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Just The Ticket!,
This review is from: Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman (Penguin Classics) (Mass Market Paperback)
A REVIEW OF `RAFFLES: AMATEUR CRACKSMAN' BY E.W. HORNUNG
Imagine that you are playing the board game, `Twenty Questions' and the category is "Who am I?" What would your answer be to the following clues?
1. I am a literary character created in the late nineteenth century whose adventures continued into the early twentieth century.
2. Most of my adventures are chronicled in short story format.
3. I live at a fashionable London address.
4. My work is carried out on the scenes of crimes.
5. I am a master of disguise.
6. I carry out my work with a sidekick who joined me in my first written adventure.
7. My stories are narrated by my side kick.
8. My assistant is often frustrated by my withholding of vital information during the course of a story.
By the time you get to the third or fourth clue, no doubt you would be punching the air in triumph and shouting out the name, "Sherlock Holmes". If you did, you would be WRONG. Let's add another couple of clues:
9. I operate on the wrong side of the law, specialising in burglary.
10. I am often unsuccessful.
Clearly these are not descriptions of Baker Street's finest. Instead, all ten clues apply to one of Holmes's contemporaries, the thieving gentleman, A.J. Raffles. However, without the addition of 9 and 10, the parallels are remarkable. To further entwine the two, there was a family connection between the authors, as Raffles was created by E.W. Hornung, the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Nevertheless, to simply condemn Raffles as nothing more than a slightly-warped rehash of Sherlock Holmes is to do both author and character a disservice. `Raffles: Amateur Cracksman' (1899) is a terrific introduction to a truly engaging literary creation in his own right. The book is made up of eight short stories, the first of which sets the scene beautifully as Raffles saves an old school chum, Harry "Bunny" Manders from taking his own life by offering him a world of amateur safe-breaking as a way of escaping crushing debts. The fascinating and intriguing element to the whole set-up is that both raffles and Bunny are well-educated, would-be respectable citizens who should know better. And yet, the allure and rush of financial crime proves irresistible.
Although, on one level, the premise is absurd, Hornung tells his tales with such joie-de-vivre that the reader is sucked in. It is too much to say that we are cheering the criminals on, but we certainly want to find out how their exploits will progress. As thieves, Raffles cannot claim to be in the premier league. Although there are successes, there are also glaring failures and near escapes, which adds to the otherwise dubious credibility of the tales.
What arguably prevents `Raffles: Amateur Cracksman' from being a truly great book is the inconsistent quality of the stories. Take the final two tales, `The Return Match' and `The Gift of The Emperor'. The former is a rather claustrophobic adventure set in and around Raffles' rooms with limited movement and incident, whilst the latter is a surprisingly memorable finale set at sea that offers a wonderfully cinematic closing image (a possible optical illusion by Bunny?) to leave the reader wanting more adventures. The length of the stories is another limitation. Many feel 5-10 pages too brief, being rather too economical with plot and detail. This was no doubt a restriction applied by the original publishers who printed the stories in their periodicals.
Nevertheless, for those who have exhausted all of the original Sherlock Holmes adventures and hanker for stories in a similar vein, `Raffles: Amateur Cracksman' is well worthy of investigation and a widespread rediscovery. In fact, you could argue that Raffles is just the ticket!
Barty's Score: 8 / 10