Invisible Ink: No 215 - E W Hornung


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The Independent Culture

How secure and comfortable the Victorian middle classes seemed, playing cricket through summer, reading their papers beside the fire through the winter, safe in the knowledge that they were the decent, fair-minded rulers of the free world.

Ernest “Willie” Hornung was a poet and author born in Middlesbrough in 1866. He passed most of his life in England and France, but the two years’ experience he gained in Australia, where he went for his health, formed the backbone of much of his literary output, and as he frequently referred to his memories from that period, it must have been a happy time. He worked as a poet and journalist for The Times, and married Constance Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sister, which may partly explain his career-turn.

For Hornung created Raffles, the gentleman thief who, with his sidekick Bunny Manders, embarks on a series of illegal exploits on the fringes of civilised society, while Inspector McKenzie of the Yard stays close to his heels. Conan Doyle felt that Raffles was an inversion of Holmes, with Bunny playing Watson, and warned: “You must not make the criminal a hero.” But Hornung did exactly that.

Raffles was urbane, athletic, but usually indolent, a glamorous bow-tied dandy, very much a man of the late 19th century, who honours Queen Victoria and enlists to fight in the Boer War to make amends for a life of crime. He starred in around 26 short stories and one novel, Mr Justice Raffles, and so loses out to Holmes on aggregate, which may partly explain his lower popularity.

Raffles, “the finest slow bowler of his decade”, saves the impecunious Bunny’s life on their first outing, so Bunny remains his loyal friend, often coming to his rescue at the eleventh hour.

Unlike Holmes, Raffles develops a story arc through his tales. At the end of the first collection, after trying to steal a rare pearl, he winds up over the side of a German steamer swimming for his life while Bunny faces jail. In the second volume, now prematurely grey after his clash with the Camorra, he can only return to London in disguise, for fear of being recognised by the police and the chaps from his club. While exposing an enemy spy in the Boer War he takes a bullet and dies in a far more finite fashion than Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, so the third collection is filled with retroactive adventures.