The Amateur Cracksman – E W Hornung
It is good, every now and again, to turn literary conventions on their head. The classic crime novel has a detective, often an amateur sleuth, together with faithful sidekick, solving nigh on impossible crimes which have baffled all and sundry and bring the felons to justice. Ernest William Hoffnung’s crime creation, on the other hand, is a gentleman thief, who uses his cunning and position to pull off astonishing robberies and evade detection.
Arthur J Raffles, together with his friend, Bunny Manders, is the yin to the yang of Hornung’s brother in law’s famous creation, Sherlock Holmes and the ever faithful Dr Watson. Indeed, this collection of eight stories, first published in 1899, was dedicated to Arthur Conan Doyle, perhaps with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Our hero, if he can so be described, is a pillar of Victorian society, an excellent cricketer who plays regularly for England and at Lord’s but a spendthrift who rarely has enough money to live on. His answer to his regular cashflow problems is to use his position in society, it allows him access to all the rich houses in the capital, to commit the odd robbery or two and live off the earnings of his work. In the first story, The Ides of March but originally published as a short story in 1898 as In the Chains of Crime, Raffles happens upon Bunny, the narrator of the tales a la Watson, down on luck and initiates him into his line of work.
The third story, Gentlemen and Players, introduces two characters who are going to make life difficult for the duo, Inspector Mackenzie of Scotland Yard and a notorious criminal, Crawshay. In the seventh story, The Return Match, Raffles manages to get the dangerous Crawshay off his back but in doing so reignites the suspicions of Mackenzie.
The last story, The Gift of the Emperor, sees Raffles at his most audacious but his plans come unstuck when the stalwart detective boards the ship he is travelling on at Genoa and a search reveals that Raffles has the stolen jewel. Raffles jumps overboard and neither Bunny nor the then reader knows whether he made it to the shore or not, surely a nod to Doyle’s The Final Problem and Holmes’ encounter with his nemesis, Moriarty, at the Reichenhach Falls. The modern reader knows that this isn’t the end of Raffles, just as Holmes survives his tussle – you don’t kill off the goose that lays the golden egg – but you can imagine the impact on the readers at the time.
In truth, these stories are barely credible, laced with the arrogant snobbery of the Victorian upper classes, very politically incorrect, racist and sexist, but if you are prepared to put up with that, then they are entertaining, undemanding reads. Perhaps troubled by the thought of a gentleman thief, Hornung goes to great lengths to show that Raffles has a code of conduct. He would never stoop to murder and will only steal out of financial necessity. However, in the heat of a robbery, his steadfastness sometimes slips.
There are moments of comedy too and poor old Bunny is the stooge to the great man, never really let into what is going on, there to provide the muscle and, when he does use his initiative as in Nine Points of the Law, he nearly wrecks the plan. This means that the reader is, along with Bunny, behind the action, a device that some readers may find irksome. As Bunny states with some justification, “You lay your plans, and never say a word, and expect me to tumble to them by light of nature”.
Still, take the stories for what they are and you will spend an enjoyable evening.