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
Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 East 17 bandmember Brian Harvey in 'very desperate situation’
- 2 Yorkshire man to win £10,000 off a £1 bet placed six years ago if Dan Jarvis becomes Labour Party leader
- 3 Vladimir Putin says Russia will fight for the right of Palestinians to their own state
- 4 Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
- 5 The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
Cassetteboy joins forces with Russell Brand for Emperor's New Clothes film
Poldark, TV review: Demelza’s insouciance is almost as impressive as Ross’ pecs
Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear: Former Stig Ben Collins says show 'will always continue' with or without suspended host
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
James May hints he will not continue on Top Gear without Jeremy Clarkson
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
JK Rowling responds to fan tweeting she 'can't see' Dumbledore being gay
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'