13. A collection of short stories: Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung
List Progress: 21/30
It’s been a while since I have read a collection of short stories all by the same author, even longer since I’ve read one all concerning the same characters. The characters of A.J. Raffles, a gentleman thief, and his assistant Bunny Manders are mainstays of classic British literature. This is partly because of the work itself and partly because of the context surrounding it: the author, E.W. Hornung, was brother-in-law to one Arthur Conan Doyle and the dynamic of Raffles and Bunny is a deliberate play off of Doyle’s famous characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. There is something very delightful in reading a classic near-parody from inside someone’s own family, but thankfully the Raffles stories stand on their own. For the most part.
Some spoilers for the stories ahead.
The collection I read, Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman, is actually a compilation of the first two published collections of Raffles stories, The Amateur Cracksman and The Black Mask, published in 1899 and 1901 respectively. These contain the first 16 stories written by Hornung, and chronologically stretch from the character’s first crime as a pair in the first story to Raffles’ death in the final story. Later stories and one novel exist as sorts of mid-quels, slotting in between and around these sixteen. It feels important to note that most of the later stories fit around the first eight stories, largely considered the “classic” Raffles stories. Because therein lies the danger in parodying too closely to the target material.
The first eight stories follow a pretty standard, but very fun, dynamic, with Raffles and Bunny living as respectable gentlemen but working as thieves by night. However, at the end of the eighth story, “The Gift of the Emperor”, they are both caught by the police onboard a ship, Bunny is arrested, and Raffles escapes into the sea but is presumed dead. This is a clear reference to Sherlock Holmes’ death in the Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Final Problem”. But while the lawful Holmes could be resurrected and returned to his normal format easily, a revealed Raffles could never exist in the same way he did before, even after dramatically returning. With him putting on a fake personality and Bunny carrying the weight of living as an ex-con, the later stories can never be the same, and that narrative discomfort is felt for a while. Lacking the daring adventures and flashy fun of the first stories, the back half of this collection can be a slog to get through at points. Sometimes you just can’t mess with a good thing.
Aside from larger narrative concerns, a lot of people have issues with the characters of A.J. Raffles and Harry “Bunny” Manders, but this was actually an aspect of the stories that I enjoyed a great deal. Raffles is a terrible person, barely disguising deep disrespect and manipulation under charm, and Bunny knows he is being abused but goes along with it anyway because of a massive inferiority complex and a deep love for Raffles. It is a very unhealthy dynamic from every angle, but a fun one to read, and Bunny’s first-person narration contains a lot of flavor and personality that I personally have never felt from Dr. Watson. (One could also write a full paper on queer readings of these stories, as some of Bunny’s motivations genuinely don’t make sense if he is not in love with Raffles. It is my reading that Raffles knows this and deliberately takes advantage of it.) Many consider this a bug, but I very much find it a feature.
Raffles is an antihero thief who manipulates and takes advantage of his devoted sidekick in order to steal from his peers in ostentatious ways. If that summary appeals to you, I would say definitely give the stories a shot, but if the inherent premise is not a draw, there won’t be much more past that to entice a reader. Give Raffles a read if you’re intrigued or curious, but you can afford to miss this one.
Would I Recommend It: A soft yes.