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.

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