The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung
While many readers of modern day Victoriana believe that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have their criminal opposites in Professor Moriarty and Colonel Sebastian Moran, this isn’t really the case. The Professor and the Colonel, though they have been portrayed as a Holmes-and-Watson type duo in countless non-canonical books, TV shows and films, never share a scene together in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle. Nor do they appear in a great many Doyle stories. “The Napoleon of Crime” appears in two, while “the second most dangerous man in England” only rates one. Conan Doyle created both men to fit specific plot purposes. He invented Moriarty in order to kill Holmes. After a change of heart, he used Moran to bring him back from the dead. Once these ends were accomplished, both characters were quickly discarded.
More worthy of comparison to Holmes and Watson, but less familiar to American audiences, are A.J. Raffles and “Bunny” Manders, gentlemen thieves. Raffles and Bunny are hardly master criminals. They don’t sit at the center of a vast criminal network, but operate alone. Rather than pull off elaborate, impossible-seeming thefts, they choose easy scores and careless victims. Nor do they cross swords or match wits with famous master detectives. They have enough to do outwitting their victims and evading the ordinary police. Though less impressive than the exploits of France’s Arsene Lupin, their crimes have a more credible, less fanciful feel. Compared with Moriarty and Moran, Raffles and Bunny seem more like real people with genuine motives and emotions.
A.J. Raffles is a sensation seeker who views his burglaries as ‘sport’. In the story “Gentleman and Players” he professes to be bored with cricket–which he excels at–because it does not compare with crime. As he says, “What’s the satisfaction of taking a man’s wicket when you want his spoons?” Scoring points in a mere game does not satisfy like stealing silver. Were it not for an ill-defined code of gentlemanly conduct, Raffles might go further still. In “Willful Murder” Raffles and Bunny contemplate silencing their blackmailing fence, Angus Baird. Over dinner at his club, Raffles proclaims “the biggest man alive is the man who’s committed a murder and not yet been found out…. 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!” Circumstances prevent Raffles from testing this theory, but it’s clear that the possibility of being caught adds zest to Raffles’ exploits.
By contrast, our Watson-like narrator Bunny Manders is both more moral and more cowardly. He dreads exposure, and his conscience needles him every time he participates in one of Raffles’ crimes. But these misgivings are completely overwhelmed by his admiration of his bolder friend. Bunny first met A.J. at school, where he became the older boy’s dogsbody–a relationship that is taken to institutional levels in British public schools–and helped him commit petty misdeeds. Though both are now adults, the basic nature of their relationship remains the same. Critics and parodists have suggested that Bunny is a repressed homosexual, and there is some evidence for this. In “The Ides of March” Bunny dwells on Raffles’ “curly black hair” and “strong, unscrupulous mouth.” He calls him “irresistible” and “masterful.” However, this is the first ever Raffles story, and some description of the man’s appearance and character is required. Gay or straight, Bunny is completely under Raffles thumb. And so, by extension, is the reader.
Taken together, Raffles and Bunny represent a peculiarly European phenomenon, upper class gentlemen who are too poor to afford the “polite society” into which they have been born and to “well brought up” to work. Neither members of the peerage nor the professional classes, they are literally at loose ends. You can see similar men cluttering up the Drones Club of P.G. Wodehouse. Bunny tries to make an honest living, but the only thing he can bring himself to do is write poetry. Raffles would make an excellent businessman, but disdains such dull labor. Given their social standing and character flaws, it seems inevitable that they would turn to crime.
Though the stories that make up The Amateur Cracksman (1899) were first published individually, taken together they read like a continuous narrative. Hornung followed up with two further story collections–The Black Mask (1901) and A Thief in the Night (1905)–as well as a full length novel–Mr. Justice Raffles (1909). The Raffles stories were quite popular in their day and are still read a remembered in UK even now. It’s easy enough to see why. The stories are light, entertaining, and composed in a highly readable style. I recommend them to anyone who enjoys Victoriana, but wants a break from Steampunk and Sherlock Holmes.