Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung.

Here's a fun book - The Amateur Cracksman, or as it is also known, Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman. It's the first of the 'Raffles' series by Ernest William Horung (published in 1899) - others include The Black Mask (1901), A Thief in the Night (1905), and Mr. Justice Raffles (1909). With the exception of Mr. Justice Raffles, they are a collection of short stories, about twenty-one I believe. The first one has this dedication:
A.C.D. - his brother-in-law Mr. Arthur Conan Doyle, who is, of course, the author of the Sherlock Holmes books. In those, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson solve crimes. In The Amateur Cracksman and subsequent books, Arthur J, Raffles and Harry "Bunny" Manders cause them; that is to say, they are the criminals who, no doubt, Holmes and Watson would be tracking.

There are nine stories in this first volume: 
  • The Ides of March
  • A Costume Piece
  • Gentlemen and Players
  • Le Premier Pas
  • Wilful Murder
  • Nine Points of the Law
  • The Return Match
  • The Gift of the Emperor
The premise, characters, setting and whatnot are laid out in the first story, 'The Ides of March'. Bunny arrives in Raffles' London apartment in a state of panic and desperation:
It was half-past twelve when I returned to the Albany as a last desperate resort. The scene of my disaster was much as I had left it. The baccarat-counters still strewed the table, with the empty glasses and the loaded ash-trays. A window had been opened to let the smoke out, and was letting in the fog instead. Raffles himself had merely discarded his dining jacket for one of his innumerable blazers. Yet he arched his eyebrows as though I had dragged him from his bed.

"Forgotten something?" said he, when he saw me on his mat. 
"No," said I, pushing past him without ceremony. And I led the way into his room with an impudence amazing to myself. 
"Not come back for your revenge, have you? Because I'm afraid I can't give it to you single-handed. I was sorry myself that the others—" 
We were face to face by his fireside, and I cut him short. 
"Raffles," said I, "you may well be surprised at my coming back in this way and at this hour. I hardly know you. I was never in your rooms before to-night. But I fagged for you at school, and you said you remembered me. Of course that's no excuse; but will you listen to me—for two minutes?" 
In my emotion I had at first to struggle for every word; but his face reassured me as I went on, and I was not mistaken in its expression. 
"Certainly, my dear man," said he; "as many minutes as you like. Have a Sullivan and sit down." And he handed me his silver cigarette-case. 
"No," said I, finding a full voice as I shook my head; "no, I won't smoke, and I won't sit down, thank you. Nor will you ask me to do either when you've heard what I have to say." 
"Really?" said he, lighting his own cigarette with one clear blue eye upon me. "How do you know?" 
"Because you'll probably show me the door," I cried bitterly; "and you will be justified in doing it! But it's no use beating about the bush. You know I dropped over two hundred just now?" 
He nodded. 
"I hadn't the money in my pocket." 
"I remember." 
"But I had my cheque book, and I wrote each of you a cheque at that desk." 
"Not one of them was worth the paper it was written on, Raffles. I am overdrawn already at my bank!" 
"Surely only for the moment?" 
"No. I have spent everything."
In this it is all revealed - A. J. Raffles (likely to be modelled on George Cecil Ives, a cricketer and criminologist, also an early gay rights campaigner) is not quite the chap Bunny thought. This master cricketer, who plays for the Gentlemen of England, is also an expert burglar. Poor Bunny finds out, as his bad luck would have it, in the middle of a heist:
"A burglar!" I gasped. "You—you!"  
 "I told you I lived by my wits." 
But they stick together, and on that day, the 15th March, they "joined felonious forces". In this volume we see them rob a jewellery shop, another attempt to steal diamonds, and their first encounter with Inspector MacKenzie of Scotland Yard, as well as a retrospective chapter on Raffles' first crime (among other stories). It is fantastically gripping and great fun, and somehow the two are, perhaps not sympathetic characters, but they're certainly not hateful. On one crime Hornung writes,
"It seems rather a vulgar sort of theft," I could not help saying; and to this, my single protest, Raffles instantly assented.  
"It is a vulgar sort," said he; "but I can't help that. We're getting vulgarly hard up again, and there's an end on 't. Besides, these people deserve it, and can afford it..."
Does anyone deserve to have their diamonds robbed? I wouldn't like to say, but I did very much enjoy The Amateur Cracksman. As for Arthur Conan Doyle, I think he did too, praising Hornung's "fine artistic sense, and a remarkable power of vivid narrative... one could not find any better example of clever plot and terse admirable narrative". But, he did add the stories were "rather dangerous in their suggestion. I told him so before he put pen to paper, and the result has, I fear, borne me out. You must not make the criminal a hero".

Yet that is exactly what Raffles is - a criminal hero. I think arguing over the morality of it isn't really necessary. They're simply fun yarns that pass the time most happily. I'm looking forward to reading more of Raffles and his sidekick Bunny. And, on a side note, Raffles also inspired Viz magazine's Raffles the Gentleman Thug. I do like Viz, so here's a link to the comic strips. If you're not terribly keen on strong language do not click :)

From Viz.

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