Book review: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John Le Carre, 1963

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I read ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’, as a standalone novel, without realising that it is to all intents and purposes a sequel to A Call for the Dead, Le Carre’s 1961 debut novel. Reading the novels out of sequence meant that the central plot twist here – which I won’t give away here even though I usually very relaxed about spoilers – was kept disguised for much of the novel, even if on reflection it was fairly guessable.

Why read a Cold War spy novel now? Is it in any way still relevant? Certainly the political context of the novel has changed dramatically – when The Spy was first published it had an immediacy and relevance it has now lost. It exposed the dark underside of the world of Cold War espionage, in which each side, East and West, were both morally equivalent and ambivalent, where murder was commonplace, and where the only justification for one’s actions was the final outcome. Now it is just a historically based adventure novel, with as much relevance as The 39 Steps or The Riddle of the Sands.

Alec Leamas runs the Berlin office of the British secret service. Berlin is divided between East and West by the recently constructed Wall (a landmark point was passed recently when the time the Wall has been down became longer than the time it stood).  The novel opens as Leamas’s operation loses its last double agent, shot whilst defecting from East Berlin. Leamas is recalled to London by his boss, ‘Control’ and is given one last mission: to fake his defection to East Germany and to undermine their ruthlessly efficient secret service. There is very little exposition setting all this out – we learn of this plot only gradually as it unfolds.

I am not sure Leamas would have made a convincing potential defector. Yes he is fired, starts drinking, has money problems and serves a short prison sentence. But there are surely flags that this is a trap. He falls into the clutches of the East Germans far too easily. A menial job in a library leads him to meet Liz Gold, who just happens to be secretary of her local cell of the Communist Party of Great Britain. This obviously isn’t a coincidence – Liz is unknowingly part of the plot. After his release from jail Leamas is approached by an East German recruiter and with little pause for breath he defects and sells all his country’s secrets – or what little he purports to know – for a few thousand pounds.

During his interrogation Leamas mentions British payments to a double agent in the East. This, we later come to understand, is part of the plot to sow discord among the East German spy operation, which culminates in a trial of the Communist spymaster Mundt. During the trial the British plot is exposed when Liz is called as a surprise witness, only for a secret underlying plot, to which Leamas has been oblivious, to be revealed. The novel’s tragic denouement comes swiftly thereafter with a degree of inevitability.

This is a well-written page-turner. Le Carre evokes the seediness of Leamas’s world with very precise prose and imagery:

“They walked to her flat through the rain and they might have been anywhere—Berlin, London, any town where paving stones turn to lakes of light in the evening rain, and the traffic shuffles despondently through wet streets.”

Although there is a moral ambivalence about the novel’s portrait of espionage, Le Carre still takes sides – he is disgusted by intellectual, moral and actual poverty of the East. Although the world Le Carre portrays is now gone, this didn’t feel like an anachronism (in the way the Buchan and Childers books now do). In part this is because of the enduring popularity of Le Carre’s work to film and television adaptations, which keep it current, and in part due to his cynicism and amorality which is very modern in its sensibility. I am glad I have now read Le Carre – he was a novelist I have skirted around many times but never quite got round to – but I suspect his other spy novels will be very similar to this one. But next time I am looking for a book to help pass a train journey I will know not to overlook Le Carre.

 

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Book review: Lords and Ladies (Discworld 14) by Sir Terry Pratchett, 1992

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“In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded”. I suspect most readers would identify this as something Douglas Adams wrote, rather than his successor in genius, Sir Terry Pratchett.  It sets the tone for this wonderful novel. But perhaps I shouldn’t use this term, because as Lords and Ladies points out

“Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.” 

This is just one aspect of the genius of Sir Terry – his ability to use language creatively to make us think deeply about language and beyond, to a very serious discussion about power and responsibility within society.

Of course there is a lighter side to this novel. It includes one line much loved by Discworld fans:

“Nanny Ogg looked under her bed in case there was a man there. Well, you never knew your luck.”

I first read Lords and Ladies a long time ago. I have a vague memory of being slightly disappointed. But one of the many wonderful things about STP as a writer is his re-readability; I honestly can’t think of another writer whose novels retain their freshness and originality on multiple re-readings in the way Sir Terry’s do. In a word, I was wrong, Lords and Ladies is magnificent.

It follows chronologically immediately following the events of Witches Abroad. I could easily be wrong about this but I think this is one of the few times in the series that STP does this (The Colour of Magic/The Light Fantastic being the other example that springs to mind.) This gives the reader the impression that they are enjoying a continuing narrative, an adventure in real time. Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick return from their adventure in Genua to find that while they have been away the people of Lancre have neglected their defence against the dark arts lessons. In particular the witches’s warnings about the Dancers, a mysterious stone circle outside the village have been ignored. With Lancre’s magical protections weakened and unguarded, a portal to the world of the elves is opened.

But as you will have seen above, these elves are not the noble creatures of MiddleEarth- they are amoral monsters that use “glamour” to alter human’s perceptions of them. The elves break into the Discworld and cause carnage at Magrat’s wedding, to be confronted (and OK, yes, spoilers, ultimately defeated) by a feat of magic that only Granny W could pull off. There is a sub-plot featuring a visit by the Arch-Chancellor and the Librarian to the wedding, but otherwise that is pretty much it – a fairly unsubstantial piece in terms of the plot. But reading STP for this plotting would be very much missing the point – you need to read him for his characterisation and his ideas.

STP really hit his stride at this point in the Discworld history, and never really took a misstep thereafter. So many great novels to come.

 

 

Book review: The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde, 2001

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When I was drafting my review of Fforde’s recent novel, Early Riser, I planned to refer back to an earlier review of his first published novel, The Eyre Affair – only to find that in fact I hadn’t written it! I must have read this novel before I started my blog, although I have reviewed some of the later novels in what was to go on to become the Thursday Next series.Fforde

The Eyre Affair is a brilliantly original genre-busting novel. It follows the adventures of Literary Detective Thursday Next, on the trail of a genuinely sinister villain, Acheron Hades. The novel is set in a strangely recognisable parallel universe, in which England and Imperial Russia are still fighting the Crimean War, Wales is an independent nation, and where literature is given its rightful value by society (one of my favourite scenes is where Thursday and her on/off boyfriend Landen Parke-Laine go to a performance of Richard III which is a parody of the audience-participation showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show).

Some of the jokes – a character is called Braxton Hicks, for example – are groan-inducing, but the literary references are very clever. There’s a throw-away joke about Cardenio and the repartee about the Shakespearean authorship “question” for example shows a depth of knowledge and love of literature you won’t find in many mystery/adventure/detective novels, let alone comedies.

Thursday is a strong central character around which Fforde builds his narrative. She is a veteran of the Crimean war, where she lost her brother in a modern version of the Charge of the Light Brigade. She is in the career doldrums when she is unexpectedly recruited to track down criminal mastermind Acheron Hades, her former university professor.  Hades is a formidable and ruthless criminal, kills without hesitation or any trace of remorse, and nearly kills Thursday herself until the fortunate intervention, and this is where it gets really wild, of Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre. Yes, that Mr Rochester. Because in this universe it is possible, somehow, to move from the world of literature to what I am going to refer to as the round world, and vice-versa.

This fluidity between worlds allows Thursday and others to intervene in texts and change their outcomes. Some of what happens to Thursday, such as the supernatural message that leads her to change her life, is paralleled in the events of Jane Eyre, but Thursday is no Jane. She is not a passive figure but a woman of action and ideas.

Fforde’s achievement is that he doesn’t just parody genres, he delivers a series of interwoven narratives that all succeed in their own right. The detective story is an enjoyable mystery; the adventure elements are exciting, and the romance between Thursday and Parke-Laine, albeit kept in the background, is believable and touching, and plays its part in the novel’s finale. Fforde’s world building relies on the contrast between the familiar and the bizarre – for example in this world the dodo has been genetically re-engineered. Best of all, for me, were the literary jokes, which are done with respect for the source material. Both of the novel’s endings, one in Jane Eyre, the other in the ‘real world’ are borrowed from the Bronte text but with a clever twist.

Basically, I loved it. I can’t understand why it’s not been adapted for television I will never know, I can see it working brilliantly.

 

An Author Ian Likes: in memorium, Sir Terry Pratchett

Perfectly put

Stuff Ian Likes

(This post was originally written on the original stuffianlikes blog the day after Sir Terry passed. I’ve tidied up some grammatical errors and added a couple of pictures but this is otherwise the way it appeared 4 years-minus-a-day-ago)

I usually dwell on these posts for bloody ages but this one needs to be gotten down quickly or it will never be done.

It’s 1985. I’m a weedy, bespectacled kid of 15 with acne, bad hair and a desire to see more of other worlds. I see a new book on the shelves of Angus & Robertson on my weekly trip into Hobart to bookshop crawl. The Colour Of Magic, by Terry Pratchett. It’s thin but the cover looks great and the blurb sounds pretty cool (I have no idea who Jerome K. Jerome is but I still think Douglas Adams is funny so half of it has worked) so I’ll…

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Book review: Small Gods (Discworld 13) by Terry Pratchett, 1992

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It feels appropriate (if unplanned) to publish this review on the sad fourth anniversary of Sir Terry’s untimely death.

By this point in the Discworld saga, he was really hitting the peak of his powers. This was a writer who is really confident with his material, able to tackle large themes and ready to take risks. And for any writer religion is arguably the biggest risk – you are always going to upset someone. Small Gods is a fascinating discussion of the nature of divinity. That makes it sounds very serious, but that was the author’s genius – to write about serious themes in a very funny way.

The novel is set in Omnia, a kingdom in the continent of Klatch, new to Discworld at this point I believe, and bearing an uncanny resemblance to a medieval Catholic country in the grip of a frenzied search for any trace of heresy. Pratchett has given Om a far-eastern name, and mixes up his religious references freely, but the use of torture by the Quisition to enforce religious conformity and stamp out free thinking, has only one true origin. In Omnia religion has become a distorted version of itself, with torture and fear being its dominant characteristic. In these circumstances true belief in the God Om himself has begun to wither, so much so that the God Om finds himself reincarnated in the body of a tortoise. It seems he is destined to return to the world of once great but now Small Gods who exist on the borders of reality, desperate for believers from whom they derive their existence.

By a million to one chance, and therefore a literary certainty, Om in his tortoise form encounters the novice Brutha, the only remaining true believer in Omnia. Brutha’s idetic memory is used Vorbis, the head of the ExQuisition, to memorise the way through a labyrinth used to guard the library of Ephebe. Vorbis is one of Pratchett’s scariest monsters, a psychopath so controlled and uncaring that he is able to retain his position at the head of the Omnian church by fear alone. An underground movement, reminiscent of the early Christian church, survives in secret, passing its belief in the Disc-shape of the word through its slogan “The Turtle Moves”. The scene is set for a clash of beliefs in which someone is going to die. Guessing who isn’t a challenge, but the journey – in this case a physical journey through the desert – is where the transformation of Brutha from a menial drudge to a prophet occurs.

As always with Pratchett his wit and wisdom shines through. Here he is on religious repression, for example:

“Fear is a strange soil. It grows obedience like corn, which grow in straight lines to make weeding easier. But sometimes it grows the potatoes of defiance, which flourish underground.”

or here on the miracle of our existence:

“Humans! They lived in a world where the grass continued to be green and the sun rose every day and flowers regularly turned into fruit, and what impressed them? Weeping statues. And wine made out of water! A mere quantum-mechanistic tunnel effect, that’d happen anyway if you were prepared to wait zillions of years. As if the turning of sunlight into wine, by means of vines and grapes and time and enzymes, wasn’t a thousand times more impressive and happened all the time…”

Sir Terry’s death was such a loss, but he left us a wonderful collection of novels that are a fine legacy.

Book review: Paris Echo, by Sebastian Faulks, 2018

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Have you ever got the end of a novel and asked “What was the point of that, then?” In a sense I know this is a futile question – there is no point in Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Beethoven’s Fifth. Equally not all novels have a point – they exist as a work of the author’s creativity and can’t be judged for their utility. I can think of some exceptions to this rule – there is a very definite point to Gulliver’s Travels, for example, or Animal Farm, but most novels are not didactic – they just tell a story, introduce some characters, and tell us something about the human experience. Continue reading

Book review: Witches Abroad, (Discworld 12) by Terry Pratchett, 1991

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Is it possible to have two favourite Discworld books? I have three favourite children after all, so conceptually it should be possible. Were it to be deemed so by the powers that be, then ‘Witches Abroad’ would definitely be my joint favourite Discworld novel alongside Witches-abroad-cover‘The Night Watch’. Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, her perfect foil, and Magrat Garlick on a road trip across the Disc, travelling through a landscape of fairy stories brought to life by Lilith de Tempscire, Granny’s evil sister. Just perfect!

Granny and Nanny are two of my favourite Discworld characters – Magrat is a wet hen, and I can take her or leave her – and together they are wonderful. Nanny Ogg is sometimes overshadowed by Granny’s awesomeness, but her she is in full flow, a force of nature that bulldozes its way across the Disc, all the way to Genua. Genua is a coastal town with an annual celebration called Fat Lunchtime, a tradition of cooking based around gumbo and, and all in all bears a strong resemblance to New Orleans.

Witches Abroad also contains the greatest Discworld story Sir Terry never wrote. At the end of this novel, when the bad guys have been defeated and order restored, the witches have a choice – to go home, or to go and “see the elephant”, a colloquial expression for going home the long way, continuing their holiday as much as possible. They agree to see the elephant, and the reader is left to picture what a glorious, outrageous adventure that would have been. (If it turns out that this novel was actually written, and I have just forgotten it, which is quite possible, I will be both deeply embarrassed and hugely delighted).

So what is it about this novel that makes it so full of wonder? It can’t be the jokes, because they almost all qualify as ‘dad’ jokes – even the title is a pretty silly play on words (Witches Abroad = witches out and about, and also in foreign lands). Or try this schoolboyish fun with the fact that in some languages words have gender, which might be funny if you are 11

“‘S called the Vieux River.”
– “Yes?”
– “Know what that means?”
– “No.”
– “The Old (Masculine) River,” said Nanny.
– “Yes?”
– “Words have sex in foreign parts,” said Nanny hopefully.”

Or here’s another joke, when the witches see a stuffed lion’s head:

By gor’, that’s a bloody enormous cat.’
‘It’s a lion,’ said Granny Weatherwax, looking at the stuffed head over the fireplace.
‘Must’ve hit the wall at a hell of a speed, whatever it was,’ said Nanny Ogg.
‘Someone killed it,’ said Granny Weatherwax, surveying the room.
‘Should think so,’ said Nanny.  ‘If I’d seen something like that eatin’ its way through the wall I’d of hit it myself with a poker.”

OK, silly jokes yes, but slapstick can be funny?

Is it the ‘world building’? (“The process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a whole fictional universe. The resulting world may be called a constructed world.”) I think this is getting closer. STP made no attempt to make the basic concept of Discworld anything other than fun, but over time he developed a geography and history for the world that within its own constraints – it is balanced on a turtle carrying four elephants after all – is believable. Is it the story-telling? Definitely not. One of the joys of rereading these novels is rediscovering (and then quickly re-forgetting) what happens, because what happens is usually not very important. We know the good guys are going to win, and the demons from the Dungeon Dimensions are going to be defeated in that somewhat vague way that most of these novels deploy to resolve matters. In the tradition of most great story writers STP borrows plot lines freely and openly, even going so far in this novel to make that borrowing itself part of the plot. Dracula, The Wizard of Oz, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, – you name it, STP borrows from it.

So what’s left? It would be wrong to use the term “philosophy”, but the underlying humanism of the author’s perspective on the world shines out from every one of his novels. He has profound insights into the human (and dwarven, troll and other life-forms) condition. You really have to read the books to get this point properly, but for now how about this from Granny Weatherwax?

“You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage.”

Lastly, there are the novel’s extraordinary, deeply loved, characters. I’ve written at length in previous Discworld reviews about Granny, Nanny and Sam Vimes in particular, so I am not going to repeat myself too much other than to say they are utterly magnificent, utterly believable, and full of the humanity that makes these novels some of my favourites on the planet. Sorry, roundworld.

 

 

Book review: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, by Italo Calvino, 1979

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Post-modernist. There, I’ve said it. It’s impossible to review this novel without using this term, so I might as well get it out of the way, and hopefully not come back to its constraining definitions.

Published in the original Italian in 1979 and translated into English shortly thereafter, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a boldly experimental novel that parades its cleverness, but tiptoes at times close to disappearing up its own narrative fundament.

It’s hard to describe what the novel is about, mainly because it is about itself. It begins with a discussion on what it means to read a novel, a discussion that continues intermittently throughout the book. What narrative structure there is concern events that the narrator describes as happening to the reader and your adventures in reading Italo Calvino’s novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Got that? This self-consciously subverts every tradition of story-telling, even though novels about novels are actually not that new. The structure of the novel sees the hypothetical reader begin reading a series of texts, each abruptly brought to a close, followed by an attempt to find the next chapter, introducing a new text at each attempt.  This quickly settles down to a predictable formula – we know the text is going to be incomplete and a new one will start soon.

I found this a hard read. Yes, I managed to finish it, but I was hoping to be dazzled. I have had this novel on my shelves for literally decades, always trying to find the right time to read it, and never quite getting there. My mistake I believe was to try and read it in short bursts on my commute. This is a demanding novel that needs the full force of your concentration, preferably with a pen and notebook to hand, not snatched ten or fifteen minute reads over two weeks or more. It just doesn’t flow as easily as most novels, fragmented as it is. I kept hoping at one point the pieces would click into place and a whole would be revealed to be so much more than the parts. Perhaps if I had read it more carefully that would have happened, but as it was it felt predictable and at times even puerile. Commentary on the experience of reading is interesting, but on its own does not have enough substance to create a novel, however much you mix it with many brief introductions to stories. What probably seemed revolutionary and exciting in 1979 seemed dated and forced in 2019.

I have enjoyed many meta-narratives before now, such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to give one obvious example, so I am certainly open to the idea, but the funny, clever, intelligent novel I was hoping for never turned up. Perhaps my yearning for a story is childish. One day I hope to reread If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller again, this time with the care it demands, and maybe then I will eat my words.

Book review: Reaper Man (Discworld 11) by Terry Pratchett, 1991

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As the reaction to my Facebook post about Pyramids (Discworld 7) attests, the Discworld novels are hugely loved by a community of readers across the world. People love the novels for many reasons, but I think one of the most common reason is the enormous empathy that Sir Terry shared with his readers. He knew our weaknesses and frailties, 220px-Reaper-man-coverand saw the inner strength in the most abject of us, the deluded, the vulnerable. No-one is so much of a misfit that they don’t have a place in Ankh-Morpork’s Watch; no-one is beyond redemption, as Moist von Lipwig’s story shows. And the weakest and frailest of us all know that one day we will face death, or perhaps Death. So it is his crowning achievement that he made Death such a human, kind character, and that novels such as Reaper Man which are all about Death and death, can be so warm and touching.

Ok, I get it, enough fan-boying, if that’s a word. In this the eleventh Discworld novel, the Auditors of Reality object to Death developing a personality, so decide to ‘retire’ him. In facing up to the death of Death he leaves his job collecting souls, and spends his remaining days working as a farm hand imaginatively named Bill Door for the elderly Miss Flitworth, another of STP’s astonishingly well realised older female characters.

But the absence of death is not entirely unproblematic. A ‘life force’ (of some kind, STP is vague on the detail) starts to cause poltergeist activity and lots of other weirdness. Windle Poons a senior wizard is disappointed not to be met by death on his passing, and becomes a charmingly polite but determined zombie, joining an undead-rights group. The ‘action’ scenes in which Ankh-Morpork is slowly invaded by a parasitic lifeform which evolves into a shopping centre are heavily cut between the Bill Door scenes, but this doesn’t effectively disguise their clumsiness as satirical comment on consumerism. In the novel’s touching climax Death is given a little more time and spends it on a last dance with Miss Flitworth.

One of the many joys of a Discworld reread is rediscovering the origin stories of some of Sir Terry’s wonderful characters. Reg Shoe, undead rights activist, first appears here, although it is not until much later in the glorious Night Watch that we discover how he came to zombiedom. The Death of Rats also first appears in this novel. But Death takes centre stage here, rightly so, and carried the novel on his bony shoulders. Another triumph Sir Terry.

Book Review: Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, by E W Hornung, 1899

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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

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.