Archive for Victoriana

The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , , on April 11, 2013 by davehurwitz

Two Englishman at CricketWhile 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.

Is his hair realy black?  Can't be!

David Niven as Raffles from the 1939 Film

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.

Dave Hurwitz

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The Year of Reading Short Stories

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , on January 7, 2013 by davehurwitz

One of my resolutions for 2013 is to start reading some of the short story collections that I’ve been stockpiling.  They’re mostly collections of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories, but there are other things as well.  I have The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard–all 1,200 pages of it–eyeing me speculatively from the hardback shelf.  There’s a Liz Williams.  And that beautiful H. G. Wells collection from Tartarus Press.  To say nothing of Caitlin R. Kiernan.

As a way to motivate both reading and writing, I thought I’d offer up short critiques and commentary here on The Rot every time I finish a story.  My goal is to read and write about at least one story a week all this year.  That may not sound like a lot, but bear in mind that I’ll have to break down and read some novels as well at some point.  After all, Titan’s publishing at least two Kim Newman books this year.  There’s a new Justin Gustainis due out soon.  Ben Aaronovitch will probably have something as well.  Oh, and I have a day job, too.

The expected spook ship painting coverI’ve just finished ‘The Ghost Pirates’ by William Hope Hodgson, who I mostly know from his Carnacki the Ghost Finder stories.  Somewhat Ironically, this is my most recent book purchase.  I walked into Mysterious Galaxy’s anual New Year’s Day sale with a gift certificate and no notion what I wanted to buy, but after a few minutes of browsing I spotted this on an end-cap and snagged it.  I’d been hunting for this book, off and on, for more than a year, but it was out of print and there were no copies to be found in any of the nearby library systems.  Kudos should go to Night Shade Books for bringing it back, though they deserve some teasing for the cover layout, which is blatant ripoff of the iconic Penguin Classics covers.

At one-hundred pages, ‘Ghost Pirates’ is more of a novella than a short story.  Those hoping for some Curse of the Black Pearl style swordplay are in for a long wait.  The vast majority of the story consists of a series of strange and unlucky shipboard incidents.  These become less explicable, and more lethal, as the story progresses, but it’s not until the final pages that ghostly marauders come swarming up out of the sea to engage the terrified crew in deadly combat.  Hodgson, who was a sailor himself in his youth, lays on the nautical jargon without explaining any of it.  If, like me, you don’t know a spanker from a royal, this can be downright annoying.  In addition, the crew speak in various dialects according to the nationality and station.  These frustrations aside, ‘Ghost Pirates’ succeeds in building an atmosphere of disquiet.  For most of its hundred pages, the reader experiences a sort of queasy expectation, so that it is almost a relief when the worst finally happens.  I look forward to reading some of the shorter works in this collection, though perhaps not immediately.

Dave Hurwitz