As discussed previously, Tuesdays in February will feature four collections of short stories on the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones list, selected on account of my ever-growing interest in what the genre looked like before the advent of the Golden Age in (no arguments here…) 1920. Confusingly, my 1950 green Penguin paperback of gentleman thief Raffles stories by E.W. Hornung shown above contains 14 tales, only the first eight of which concern us today, comprising as they do the first collection to feature the character, The Amateur Cracksman (1899).
The Raw Materials
One evening, having lost heavily at cards and paying his debts with cheques he knows will bounce when presented at the bank in the morning, gentleman-about-town Harry “Bunny” Manders returns to his rooms at the Albany club in imminent disgrace. There he encounters A.J. Raffles, who was at the card game which has cleaned Bunny out so disastrously, and for whom Bunny had fagged while at public school. Confessing his situation to the wealthy, debonair Raffles, Bunny contemplates suicide only to back out at the last minute and for Raffles to then make a shocking declaration of his own: he is no independently wealthy layabout “rich enough to play cricket all the summer, and do nothing for the rest of the year” but is instead living an equally hand-to-mouth existence which he supplements by stealing and selling other people’s valuables.
That very night, they commit a robbery and, from that point on, are as thick as, er, conspirators, despite Bunny’s occasional moral misgivings (“I had still enough of the honest man in me to welcome the postponement of our actual felonies, to dread their performance, to deplore their necessity”). All the while, might the repeated appearances of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Mackenzie betoken some comeuppance in their future, or is Bunny simply looking for an excuse to drop the criminous game for good?
Written when the thrall of Sherlock Holmes was strong — I’ll point out here that Hornung was married to Arthur Conan Doyle’s sister, not because it seems relevant but because someone will call me out on it if I don’t — the relationship of Raffles and Bunny draws heavily on the Holmes/Watson dynamic, with Mackenzie a sort of Bastard Lestrade as the regular policeman on the scene…albeit one whose relationship with our central pair is seemingly always in flux.
Raffles is, naturally, the Holmes: always instigating the schemes in which they find themselves embroiled, fond of keeping his cards close to his chest, evincing a talent for disguise that gives a literal interpretation to ‘A Costume Piece’ (1898). He has, too, no small sporting prowess to his credit, being something of a terror on the cricket field, acknowledged as “a dangerous bat, a brilliant field, and perhaps the very finest slow bowler of his decade” despite scorning his talents and taking “incredibly little interest in the game at large”. Unlike Holmes, Raffles is noted for his charm and, we’re told, especially his success with the fairer sex — “a side of his character upon which I have purposely never touched, for it deserves another volume” Bunny tells us.
Bunny, then, is cast as “the inevitable appendage of the invaluable Raffles” who, like all good sidekicks, is kept in the dark until the last possible moment (“You lay your plans and never say a word, and expect me to tumble to them by the light of nature.”), and is generally there to be incensed at the ease with which his friend will turn felonious. He is also astonishingly dense, as demonstrated in first story ‘The Ides of March’ (1898) when — having confessed his insolvency to Raffles and been asked if he’d be willing to commit a crime — he is surprised that Raffles saying they can call upon a friend of his for money at two o’clock in the morning turns out to be a criminous endeavour.
So now, when I heard him kick off his own shoes, I did the same, and was on the stairs at his heels before I realized what an extraordinary way was this of approaching a stranger for money in the dead of night. But obviously Raffles and he were on exceptional terms of intimacy, and I could not but infer that they were in the habit of playing practical jokes upon each other.
Other fingerprints of the Holmes archetype can be found in broad hints towards tales not here related (“In short, our most successful escapades would prove the greatest weariness of all in narrative form; and none more so than the dull affair of the Ardagh emeralds…”) and the fact that, much as with Holmes in ‘The Adventure of the Gloria Scott’ (1893), we get an origin tale of Raffles’ first theft in the shape of ‘Le Premier Pas’ (1899). There’s even a key way in which final story ‘The Gift of the Emperor’ (1898) — though, as mentioned above, six more follow it in this collection, not quite completing the second anthology of Raffles stories, The Black Mask (1901) — bears a great deal of comparison to one particular Holmes story, but I’ll veer away from any hints lest the outcome spoil it for those of you yet to encounter either.
It’s tempting, on the evidence above, to see Raffles as little more than a cash-grab predicated on the popularity of Holmes, but Hornung brings to his creation two things that the Holmes stories — and most of their imitators — failed to leverage to any meaningful extent.
The first is that, while undoubtedly a man of great nerve and tremendous conviction, as befits all Great Detective archetypes in the shadow of Holmes, Raffles is, well, he’s a bit shit. For all his smugness at his astonishing tactics in pulling off the robbery of ‘The Ides of March’ (“Even that little business last month was a sordid affair, but it was necessary, and I think its strategy redeemed it to some extent.”) he really does nothing even moderately cunning — picking a few locks, getting very lucky that the security of a jeweller is pretty damn slapdash, and then running away. “In point of fact our plans were so craftily laid (by Raffles) that the chances of a hitch were invariably reduced to a minimum before we went to work,” Bunny tells us in ‘Wilful Murder’ (1898), when the experiences preceding this have boiled down to (in publication order) brute force, abject failure, serendipity, and serendipity again.
There’s something almost charming in the ineptitude of a man who thinks that, as a cricketer of some note, he can simply turn up to a job of questionable morality and give a pseudonym as a way of protecting his identity, as he does — and finds out he can’t — in ‘Nine Points of the Law’ (1898). Or thinks that the theft of a priceless pearl in ‘The Gift of the Emperor’ will be “the biggest mystery that ever was made!” because he won’t be seen outside his room when the crime is committed…despite a ventilation shaft connecting his room with that from which the abstraction is to be made. And, I’ll be honest, his insistence on committing that theft while starkers feels like the sort of bizarre touch you’d find in a Naked Gun movie. What the hell is that about?!
It’s actually rather refreshing not just for the criminal to be the protagonist — Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin was still some seven years away — but also for the protagonist to be almost self-gaslighting with his overbearing self-congratulatory manner when he has, at one point, jumped out of a window and run away from the most agonisingly stupid failure without securing Bunny’s freedom…leaving our narrator to hide in a wardrobe for half an hour before being discovered, dragged downstairs, and shot at. And yet, for all this apparent farce, Hornung plays Raffles’ capabilities with a surprisingly straight face, as if the author is unaware of the ineptitude of his own creation. It matters to Raffles that he is taken seriously in the commission of his crimes (“Did it look like a first attempt? Of course I have done it before.”) and his motives are hilariously high-falutin’ given his methods:
“Does the writer only write when the wolf is at the door? Does the painter paint for bread alone? Must you and I be driven to crime like Tom of Bow and Dick of Whitechapel? You pain me, my dear chap; you needn’t laugh, because you do. Art for art’s sake is a vile catchword, but I confess it appeals to me.”
The second notable adjunct is Hornung’s use of the emerging tropes of detection, as had been seeded in the public mind through the Holmes stories. Where Holmes and his offspring would use, say, the detection of footprints to identify a criminal, Hornung time and again uses these principles against Raffles and Bunny: footprints give them away in ‘A Costume Piece’, the presence of a policeman disguised as a guest at a house party is seen from the outside in ‘Gentlemen and Players’ (1898) where it would usually be the protagonist who was the disguised party, and Bunny and Raffles stumble into the parallel plots of ‘Wilful Murder’ in a way that the detective would usually be the one to separate out. Even the identity games of ‘Le Premier Pas’ are utilised accidentally, for want of a better word — the criminal’s misdirection known to the reader first.
These are not inverted mysteries. there being no detection on the other side, but rather inversions of the principles of the mystery story: these are rarely breakthroughs used to advance the protagonist’s cause, but instead obstacles that are thrown in his way to unseat him or test his mettle. And, interestingly, this must surely be one of the earliest instances of lore rearing its head where stories represent individual cases — not just because ‘The Return Match’ (1898) sees a villain from a previous story reappear and make demands of Raffles and Bunny at the threat of exposing their game, but because — moderately hinted-at spoilers of a sort — the collective outcomes comes to matter beyond simply adding verisimilitude by referring to earlier cases in later ones.
Hornung is cautious, too, not to abandon the moral qualms of Bunny, perhaps in deference to potential misgivings of his Victorian audience. Raffles may be the irresistible, inciting presence throughout, but just as Dr. Watson humanised Sherlock Holmes so Bunny is the reader’s closer companion who should, perhaps, sail a little closer to mainstream expectations:
I had turned into Piccadilly, one thick evening in the following November, when my guilty heart stood still at the sudden grip of a hand upon my arm. I thought — I was always thinking — that my inevitable hour was come at last.
One story even has the two meeting after a significant separation, Bunny having vowed to make good on his criminal career, which Raffles refers to as “turn[ing] pi” — an expression I’ve never encountered before and do not understand (maybe police informant?, except that Bunny squarely keeps his own counsel where his crimes are concerned) so any thoughts are gratefully received. Still, it seemed worth noting that fiction was not yet at the point of being able to celebrate in watching a miscreant thumb his nose at the law, and perhaps it took Leblanc and the greater ethic scope permitted by 19th century French society to allow Lupin to come into being and finally allow everyone to relax a bit (and he wouldn’t be the only early, highly influential French text in which the criminal gets away with their crimes, hein?).
Most additional points of interest come from the attitude Hornung displays in the time he was writing. It feels faintly daring in the late 19th century to typify the Dowager Marchioness of Melrose as “flourishing her ear-trumpet, and drinking champagne with her usual notorious freedom”, just as it must have raised a few eyebrows to have one state so freely — in a work of fiction, no less, with the social expectations and niceties observed above — the “profound conviction that Jack the Ripper was a really eminent public man, whose speeches were very likely reported alongside his atrocities”.
There’s also a pleasing hint of meta-awareness in Raffles relaying the story of ‘Le Premier Pas‘ and then admitting that “the thing should have ended with an exciting chase” but did, in fact, come to a far less thrilling end. Were these sorts of touches to be included in a story written today but set in the late 19th century, I’d cry “Anachronism!” and lament the drop in standards of historical fiction. And I’d be wrong, because these weirdly modern touches have aged superbly in the 124 years since A.J. Raffles first strode out onto the Lord’s pitch to dispatch some uppity bowler and save the day, before crying off sick and robbing the man’s hotel room.
Had Hornung merely swapped out a moral, law-abiding and -enabling Holmes for his criminous shadowy twin, there would still be enough here to credit him with legitimately adding something new to the expansion of the genre. The likes of ‘The Suicide of Kiaros’ (1897) by L. Frank Baum had already shown us the criminal being successful in his endeavours (or so we must assume…), but Hornung invited us to meet these people again and again, to long for their company — or maybe he was simply teasing his audience with the schadenfreude of awaiting their comeuppance, delaying it and delaying it and delaying it to greater increase their eventual delight.
Either way, Hornung showed us that the criminal need not be the grasping, avaricious figure of Victorian lore, that he may be debonair and charming, even when unmasked, and that the moral qualms of wrongdoing could add a dimension to our characters even while they allowed themselves to be drawn back into the perceived necessity of crime. In short, Hornung made the criminal empathetic rather than merely sympathetic, not relying on the usual staples which usually justified crime — an unscrupulous money-lender, a wronged love, an unsuspected murderer — allowing the reader to (however tacitly) understand their reasons while not always having to find them agreeable.
A few years later, R. Austin Freeman would enlarge upon this theme with the inverted mysteries that would blow the lid off the genre, and yet even he would lean more into sympathy. Hornung here arguably laid the groundwork for the likes of Frances Iles’ Malice Aforethought (1931) in which criminals commit crimes for selfish reasons, and stirred in the sprinkling of satire that made such a bitter pill slightly easier to contemplate swallowing. It’s a delicate balance, even more so given the time in which he was writing, and to see it managed with such aplomb is wonderful.
So, does The Amateur Cracksman (1899) pass muster as a Cornerstone? You’re darn tootin’.