All Things Mysterious Volume Fifty-Five
Hornung, the Cracksman, and their ilk.
Suppose you had married Arthur Conan Doyle’s sister Constance in 1893. Would you take up writing for a living? Would your stories feature a thief as the protagonist, expressly against your brother-in-law’s advice? Your world-famous, rich brother-in-law? Ernest William Hornung (1866-1921) turned the successful formula of the all-knowing detective on its head and introduced a burglar (or ‘cracksman’) as a protagonist in The Amateur Cracksman (1899), a collection of the first eight short stories featuring the revered cricketer and burglar. Arthur Raffles uses his status as a sporting hero to commit daring robberies, mostly of valuable jewelry, mostly from his well-to-do acquaintances. Not only did Hornung take Raffles’ first name from Doyle, but he also borrowed the famous form of having a narrator peripherally, and sometimes more than peripherally, involved in the stories. Bunny Manders is more innocent and idealistic than his mentor but eventually, after a stretch in the pen, the two embark on a life of crime together. As a young fellow, Hornung produced eight novels and two short story collections, all having Australian themes. These were a by-product of a couple of years the author spent Down Under as a young man to escape the damp English clime and recover his health. The literary world made much of the authenticity of the dialogue and characters but sales weren’t forthcoming as yet. This would have to wait until his criminal creation created an inspiration of sorts for the insouciance of future crime fiction heroes such as the Saint and James Bond. Several film versions of the Raffles character have been lensed, most notably starring David Niven in Raffles from 1939.
Many critics of the time shared Doyle’s concern that featuring an unsympathetic criminal as the main character was counterproductive, but the public seemed fine with it. At first glance, Raffles is a good-for-nothing playboy, his prowess as a cricketer seemingly his only redeeming feature. (Hornung himself was a tremendous cricket fan and played the game in his youth but his precarious health prevented him from being more than a marginal player.) But as we learn more of the Cracksman, we admire his nerves of steel, his ingenuity, his ability to cheat death, and his cheekiness in impressing his social circle with feats of daring on the cricket field while robbing them blind at night. SPOILER ALERT: In fact Raffles is presumed drowned at the end of The Amateur Cracksman, resurrected by popular demand, he was then killed in battle during the Boer War at the end of The Black Mask, then brought back yet again in A Thief In the Night. One last novel, Mr. Justice Raffles, was less successful, although that is relative in this context.
World War I marked the end of Hornung’s fiction work; hereafter he would publish only poetry, an account of his service at the front as an ambulance driver, and a short biography of his son, who in 1914 was about to enter Cambridge, but entered military service instead and was tragically killed in action in 1915. In the early twenties, Constance Doyle Hornung’s health was failing so the couple went to the south of France to help her recuperate but Hornung contracted pneumonia and died there, Constance following three years later.
None other than Graham Greene wrote a three-act play called ‘The Return of A.J. Raffles, first published in 1975 and available here at Mysterious. Call (212.587.1011) or write or stop by to check on current inventory of the Raffles adventures.
Raffles wasn’t the only, or even the first, gentleman burglar out there in crimefictionland, however. Recall the previous entry in our blog series about LeBlanc’s Arsene Lupin, one of the original gentleman burglars. While Lupin won’t stoop to murder, Frenchman Fantomas has no such qualms, and indeed sometimes seems to enjoy killing. A creation of co-authors Allain and Souvestre, Fantomas is no gentleman!
Then there’s the Saint, Simon Templar, created by Leslie Charteris. What to make of a battler of injustice with no visible means of support? Hmmm….
And there’s Flambeau, in G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, who began a career as a jewel thief, only to see the light and reinvent himself as a private investigator.
You’ve read all this stuff if you’re reading THIS, so check out some of these:
Australian Boothby's Simon Carne predates both Lupin and Raffles, is a master of disguise, and steals from London's elite and then makes boobs of them when he pretends to be a cop investigating the thefts, aided by his loyal butler Belton.
Most of the characters mentioned in this post are collected in this book:
Nigel Strangeways, gentleman detective, but not a thief, is aboard ship and encounters trouble on the high seas!
First published in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1914, a very early scholarly examination of crime fiction.
Questions/Comments/Cultured Gentlemen Burglars? firstname.lastname@example.org