as I made my bow.”
Raffles accepts Lord Amersteth’s invitation to play and soon confides to Bunny: “But I felt venomous! Nothing riles me more than being asked about for my cricket as though I were a pro myself.” To Bunny’s question: “Then why on earth go?”, Raffles’ first response is: “to punish them,” with his justification being: “it seems they’re going to have the very devil of a week of it – balls – dinner parties – swagger house party – general junketings – and obviously, a houseful of diamonds as well. Diamonds galore! As a general rule nothing would induce me to abuse my position as a guest. I’ve never done it, Bunny. But in this case we’re engaged like the waiters and the band, and by heavens we’ll take our toll!” And Raffles does indeed take his toll in “Gentlemen and Players.”
Raffles is one of the few literary characters who successfully outlived his creator and who remains recognizable to later generations of readers. His adventures continued to be chronicled by Barry Perowne (1908-1985), whose first story featuring Raffles appeared in 1932. The series has since been continued by Peter Tremayne. It must be acknowledged, however, that the recognition of later generations has not always been positive. Writing as Carter Dickson, John Dickson Carr offers the following dismissive passage in his 1942 book The Gilded Man:
“In my younger days,” continued H.M., “when we took our stories seriously, there was one character I could never stand at any price. That was Raffles. He put my back up every time I tried to read about him. What beat me was why we were supposed to regard the feller as a gentleman.
“Raffles, you remember, was a great cricketer and no end of a social swell. On the strength of his cricket, he would be invited to a country house. There he would pinch what swag he liked; and justify himself because the person he robbed was so plebian. We were supposed to applaud the debonair, greathearted chap who robbed the rich in order to give to A.J. Raffles, and say hoo-roar.
“But let’s leave fiction out of this. There are people like that in real life. They feel they’re socially born to the purple. If they haven’t got money, they feel they’ve a right to take it. And then they’re right and everybody else is wrong.”
Two years later, George Orwell, in his essay, “Raffles and Miss Blandish” (which has since become one of his most anthologized essays), offered a substantially more positive interpretation of Hornung’s gentleman thief. Orwell praised Hornung’s style-“a very conscientious and on his level a very able writer. Anybody who cares for sheer efficiency must admire his work”-and Hornung’s creation of a gentleman cricketer as a middle-class thief-“a cruder writer would have made the ‘gentleman burglar’ a member of the peerage, or at least a baronet”. He further discusses Raffles’ social position, the concepts of sportsmanship and social behavior that permeate the stories, and concludes cheerfully that the stories are: “much less antisocial than many modern stories written from the angle of the detective. The main impression that they leave behind is of boyishness. They belong to a time when people had standards, though they happened to be foolish standards. Their key-phrase is ‘not done.’ The line that they draw between good and evil is as senseless as a Polynesian taboo, but at least, like the taboo, it has the advantage that everyone accepts it.” It is Orwell’s assessment that carries the greater weight.