Friday, April 10, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman,” by E.W. Hornung

(Editor’s note: This is the 48th installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Chris Ewan, the British author of two novels--The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam (2007) and The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris (2008)--both of which feature Charlie Howard, a world-traveling writer and burglar in his 30s. Ewan is currently working on the third Good Thief novel, this one set in Las Vegas.)

I guess to many people E.W. Hornung’s Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman (1899) would hardly qualify as a forgotten book. The character of Arthur J. Raffles--man-about-town, raconteur, famed cricketer, and daring “gentleman thief”--has spawned film adaptations (starring David Niven) and television productions (one featuring Nigel Havers), plays (including one written by Graham Greene), and numerous spoofs. Trivia fans will tell you that Hornung was the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and that Raffles and his bumbling sidekick, Harry “Bunny” Manders, were devised as inversions of Conan Doyle’s own Holmes and Watson. As for the book itself, a collection of short stories first published in Cassell’s Magazine and then in book form in March 1899, it has attained “classic” status. My own copy says as much. It was published by Penguin Classics, with a sober black jacket and a scholarly introduction. But the truth is that the book was unknown to me (and possibly me alone) until I was directed to it by a fictional cat.

The feline in question belongs to one Bernie Rhodenbarr, star of Lawrence Block’s terrific Burglar series, and it just happens to be named Raffles in honor of a thief every bit as skilled, wily, and incorrigible as Bernie himself.

To be honest, I was surprised by the eight stories that make up The Amateur Cracksman. I thought they might show their age--which they do--and I feared they might be a bit tame--which they’re not. The stories are full of wit and intrigue and cunning. They’re sharp and punchy and to the point. True, the mysteries are not terribly mysterious and their outcomes not altogether surprising. But the pleasure is in the telling, in spending time with old-school pals Bunny and Raffles as we follow their (mis)adventures from Bunny’s first introduction to the world of burglary in “The Ides of March,” through to Raffles’ possible demise (in a manner that foreshadowed Holmes’ “death” at Reichenbach Falls) in “The Gift of the Emperor.”

As with Conan Doyle’s Watson, these stories are told from the perspective (and through the moral lens) of Hornung’s secondary character, Bunny. A struggling writer who has squandered his family inheritance, Bunny asks Raffles for help after losing the last of his money in an ill-advised game of baccarat. Of course, the help Bunny receives isn’t quite as he’d anticipated. It turns out that Raffles is every bit as “cussedly hard up” as his friend, although a good deal more resourceful, and before very long he’s duped Bunny into participating in a tricky jewelry heist.

None of this sits easily with Bunny. Throughout the tales he’s eaten up with shame at his crooked behavior, constantly afraid that his formerly good name will be forever tarnished. It’s a relief, then, that Raffles is a genuine chancer. To him, burglary, like cricket, is a “sport,” a “game,” even (when it’s done especially well) a form of “art.” Raffles is wholly unrepentant, so long as the challenge is stiff and the solution elegant.
“My dear fellow, I would rob St. Paul’s Cathedral if I could, but I could no more scoop a till when the shop-walker wasn’t looking than I could bag the apples out of an old woman’s basket ... Now there’s some credit, and more sport, in going where they boast they’re on their guard against you.”
Raffles certainly does that, pitting his wits against professional crooks, fearsome prize-fighters, brash diamond merchants, duplicitous fences, crass Australian politicians, and the recurring thorn in his side, Inspector Mackenzie of Scotland Yard. In overcoming them all, he drills locks, molds keys, cuts through window glass with a diamond, brown paper and treacle, and employs copious disguises and false names--even going so far as to dress up as a tramp and a policeman in “A Costume Piece.”

And just as he appreciates the worth of a good costume, so Raffles knows the value of a credible cover story (something my own series character, Charlie Howard--globetrotting thief and hack mystery novelist--appreciates only too well). Of his cricketing fame, Raffles tells Bunny: “To follow crime with reasonable impunity you simply must have a parallel, ostensible career--the more public the better.”

It also helps that the burglaries Raffles commits are carefully tailored to secure the reader’s sympathy. On occasion, Hornung devotes almost as much time to eviscerating the boorish society types that Raffles targets, as he does to describing the thefts themselves.
“It is a vulgar sort [of theft],” said [Raffles], “but I can’t help that. We’re getting vulgarly hard up again, and there’s an end on ’t. Besides, these people deserve it, and can afford it.”
To my mind, the most intriguing story from the collection is “A Wilful Murder,” in which Raffles contemplates killing a villainous fence who is shaping up to blackmail him. It’s a mark of Hornung’s confidence in the character he created that he not only has Raffles voice the idea, but revel in its appeal.
“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!”
It’s in this blurring of moralities where the real magic happens in these stories, and where the true complexities of Raffles’ personality force the reader to make a choice. Can you side with a crook (even a so-called amateur)? Can you follow him on the prowl, or in the course of plotting a murder? Can you, ultimately, leave these stories hoping that Raffles has made good his escape, or content in the knowledge of his watery fate?

Hell, try reading the following, from Raffles to Bunny, and tell me there’s even a choice to be made:
“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… I only wonder if you’ll like the life as much as I do!”
Folks did like the life as much as Raffles--they enjoyed reading about his exploits to such an extent that Hornung completed another two short-story collections about his unconventional hero--The Black Mask (1901; published in America as Raffles: Further Adventures of The Amateur Cracksman) and A Thief in the Night (1905)--as well as a novel, Mr. Justice Raffles (1909).

Can a classic be forgotten? Maybe not. But if you’re yet to make the acquaintance of A.J. Raffles, you might enjoy breaking into a copy of The Amateur Cracksman.

READ MORE:Movie Review: Raffles (1930),” by Steve
Lewis (Mystery*File).


David Cranmer said...

I just read my first Bernie Rhodenbarr caper and RAFFLES sounds like a logical continuation when I'm done.

Martin Edwards said...

Raffles is a great character. Some of the stories were televised in Britain, with Anthony Valentine quite well cast as Raffles.

Anonymous said...

I saw an old movie starring Ronald Coleman as Raffles---it wasn't half bad. There was actually footage of Coleman playing cricket (as Raffles).

Bob Schneider