Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman has not aged well. While his contemporary Sherlock Holmes has prospered in the twenty-first century, with films, television adaptation and yet more ‘inspired by’ novels, Raffles languishes largely forgotten. In this post I am going to explore the reasons for this neglect and suggest a possible way back into the stories.
Raffles, conceived by Hornung as a counterpoint to his brother-in-law Conan-Doyle’s master detective, is the archetypal gentleman thief. By day, he is a member of London society, and a noted cricketer. By night he is a burglar – a ‘cracksman’. His accomplice and biographer is Bunny Manders, who narrates these stories and looks up to Raffles, one might even say adores him. But more of the homo-erotic undertones of the stories in a moment.
In his wonderful essay Raffles and Miss Blandish, George Orwell compared the Hornung stories with a more contemporary detective tale which offended his sensibilities. He described Raffles as
still one of the best-known characters in English fiction. Very few people would need telling that he played cricket for England, had bachelor chambers in the Albany and burgled the Mayfair houses which he also entered as a guest.
That was in 1944, but the same could certainly not be said now. Orwell’s anatomy of Raffles centres on the acute observation that the
“truly dramatic thing, about Raffles, the thing that makes him a sort of byword even to this day… is the fact that he is a gentleman. Raffles is presented to us and this is rubbed home in countless scraps of dialogue and casual remarks — not as an honest man who has gone astray, but as a public-school man who has gone astray. His remorse, when he feels any, is almost purely social; he has disgraced ‘the old school’, he has lost his right to enter ‘decent society’, he has forfeited his amateur status and become a cad…In making Raffles a cricketer as well as a burglar, Hornung was not merely providing him with a plausible disguise; he was also drawing the sharpest moral contrast that he was able to imagine.
But this is not all, because with his laser-like precision on matters of class, Orwell identifies that while Raffles may be a gentleman, his position in society is less secure than a casual reader might think:
Raffles…is a story of snobbery, and it gains a great deal from the precariousness of Raffles’s social position. A cruder writer would have made the ‘gentleman burglar’ a member of the peerage, or at least a baronet. Raffles, however, is of upper-middle-class origin and is only accepted by the aristocracy because of his personal charm. ‘We were in Society but not of it’, he says to Bunny towards the end of the book; and ‘I was asked about for my cricket’. Both he and Bunny accept the values of ‘Society’ unquestioningly, and would settle down in it for good if only they could get away with a big enough haul. The ruin that constantly threatens them is all the blacker because they only doubtfully ‘belong’. A duke who has served a prison sentence is still a duke, whereas a mere man about town, if once disgraced, ceases to be ‘about town’ for evermore.
Well, as we will see, there are different forms of disgrace.
Much, perhaps too much, has been made of Raffles’s relationship with Holmes. Hornung didn’t help this reflex reaction by dedicating this book to “ACD” and suggesting the stories were a form of flattery. A criminal version of Holmes would indeed have been fascinating, but Raffles doesn’t fit the bill. He is far too clumsy a thief, relying on crude strategems including violence, and is very nearly caught by the police, something that would never happen to Holmes. In the second story in this collection, ‘A Costume Piece” Raffles tries to steal jewels from the millionaire Reuben Rosenthall. He breaks into his house, only to be captured red-handed by the alert Rosenthall and companions who were waiting for him all along. He escapes by the simple strategem of running away, although he does come back later to rescue the hapless Bunny, disguised as a policeman. In another story, ‘Gentlemen and Players’, Raffles secures an invitation to a country house party. The rich visitors seem easy pickings, but a complicating factor involves a successful burglary by some professional thieves. Raffles takes the opportunity afforded by the theft of walking into the victim’s bedroom and taking her remaining jewels. No bravery, cunning nor skill required, just an invitation to the right kind of house party.
We are constantly told Raffles is a gentleman, but his code of ethics is not as clear cut as you would expect. He is quite prepared to murder his blackmailer for example, and only avoids doing so because someone has beaten him to it. In fact the scene where Raffles first contemplates murder is chilling in its amorality; Raffles seems alive with the thrilling prospect of the crime:
The biggest man alive is the man who’s committed a murder and not yet been fund 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!
Bunny – and what a childish nickname for a grown man to have – adores him. The Wikipedia entry for Hornung claims that Raffles and Bunny were “were based partly on his friends Oscar Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas”. By 1898, the year the first Raffles story was published, Wilde had already completed his prison sentence for perjury, and was living in Paris. His name became synonymous with homosexuality, and it would have been a brave author who openly used Wilde’s relationship with Douglas as a model for his characters. But the homo-eroticism between Raffles and Bunny, albeit a somewhat one-sided attraction of the younger man for his hero, is undeniable. They first meet at school, where Bunny is Raffles’s “fag”; when the stories begin Bunny has lost all his money gambling, is facing disgrace, and is considering suicide. Raffles offers him a way out of his troubles – an exciting and seductive new life of sin and crime.
Once Raffles and Bunny’s ‘crimes’ are seen as a metaphor for gay love, the stories come alive as an “in plain sight” confession of “the love that dare not speak its name”. In fact it is hard to read many of their exchanges without spotting a gay sub-text.
I’ll do it again…I will…I’ll lend you a hand as often as you like! What does it matter now? I’ve been in it once. I’ll be in it again. I’ve gone to the devil anyhow. I can’t go back, and wouldn’t if I could. Nothing matters another rap! When you want me I’m your man.
Bunny repeatedly tries to break away (break up?) from Raffles – he knows what he represents is wrong, but finds it compellingly attractive, both hating and wanting it at the same time. When in “The Return Match” Raffles seeks him out, lays his hand on his arm and says “Come up to my place”, Bunny can’t resist:
“To me, at all events, there was never anybody in the world so irresistible as Raffles…I made my excuses …but his arm slide through mine…and even while I argued we were on his staircase in the Albany.”
Elsewhere Bunny is openly affectionate towards Raffles, and comes close to accepting his feelings:
It was Raffles I loved. It was not the dark life we led together, still less its base rewards; it was the man himself, his gayety, his humour, his dazzling audacity, his incomparable courage and resource. And a very horror of turning to him again in mere need of greed set the seal on my first angry resolution. But the anger was soon gone out of me, and when at length Raffles bridged the gap by coming to me, I rose to greet him almost with a shout.
This affection burns at its brightest when Bunny is tortured by jealously seeing Raffles flirt with a young Australian women on their ill-fated cruise in The Gift of the Emperor:
What he could see in her—but that begs the question. Of course he saw no more than I did, but to annoy me, or perhaps to punish me for my long defection, he must turn his back on me and devote himself to this chit from Southampton to the Mediterranean. They were always together. It was too absurd. After breakfast they would begin, and go on until eleven or twelve at night; there was no intervening hour at which you might not hear her nasal laugh, or his quiet voice talking soft nonsense into her ear. Of course it was nonsense! Is it conceivable that a man like Raffles, with his knowledge of the world, and his experience of women (a side of his character upon which I have purposely never touched, for it deserves another volume); is it credible, I ask, that such a man could find anything but nonsense to talk by the day together to a giddy young schoolgirl? I would not be unfair for the world.
I think I have admitted that the young person had points. Her eyes, I suppose, were really fine, and certainly the shape of the little brown face was charming, so far as mere contour can charm.
I admit also more audacity than I cared about, with enviable health, mettle, and vitality. I may not have occasion to report any of this young lady’s speeches (they would scarcely bear it), and am therefore the more anxious to describe her without injustice. I confess to some little prejudice against her. I resented her success with Raffles, of whom, in consequence, I saw less and less each day. It is a mean thing to have to confess, but there must have been something not unlike jealousy rankling within me.
References to their physical attraction for one another, the compelling nature of their relationship, the enjoyment of one another’s company, and the recognition that what they are engaged in is wrong by the moral code of society, but thrilling and rewarding nonetheless, crowd the stories’ pages. Raffles toys with Bunny’s affection, keeping him guessing at all times about his motivation. Bunny blindly follows wherever Raffles leads, even when it ends up in a prison cell.
I suspect the simple reason why Raffles is no longer read widely, is that despite this interesting element of modernity, the stories are just not very good. Raffles rarely has a cunning plan of any kind, and Bunny is so dim that the fun of understanding more than him about what is going on palls quickly. Raffles isn’t half as charming or interesting as he thinks he is. Add to that some appalling racism which yes, is of its time, but which Conan Doyle somehow managed to largely avoid, and these stories are not yet ready for a revival. Perhaps when this inevitably happens it will involve a degree of reinvention that they sorely need.