on 25 November 2012
THIS REVIEW INCORPORATES A FULL CONSIDERATION OF ALL 3 VOLUMES IN 'THE COLLECTED RAFFLES'...
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
A REVIEW OF `THE BLACK MASK' by E.W. HORNUNG
`The Black Mask' (1901) is the second collection of short stories by E.W. Hornung recounting the (mis)adventures of anti-hero gentleman thief, A.J. Raffles. The first volume, 1899's `The Amateur Cracksman' was a hugely entertaining series of scrapes told by Raffles' sidekick, Bunny. Culminating in the pair's capture and arrest, the final page left the reader with either the irreversible conclusion the Raffles' `career' or the tantalising glimpse of a sequel. Thankfully, Hornung chose the latter and resurrected his popular character after a two-year hiatus.
In the wider world of literature, Raffles' escape from apparent death had greater significance. Existing as the nefarious mirror images of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, the re-appearance of A.J. and Bunny arguably paved the way for Conan Doyle to bring back his immortal Baker Street detective in 1903's `The Empty House', no less than a decade after he and Moriarty plunged into the abyss of The Reichanbach Falls. Given that Hornung was Conan Doyle's brother-in-law and that Raffles' rebirth was both accepted and celebrated by the reading public, it is hard to argue against it influencing Holmes' creator. Interestingly, having read the stories that recount the reappearance of both characters, there is much to argue that Raffles' rebirth was the more creative and effective of the two. Allow me to explain.
Firstly, the return of Holmes signalled what was very much business-as-usual. Indeed, after his enforced lying-low was explained to Watson, the adventures and cases continued in an established fashion. Now be honest, unless the reader was prejudiced by knowing which collection they came from, is there really anything to separate the best tales from the `Adventures', `Memoirs' and `Return' of Holmes? Certainly, there are no major clues in terms of chronological development. Secondly, Hornung uses Raffles' exile as the basis of a fabulous story in its own right (`The Fate of Faustina') and then provides a direct sequel in the next tale that concludes the entire episode. In contrast, Conan Doyle's `The Empty House' was engaging, but little more than a device to bring back his hero.
Indeed, `The Black Mask' deserves real credit for diversity and creativity. In the first tale, `No Sinecure', Bunny's reunion with Raffles is delivered with real cheek and verve. The `new' Raffles is a man deeply affected by his time away from England. Physically, he has turned prematurely grey. However, the principal damage has been done to his reputation. Having been exposed as a thief to London society, he is now confined to a house-bound daytime existence, with the blanket of night (and the occasional mask) providing essential cover during working hours. This fact means that Hornung cannot merely repeat the country house-breaking antics of the original collection. Instead, he offers eight truly eclectic eight tales. It is difficult to single out a best among them. The afore-mentioned `The Fate of Faustina' is Bunny-free and stands as an Anthony Hope-style Italian romantic-thriller. Followed by `The Last Laugh' in which Raffles and Bunny face the vengeance attentions of a brutal `brotherhood', here we see a far grittier and tough side to old A.J. In contrast, there are some fabulous lighter moments, notably in the sleight-of-hand trickery of the opening story, whilst `The Wrong House' is a short, sharp recounting of nail-biting burglary that degenerates into farcical slapstick. Just when the reader thinks that he has the measure of the tales, in the final adventure `The Knees of The Gods', Raffles and Bunny head of to South Africa and become embroiled in The Boer War. This excellent finale continues the theme of the danger of recognition and further legal penalties, whilst allowing the leading men to engage in genuine contemporary history.
In short, `The Black Mask' is a rare breed - a sequel that tops a fine original by virtue of its greater ambition and credible complexities. How easy it would have been for Hornung to follow a tried-and-tested route. One simple shipwreck and the miraculous double escape of only Bunny and Raffles could have seen them return to their old ways without any need to truly develop the characters and situations. Having ignored this path, the author deserves tremendous credit for not wanting to rob his public! Is it too much to hope for similar treasures to emerge from volume 3, `A Thief In The Night' (1905)?
Barty's Score: 9.5 / 10
A REVIEW OF `A THIEF IN THE NIGHT' BY E.W. HORNUNG
`A Thief in the Night' (1905) is the third and final volume of the original short stories recounting the nefarious dealings of gentleman burglar, A.J. Raffles. That E.W. Hornung penned a trilogy of Raffles collections must surely have come as a delightful surprise to Raffles' many avid readers, given the seemingly conclusive finale to 1901's `The Black Mask'. However, `A Thief in the Night' is no mere `bolt on' quickie sequel. Indeed, it is arguably more satisfying than the original collection (1899's `Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman') by virtue of the diversity of its tales. It is also the longest of the three volumes, offering nine full length short stories and a poignant conclusion entitled, `The Last Word'.
Chronologically, if you have a copy of `A Thief in the Night' as part of a collection of all 26 Raffles stories, you might be best advised to read the first eight tales before you embark upon `The Black Mask'. Again narrated by Raffles' hapless sidekick, Bunny Manders, these recount the criminal duo's `golden age' before A.J.'s demise and masked resurgence. Most of the stories would fit in perfectly within the covers of `The Amateur Cracksman'. The First story (`Out of Paradise') sees a house break-in have a disastrous impact upon Bunny's romantic affairs. `The Chest of Silver' sees Raffles adopt Houdini-esque tactics to secure a bank heist. In `The Rest Cure', Raffles discovers that the late Victorian squatter's rights were not quite what they are now. In `The Criminologists Club', Raffles and Bunny become would-be exhibits at a dinner party hosted by self-congratulatory crime fanatics. `A Bad Night' sees a calamitous breakdown of communication between Bunny and Raffles as the former's solo mission falls foul of his sympathy for a member of the intended victim's household. Ouch! Similar chaos ensues when Bunny sets out to burgle his old family pile in `The Spoils of Sacrilege'. In `The Raffles Relics', Hornung provides an ironically rewarding conclusion to the pair's home-grown adventures. As the only tale set after Raffles' original exposure as a crook, it sees Bunny and his `mysterious grey haired friend' visit Scotland Yard to peruse and receive a guided tour of a museum which includes a collection of treasures related to England's most celebrated cracksman.
Arguably the two best stories in the collection are `The Field of Philippi' and `A Trap to Catch a Cracksman'. The first of these sees Bunny and Raffles return to their beloved school where they swindle an obnoxious `old boy' out of a small fortune which is donated towards a statue of the alma mater's founder. Although Raffles inevitably operates outside of the law, his devotion to his place of education shows a degree of sentimentality that gives the character a likeable edge. `A Trap to Catch a Cracksman' is a classic short story in its own right. Opening with a garbled `phone call from Raffles to Bunny, a miniature mystery unfolds as to how Raffles has allowed himself to become trapped in the home of a vengeful heavyweight American boxer. Once Bunny discovers the facts, the next task is how to get his pal out before he (or indeed both of them) is pulped. With a clever twist in its tale, it is a wonderful tour-de-force, holding its own against the best adventures in the canon.
Indeed, given the quality of the entire collection of Raffles short stories, it is a wonder that they are not as duly celebrated as those of Hornung's brother-in-law who reportedly wrote some books about a Baker Street detective with a doctor for an accomplice. Following the recent triumphant re-imaginings of SH both on the television and cinema screens, it is tempting to call for a re-launch of Raffles in a similar vein. However, to do so is somewhat disrespectful to the quality of the original writings, which in the first instance act as the perfect milieu in which to enjoy the burglarious misadventures.
Hornung could not resist returning to Raffles in the 1909 novel, `Mr Justice Raffles'. After his death, the character was bestowed upon author Barry Perowne who penned countless pastiches from 1932 onwards. However, if you fancy a truly diverting collection of alternative classic short stories, you could do far worse than spend/do some time with the original Raffles tales. With A.J., you're in safe hands.
Barty's Score: 9/10