Cricket, Crime, Decadence, and the Gentleman Thief

Ernest William Hornung had rather a large shadow with which to contend as part of his chosen profession as a write of crime fiction. His brother-in-law was Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, a character that struck such a chord with society that it reverberates to this day. Hornung, known as Willie to his friends and family and as E.W. to the rest of the world, was reportedly an enthusiastic but untalented cricket player plagued in his youth by persistent ill health. His family sent him from England to Australia in hopes that the warmer, drier climate would fortify his dubious constitution. The health benefits of working in an isolated corner of the Outback remain up for debate, but what Hornung did discover out there among the sheep and desert was a talent for writing. After all, there was precious little else to do. He began contributing articles to a weekly magazine and, upon his return to England in 1886, pursued a career as a journalist at a time when the top story was a series of murders in the Whitechapel district of London perpetrated by a shadowy killer known as Jack the Ripper. Cutting his journalistic teeth amid this gruesome, sensational time instilled in young Hornung an interest in criminal psychology.

In 1890, his first novel, A Bride from the Bush, was serialized in Cornhill Magazine and met with considerable critical and popular success. In 1891, he joined a cricket club called The Idlers, among whose members was Arthur Conan Doyle, an esteemed author whose had skyrocketed to fame a few years earlier, in 1887, with the publication of A Study in Scarlet, the first story to feature his enduring creations, consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his trusted assistant Dr. John Watson. In Doyle, Hornung found a kindred spirit interested in the workings of the criminal mind. He also found Doyle’s sister, Constance Aimée Monica Doyle. Hornung wrote several more novels, each of them inspired by his time in Australia and one of which, 1896’s The Rogue’s March, was the first to integrate his growing interest in crime and criminals. Unlike his soon-to-be brother-in-law, Hornung was more interested in and more sympathetic to the criminals rather than the detectives. He followed that thread in 1898, writing the first of the short stories that would come to define his legacy and introduce a character that, if not quite as beloved as Sherlock Holmes, was never the less a much admired contribution to the canon of British detective fiction: A.J. Raffles, the wellspring from which the concept of the “gentleman thief” sprung.

Raffles and his faithful “Watson” Bunny Manders debuted in the short story “The Chains of Crime,” published in June of 1898 under the new title “The Ides of March.” If there was any suspicion that Hornung would follow in the footsteps of his famous brother-in-law, they were quickly put to rest. Raffles and Bunny were no Holmes and Watson. One gets the impression that Raffles would have been more at home in the company of smirking society cads like P.J. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster than he would have the more serious Sherlock Holmes. Raffles was reportedly based on both George Cecil Ives, a criminologist and avid cricketer who in real life shares the same address as Raffles, and poet and writer Oscar Wilde, with whom Hornung was friends, and Wilde’s companion, Lord Alfred Douglas. This last influence lends an added dynamic to the relationship between Raffles and Bunny, though initially there’s not much in the way of homoerotic subtext beyond this. Well, unless you count the gushing praise Bunny heaps on Raffles’ skill at cricket. Homoerotic undertones would mount, however, as the series progressed, culminating in a story set aboard and steamer and in which Bunny achieves an almost camp level of jealousy when Raffles entertains the attentions of a young woman. It’s notable that Raffles exists in a world almost totally devoid of women (except as potential victims). He lives in an all-male boarding house, is a member of all-male social clubs, plays on an all-male cricket team, and associates almost entirely with men. His only relationship of any significance is Bunny, whose playful schoolboy nickname also “feminizes” him and renders Bunny, in a way, the abused girlfriend of the duo.

Hornung cranked out six more Raffles story in quick succession, and each one proved a tremendous hit. They were compiled into an omnibus series called The Amateur Cracksman, released in 1899. “The Ides of March” is a short, sweet, to-the-point story that wastes no time plunging the reader into the world of Raffles and Bunny, his eventual closest friend and accomplice as well as the character from whose point of view, the stories are told. The story begins with a luckless bunny suffering after an unlucky night of gambling has left him indebted to many people, none of whom he is able to pay. Short of suicide, the only solution Bunny can dream up is to throw himself at the mercy of A.J. Raffles, an old chum from school who Bunny has not seen for years but got along with well enough back when they were a couple of lads. Bunny expects that showing up out of the blue, hat in hand, will not engender much help from Raffles, but to Bunny’s surprise, Raffles is enthusiastic about helping. There is, however, one problem: Raffles is as broke as Bunny. Before depression and suicide can set in, however, Raffles pitches Bunny a solution that will take care of both of their financial straits. All they need to do is visit a casual acquaintance of Raffles, a jeweler who might not be home when they call on him at 2 A.M., and who might not actually know Raffles, and who might have a series of security measures Raffles will have to crack.

It’s short and no-nonsense and relatively straightforward, but “The Ides of March” is also deceptively simple. Hornung’s prose is direct and journalistic, but it’s sneakily effective at drawing you, like Bunny, into the strange world of the enthusiastic and at times overbearing (though he always apologizes) star cricketer and amateur cat burglar. There’s a breezy collegiate atmosphere about the story, a spring in its step that makes a pretty sparse story a good deal of fun. Hornung’s second Raffles story, “A Costume Piece,” picks up shortly after the events of the first, with Raffles and Bunny living a life of relative luxury off the ill-gotten proceeds of their previous burglary. Although Bunny is happy to chalk up their illegal escapade as a one-time deal meant to rescue them both from a difficult situation, Raffles is anxious to get on with a new bit of rapscallionry — but of course with only the noblest of intentions.

While attending a party, Raffles was subjected to the endless bragging of a coarse lout shoving his magnificent diamonds in everyone’s face while waving around a gun. Offended as a gentleman and burgeoning thief, Raffles thinks he and Bunny have a moral obligation to put this disgusting jack-ass in his place by stealing his precious diamonds. Bunny, though less enthused about returning to a life of crime, goes along regardless. “A Costume Piece” introduces another aspect of Raffles illicit career apart from his nimble fingers. He is revealed, when casing diamond owner Rosenthal’s mansion, to also be a master of disguise with a secret hideout (granted, it’s just a studio apartment he rents under the guise of being a struggling artist). Once again, the story is short and to the point, more of a comedy of errors this time than the last, as the well-armed Rosenthal and his brutish enforcer Purvis the pugilist provide a substantially greater challenge to Raffles than an empty jewelry store. It reminds you over the course of its action that Raffles is, after all, and amateur cracksman.

An Enemy of High Society

In “Gentlemen and Players,” Raffles leans on his renown as a cricketer to gain access to a high society party, and in doing so introduces yet another dimension to the stories. Raffles and Bunny are reluctant criminals (well, Bunny is; Raffles pays lip service to reluctance, but the fact that his first solution for any problem is, to paraphrase Repo Man, to “go do some crimes,” it seems unlikely he’s doing much soul searching at night) because they’ve found themselves part of a society they can’t afford to be part of. So they must turn to brigandry to survive, as they’ve been educated in a way that eliminates considering that they might just step away and pursue more modest lives. But Raffles hold on high society is tenuous, built upon his fame as a sportsman, and he is aware of the fact that he is, in the end, a pretender, that it is just another one of his disguises, that he is, as Raffles later says he and Bunny, “were in Society but not of it.” Class as motivation is nowhere more apparent than it is in “Gentlemen and Players,” when Raffles states bluntly that it’s OK to rob Lord and Lady Amersteth because the nobleman treats Raffles like a servant to be summoned to perform for the betters in society, and because the Amersteths “can afford it.” As with the boorish lout Rosenthal in the previous story, Raffles feels honorbound to “punish” the crass, bragging, condescending rich.

Criticizing the class structure of late Victorian England, not to mention making his leads a couple of criminals, didn’t enamor E.W. Hornung to critics. Even his own brother-in-law, Arthur Conan Doyle, expressed misgivings about glorifying crime and antisocial behavior. “I think there are few finer examples of short-story writing in our language than these,” Doyle once wrote, “though I confess I think they are 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.” Ironically, one would be hard-pressed to find a series of stories as squeaky clean as Raffles. As George Orwell observed in his essay “Raffles and Miss Blanding,” And though the stories are convincing in their physical detail, they contain very little sensationalism — very few corpses, hardly any blood, no sex crimes, no sadism, no perversions of any kind.” Readers disagreed in large numbers with Doyle and other critics, turning Raffles into the second-most popular character in British crime fiction — after Sherlock Holmes, of course — and, like Holmes, inspiring dozens of similar stories and characters, some of whom would take that criminal streak to much greater extremes.

“Gentlemen and Players” also brings into sharper focus Raffles’ narcissism. In the opening of the story, Bunny marvels that Raffles is such an accomplished cricketer but has no interest at all in the sport of cricket. He doesn’t keep track of teams and doesn’t show any interest at all in the game unless he’s playing in it. Additionally, this marks the third time Raffles has pressured poor, loyal Bunny into a crime when he knows full well the other man is uncomfortable with such endeavors. It is the first and most notable crack in the cracksman’s otherwise polished veneer. There begins to emerge a slightly darker streak in Raffles than was made overt in the first two stories. Even when Bunny takes a stand and calls burgling from people who have invited you over “vulgar,” Raffles persists, knowing that in the end, Bunny will always follow his lead, no matter what nefarious scheme it entails. In the case of this particular crime, Raffles and Bunny are once again put to a more difficult test than they expected, when a couple of professional thieves from London show up with the same crime in mind and bring with them a Scotland Yard inspector by the name of Mackenzie, who has been tailing them in hopes of busting up the ring. With professional cops and crooks on the scene, and with Lord Amersteth alert to the danger his valuables are in, what chance do a couple of amateurs have?

The next two stories, “Le Premier Pas” and “Wilful Murder,” continue a trend that emerges as one progresses through the stories: the increasingly darker, more sinister character of A.J. Raffles. “Le Premier Pas,” being something of an origin story, finds Raffles recounting to Bunny the story of how he came to indulge this secret life of crime. It’s hardly flattering, with Raffles brazenly justifying a bank robbery to cover a debt incurred as a result of his own irresponsibility. He even, upon discovering a possible distant relative, capitalizes upon the relative’s apparent murder by highwaymen — which upsets Raffles’ initial plan to somehow ingratiate himself to the other Raffles and bilk him for some cash. At no point does Raffles feel particularly remorseful, the death of this man being nothing more than at first an inconvenience, and then later an opportunity. Nor does Raffles feel the least bit guilty for robbing the bank or for conning the men in charge, who prove themselves to be friendly and accommodating. “Wilful Murder” takes this dark streak a step further, as Raffles, afraid that his identity has been discovered by the local fence who will blackmail him, casually but seriously tells Bunny it’s time to graduate from burglary to murder. Bunny is aghast but, as always, goes along with the domineering Raffles, who sees no problem with murdering the fence since the guy is a bit of a jerk anyway.

Although Raffles never descends into the realm of outright villainy a la Moriarty, Arthur Conan Doyle’s foil for Sherlock Holmes, or later antiheroes such as Fantômas, it is nevertheless a jarring shift from a bit of playful fun perpetrated by a couple of lads to something more sinister. Each step further into the shadows is easy for Raffles to justify, and while Bunny is frequently hesitant, he always acquiesces in the end. Raffles only real sense of regret in pressuring Bunny comes not from some internal moral conflict, but simply because he’s afraid Bunny might fold under pressure — though he is always careful to express this doubt in a way that encourages rather than insults Bunny. In “The Return Match,” Bunny mentions Raffles’ “little laugh of light-hearted mastery” and describes the cracksman’s powers of influence by stating, “there was never anybody in the world so irresistible as Raffles when his mind was made up.” Although never described in menacing terms, Raffles’ powers of persuasion place alongside some of the more threatening criminals that would follow in his wake, most notably the German criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse.

Raffles the Decadent

Raffles may be charming and likable, but he wields those attributes as weapons. In this regard, he is less like his inspiration Sherlock Holmes and more like the sort of anti-hero one would find in the fin-de-siecle writing of the Decadence movement — probably no accident, given Hornung’s friendship with Oscar Wilde. The literary movement of Decadence arose in in Paris during the 1870s and came into full fruition in the 1880s and 1890s. The era preceding the turn of the century was one of great change that produced a “petty bourgeois” that the Decadents would claim represented the death of society — a sentiment expressed many times by A.J. Raffles. Direct descendants of the dandy Charles Baudelaire, who can be grouped among the men he inspired, the Decadents cultivated a sarcastic disdain for the vulgar commercialism and mundane mainstream they felt had consumed society. They stood in stark defiance of a wave of mass capitalism they felt drained the world of meaning and, in the world of art, sacrificed creativity in favor of “content.” In opposition of this shift in society toward the mass-produced and mass-consumed, the Decadents decided to explore the aspects of human appetite deemed taboo, immoral, and transgressive. Drugs, mysticism and the occult, madness, and of course a whole range of unwholesome sexual experiences were the obsessions of the Decadents, who often set their stories in similarly disreputable locations: brothels, drug dens, shabby hotels, crumbling estates. Even Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t entirely escape the influence of Decadence, however much a paragon of law and order he might have thought Sherlock Holmes to be. Holmes’ cocaine habit, though less scandalous then than it is now, nevertheless places the detective in the realm of a minor decadent dabbling in drugs. But it is why Holmes shot up that makes him more of a decadent. Holmes was too smart, too quick-brained, to find much to engage him in the mundane world. This is something that would be played up in subsequent iterations of the character, most notably the BBC series Sherlock which debuted in 2010, in which Holmes, like any good decadent, is portrayed as finding the world and people around him almost entirely insufferable.

Raffles might not have dabbled in the Occult, and his relationship with Bunny might only hint at homosexuality (and then, primarily, on the part of Bunny, who fawns over Raffles’ prowess and seems a slave to the man’s will). But in pursuing a life of crime while still being the hero of the stories, Raffles definitely fulfills the Decadent requirement of tweaking one’s nose at the acceptable. In “The Return Match,” Raffles expounds about his admiration for a professional criminal who escapes from prison. Devoid of any moral judgment regarding the criminal’s misdeeds, Raffles perceives it as nothing more than a sporting flight and well-earned middle finger flashed in the direction of authority and polite society. When the two meet, there’s a spirit of comradeship between them that Raffles shares with no one else, not even Bunny — at least until Raffles starts talking down to the guy. Raffles may have it in for polite society, but he’s also not above declaring himself the better of the working-class man. And the working-class thief, Crawshay (the very same thief they matched wits with in “Gentlemen and Players”), naturally appreciates Raffles’ tough snobbery and is further endeared to the junior criminal. And in at least one regard, Raffles is correct. As a member of society, even if only because as a sportsman he is a dancing monkey for them, Raffles is afforded access, freedom of movement, and a lack of suspicion the more rough-hewn Crawshay will never enjoy.

In the same story, Raffles reveals to Bunny that he plans most of his crimes while sitting in a church. So, perhaps he doesn’t kiss the arse of the Devil and swear his soul to the Occult, but surely that counts as at least a mild desecration of a sacred Christian institution.

Along with a rejection of mainstream taboo and a propensity for wallowing in the perversion polite society sought to condemn (but often secretly lusted for), the Decadents maintained that progress was an illusion, that man was as miserable as ever and all progress had really done was make everything more boring. They called it “the banalization of the sacred mysteries.” Few things embodied this new progress, this age of Thomas Edison and department stores, quite like Emile Zola’s Naturalism, an artistic movement many Decadents considered anathema. They practiced experimental writing styles to contrast what they regarded as the soulless “reportage” style championed by Naturalism. It was “literature of exhaustion,” written by authors and populated by characters who were physically and mentally exhausted by popular culture. Who were, quite simply, bored by what society deemed appropriate and so sought “nouveau frissions,” novel shudders. Thrills from the profane and the taboo. They also celebrated artifice, which makes sense given the close ties between Decadence and dandyism.

Often suffering from some malady either real or imagined (hypochondria was practically de rigueur for the aspiring Decadent, and Raffles at the very least suffers from narcissism and a persecution complex), both authors and characters indulged cerebral and sensual thrills. It’s no coincidence that the rise of these inward-looking men — and they were almost almost always men — corresponded to the time of Freud and the ascension of psychoanalysis and the psychological sciences. And it’s no wonder, given the preoccupation so often shown in the Decadent canon with madness, perversion, and grotesquerie, that Decadence would come to have a substantial influence on horror, both during the era of German expressionism and the development of French fantastique (to say nothing of sleazy Eurocult films from the 1970s, which were often based on the works of Decadent writers). It’s also no mystery how Edgar Allan Poe, who lived in a country where the Decadent movement never gained much purchase, found himself admired by so many writers of the Decadent school. The character of Roderick Usher in Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher is a model of the Decadent dandy with his isolation, his hatred of loud noises and crass crowds, his mental instability, and his fabulous dressing gowns.

Decadence found dedicated acolytes outside of Paris primarily in Russia and Britain, though in each case Decadence was tweaked and tailored to fit the predilections of different national identities. Italy gave rise to one of the most acclaimed and infamous of all Decadents, Gabriele D’Annunzio, who among other things amassed his own private army and seized a small Italian town, which he then declared an independent nation. In later Raffles stories, the cricketer criminal is revealed to also possess a deep patriotic streak when he enlists in the army and goes off to fight in the Boer War. Patriotism, like Raffles’ physical fitness, may not necessarily be in keeping with the Decadent attitude that otherwise motivates him. On the other hand, D’Annunzio was a patriot and a soldier himself, and Poe was rather a strapping chap, so it’s not entirely unheard of. One can also question the purity of Raffles’ patriotic action as something perhaps less inspired by allegiance to King and Country and having more to do with a sense that Raffles should punish himself for his transgressions, that he deserves to suffer for his sins even as he continues to indulge them. But before he could seek redemption, Raffles first had to die.

Death and Rebirth

Hornung’s first collection of short stories is wrapped up with “Nine Points of the Law,” “The Return Match,” and “The Gift of the Emperor,” the final one presenting Raffles with his own personal Reichenbach Falls. “Nine Points of the Law” is a return to the breezier, comedic capers that came before “Wilful Murder.” Raffles and Bunny are hired to steal a priceless painting from a boorish lout who himself acquired it through suspicious means. True to form, the mark is an obnoxious member of high society for whom money can’t buy taste, and Raffles thinks it his duty to put such men in their place. Alas, it’s another comedy of errors as well, proving once again that, for all their daring and their complex planning, Raffles and Bunny aren’t actually a very good team. It’s also yet another example of Raffles endlessly criticizing Bunny while seeming to compliment the ever-faithful buffoon. Far from seeking to subtly undermine Bunny’s self-confidence, however, it would seem that Raffles considers his backhanded comments to be genuinely inspiring. If Raffles was a boyfriend or husband (homosexual or hetero), he would be the kind who doles out “compliments” along the lines of “By jove but you’re attractive for someone of your weight.”

The last story, “The Gift of the Emperor,” is to A.J. Raffles what “The Final Problem” was to Sherlock Holmes. Doyle, famously tired of writing Holmes stories, decided to kill the famous detective in one final story. Locked in mortal combat with his long-time nemesis Moriarty, both men plummet over a waterfall to their apparent deaths. For Doyle, it was a celebrated send-off for his creation, a blaze-of-glory duel to the death in which Holmes sacrifices himself while ridding the world of the single most diabolical criminal mind it had ever produced. Readers, however, were not as enthusiastic about putting Holmes in a watery grave as was Arthur Conan Doyle. Even his own mother was against the idea when, in 1891, Doyle wrote to her and confessed, “I think of slaying Holmes, … and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.” His mother replied, “You won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!” But he did, in December of 1893. And most of the world sided with Doyle’s mother. In 1901, Doyle finally submitted to near-constant public pressure, writing one of the most famous Holmes adventures, The Hound of the Baskervilles, set before the events of “The Final Problem.” In 1903, he published “The Adventure of the Empty House,” a Sherlock Holmes short story that bend to the will of the public even further, confirming that Holmes had craftily and narrowly avoided death and was back in action. All totaled, after his death Sherlock Holmes went on to another 56 short stories and four more novels, all by Doyle. The final story was published in 1927. Doyle died in 1930. But even the death of his creator could not stop Sherlock Holmes, who continued to live on in film, television, stage plays, and literature.

Death knell though it may have appeared to be, there was little in “The Gift of the Emperor” of melancholy or world-weariness or the sense of impending apocalypse that infused Holmes’ final act (until his next act). Most of “The Gift of the Emperor” has an air of camp absurdity about it as Raffles contrives to rob a cartoonish German military courier while Bunny jealously fumes over the fact that part of Raffles’ hopelessly convoluted scheme involves flirting with a pretty young woman. This is the first story in which a woman other than a batty old society dowager has played a role in their lives, and Bunny is not the least bit happy about it. He pouts constantly about the fact that Raffles is spending all his time with her and not paying enough attention to him. He undercuts and insults her at every opportunity, commenting cattily on everything from her clothes to her intellect to her voice. It is the most overt evidence so far that Bunny harbors an unrequited love for Raffles. Raffles, for his part, picks up on it and spends most of his time teasing Bunny and twisting the knife. The situation also introduces one of the more dreadful traits common in writing of the Decadence period: misogyny.

Though they did not create the femme fatale, the Decadents certainly perfected the modern version of it, which would manifest in cinema as the “vamp,” the maneater, the woman who through her sexual desires and allure brings a man to destruction, often knowingly and with considerable relish. In the fin de siecle writing of the Decadents, one finds the same fear of the “New Woman” as would surface in the vamps of the silent film era. The source of this distaste and, at times, outright vitriol aimed at women differs from author to author. For some, it came from bitter and disastrous romantic relationships and marriages. For others, it was simply the age-old reaction to a previously oppressed group suddenly getting (or at least demanding) access to the liberties and opportunities previously afforded only to an elite. Literature is replete with examples of men blaming their own weaknesses and shortcomings on women. “She tempted me. She ridiculed me. She did not give me what I feel I am owed, and so she deserves my abuse and hate.” At no point does the man consider the fault may be his own or that the woman doesn’t owe him anything. Perhaps ironically, the most memorable femme fatale of the silent cinema era, Louise Brooks’ Lulu in Pandora’s Box, is a subversion of the very thing she is superficially meant to be and the film examines the male tendency to endlessly demand things from a woman while blaming that same woman every time something goes wrong or she attempts to live with the same liberty they themselves enjoy.

Although by no means excusable (and definitely not easy to ignore), this abominable portrayal of women in many of the key decadent texts contains a complexity beyond the simple rejection of the female and enshrinement of male privilege. Just as there was a “male gaze,” so too was there a “dandy gaze,” and the dandy gaze tended to regard everything with a cold, detached contempt. And ultimately, the greater criticism isn’t aimed at women so much as it is at the banality of domestic monogamous life. Unfairly, women are identified as the source of this dreary domesticity, either because they demand it or because they demand it but hypocritically want to reject it at the same time. Which is why not all women in Decadent writing are treated with the same contempt as “bourgeois breeders.” Women who have embraced the same counter-culture, the same perversions and philosophies as the Decadents generally fare better. Women with “careers of vice — prostitutes, polymorphs, nymphomaniacs, androgynes, hermaphrodites…” find themselves regarded more favorably. And these types serve as practically a blueprint for the underground culture in the city that became the embodiment of Decadence, even more so than Paris: Weimar-era Berlin.

With women blamed for heartbreak and/or the tedium of marriage and children, it’s hardly a shock to learn that Decadence was, by and large, a boys’ club, even if those boys were prone to clasp a lavender-scented handkerchief between pale, slender fingers trembling with frailty. The rare exception to this “no girls allowed” mentality was a woman named Marguerite Vallette-Eymery, better known by the pen name Rachilde. Although she wrote Decadent more than lived it (she was, in reality, married to a publisher and lived a reportedly normal, quiet life), when she wrote she made waves. Novels like Nono, La Marquise de Sade, and The Juggler explore in frank nature things like lesbianism, cross-dressing, dominance, and polyamory. Rachilde, sort of a proto-Colette or Anais Nin and dubbed “Mademoiselle Baudelaire” by Maurice Barres and “a distinguished pornographer” by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, affords one the opportunity to re-examine the feminine as presented in Decadent writing. Or, at the very least, it allows a reader a break from all the male-dominated woman-bashing. Like the author known as Colette would later to, Rachilde celebrates female perversity with the same gusto as her male counterparts were doing for themselves. Prostitutes and cross-dressers and lesbians and adulteresses were not, in her hands, tragic figures to be pitied or redeemed. They were women to be celebrated, reclaiming female sexuality and wielding it for her own enjoyment rather than as something to satisfy or alienate a man.

Few people indulged the Decadent preference for the lurid and grotesque quite as boldly as Rachilde, but she was not at all alone in probing and embracing these dark avenues. Catulle Mendès’ Zo’har was a tale of incest featuring a virile woman and an impotent man, and his Mephistophela indulges a wide range of taboos, including lesbian incest and drugs. Jean Lorrain was friends with Oscar Wilde and introduced the British writer to Decadence (which he embraced enthusiastically), challenged Marcel Proust to a duel (Lorraine was openly gay and accused Proust of being in the closet), and garnered personal infamy with works like Sonyeuse, Buveurs d’ames, and the book for which he is best known, Monsieur de Phocas. French Decadence produced a number of writers who garnered acclaim along with condemnation, but two works stand above all others as the twin pillars of French Decadence: Baudelaire’s Fleur du Mal (Flowers of Evil), published in 1857, and Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À rebours (Against Nature), published in 1884. Another of Huysmans’ novels, La Bas, delves into Satanism (Huysmans would, later in life, renounce his Decadence and convert to devout Catholicism).

The Gentleman Thief At Large

A.J. Raffles was not as popular as Sherlock Holmes, but he was a respectable second. And so, apparently hoping for better luck than his brother-in-law when pulling the same stunt, E.W. Hornung concluded The Amateur Cracksman by sending Raffles plunging to a watery death, though in the case of Raffles, ever the gentleman, it was a graceful swan dive off the deck of a lovely cruise ship. Granted a glorious and thoroughly sportsmanlike exit from this mortal coil, Raffles leaves poor Bunny in his wake. The duo have been exposed. They are at long last found out and branded as criminals, never again to be entertained by the polite society upon which they had clandestinely preyed for so long. But where Raffles meets his doom with a wink and a leap, Bunny is hauled off in irons, a common thief bound for a very long stint in prison. Ironically, the book that began with Raffles saving Bunny by preventing his suicide ends with Raffles dooming Bunny by committing his own suicide. It’s a perfectly inconsiderate and unfair turn of events, and perfectly in keeping with how Raffles has heedless manipulated and used Bunny throughout all the previous stories. It’s certainly a more apocalyptic ending for the dumb sap than John Watson, who being on the right side of the law, got along just fine after Sherlock’s death. For critics who had lambasted Hornung for glamorizing crime, there must have been some satisfaction in seeing that, finally, crime does not pay. That is, there would have been if A.J. Raffles had stayed dead. In 1901, the same year Arthur Conan Doyle gave up and wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles, Hornung published The Black Mask, a second collection of Raffles stories that, to the surprise of no one but Bunny Manders, reveals Raffles to be alive if not exactly well.

The tone of the stories in The Black Mask is considerably darker than those in The Amateur Cracksman. Even when Raffles was plotting a “wilful murder,” there was a spirit of consequence-free adventure to the stories. Not so for the second go-round. Bunny is a disgraced ex-con stitching together a hardscrabble life as an unsuccessful poet and occasional essayist on the need for prison reform — something he knows about first-hand after cooling his heels in jail as part of the fallout from “The Gift of the Emperor.” He has little money and no friends and leaps at the opportunity to better his station ever so slightly when a benevolent relative takes pity on him and hooks him up with a job opportunity. It’s a position far below the honor of a gentleman, but Bunny is no longer a gentleman and is running low on honor. After a stormy interview, he agrees to become a nurse for a cantankerous old eccentric. Obviously, that eccentric turns out to be A.J. Raffles in disguise — though not so much in disguise as he or Bunny would hope. Whatever happened to Raffles after his exit from the boat has left him partially broken, psychologically haunted, and physically diminished, including prematurely white hair. Although his “on death’s door” act as an old invalid is an exaggeration, Raffles is nevertheless not an entirely well man.

No sooner are Bunny and Raffles reunited than they are back up to their old tricks, and with about the same rate of success. Which is to say, not very much. They can’t call themselves amateur thieves anymore; it’s their only profession at this point, and they’ve been at it a good long while. But they don’t seem very good at it. Raffles still bungles most of the jobs, and Bunny still seems as dense as a brick — something Raffles points out, lovingly, at every opportunity. What’s more, Raffles shows absolutely no remorse at having left his supposed best friend in the lurch and shows no interest in Bunny’s time in prison or his exile from society. When Raffles finally comes around to telling Bunny the tale of what happened after he jumped off the ship, it’s full of fairytale romance and tragedy on the overblown scale of a Puccini opera, the sort of grand adventure some men only dream about but is presented to Bunny as a tale to make Bunny happy he only went to prison and found himself ground under the bootheel of a disgusted London society. Raffles time away does have one significant negative consequence, however. Raffles, it would seem, manages during his odyssey to get on the vendetta end of the Camorra, Naples’ version of the Sicilian Mafia.

The stories in The Black Mask are richer, more complex, and generally more satisfying than those in the first volume. The stakes are higher, the fun and games a thing of the past. Raffles ability to justify murder, or worm his way out of feeling responsible for deaths, advances even further, and the two chums move through London under a perpetual cloud of hunger and paranoia, forever wary that the police might get on to them or the Camorra might track them down. The collection wraps with “The Knees of the Gods,” in which Raffles and Bunny, bored stiff and cooling their heels in a London suburb, are swept up in a wave of patriotism and enlist to fight in the Boer War. Their adventure in South Africa is harrowing, and by the end of things Bunny is left with a permanent limp and a decidedly unromantic opinion regarding the nobility of war wounds. Raffles, however, fares worse, his past having caught up to him once again and his only course of action, as he sees it, being a heroic, suicidal permanent exit from the stage.

A third collection of Raffles stories, A Thief in the Night, was published in 1904 despite the fact that, once again, Raffles died in “The Knees of the Gods,” the final story in The Black Mask. Hornung wrote one more Raffles adventure, the novel Mr. Justice Raffles, in 1909, but by then critics, readers, and even Hornung himself admitted that there was no longer any sport in the game. Hornung passed away in March of 1921, having lived long enough to see his most enduring creation brought to life in the new medium of motion pictures. Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman was released in 1917. Raffles may be a narcissist. He might be passively-aggressively abusive toward his friend Bunny. And he and Bunny are, for the most part, actually pretty bad at stealing things. But the stories in this first collection are a great deal of fun, each one short enough to read in less time than it takes to finish a snifter of brandy. It ably sets the standard for the coming deluge of gentlemen thieves, some of whom will seize on the light-hearted “What if Bertie Wooster was a cat burglar” breeziness of the stores (granted, P.G. Wodehouse didn’t write his first “Jeeves & Wooster” story until 1915) while others delved much deeper into the darker areas that were hinted at from time to time.

One thought on “Gentlemen and Players

  1. Interesting context! I’ve read the Raffles series several times and very much agree with your points that 1) Raffles is kind of a jerk to Bunny and 2) they aren’t actually any good at stealing. It’s frightfully exciting to see that someone else has actually read these books. Thank you for sharing!

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