Book of a Lifetime: Raffles, By EW Hornung

 

I see from the inscription in my Penguin paperback that it was bought on holiday in Ilfracombe, summer of 1976, so I must have been 12. Raffles was a joy to me then and, unlike other books of my youth, a joy still. The attraction of EW Hornung's character, who first appeared in 1899, was that he led not just a double but a triple life.

To the public eye AJ Raffles was a man about town, with rooms at the Albany, a reputation for charm, and a taste for Scotch and Sullivan cigarettes. He was also a brilliant cricketer, "perhaps the very finest slow bowler of his decade", according to his devoted friend and chronicler, Bunny Manders. As a boy, I would have settled for either one of these personas.

What made him irresistible, however, was his anti-heroic underlife as a "cracksman", that great 19th-century slang word for a housebreaker. To Raffles belonged the light fingers and ingenious brain behind the most audacious burglaries ever committed in late-Victorian London.

I have lost count of the times I have read "The Ides of March", the first story in which Raffles reveals his secret side to Bunny, the innocent who has idolised him since their schooldays. How he tricks Bunny into helping him burgle a Bond Street jewellers in the dead of night is at once droll, mischievous and heart-stoppingly tense. As he says to his new partner-in-crime, "Why should I work when I could steal? Why settle down to some humdrum, uncongenial billet, when excitement, romance, danger, and a decent living were all going begging together?"

It was this amoral line of thinking that worried Arthur Conan Doyle, a cousin of Hornung's and the book's dedicatee - Holmes and Watson being the upright, crime-solving counterparts to Raffles and Bunny. And yet a spirit of schoolboy honour still clings to the latter pair. Raffles never steals from his hosts, he helps old friends in trouble, and in a subsequent volume he dies a hero's death on the veldt during the Boer War.

 The thrilling duplicity of the "gentleman thief" attracted filmmakers as early as 1905; both Ronald Colman and David Niven would later incarnate him on screen. But the 1977 Yorkshire TV series with Anthony Valentine as Raffles and Christopher Strauli as Bunny was the most marvellous timing for a 12-year-old already besotted with the book. There it all was: the Albany set, the black tailcoats and burglar's masks, the hansom cabs, the clinging fogs, the mansions, the safes, the great escapes. Raffles has been my companion through many a humdrum, uncongenial billet ever since.

'The Streets' by Anthony Quinn is published by Jonathan Cape

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup