Even the most committed Conan Doyle aficionado might concede that there has been a surfeit of Sherlock Holmes in recent years — a 21st-century BBC series, a modernised American series (Elementary), Holmes as 1890s action hero in the Guy Ritchie films, even a new Russian adaptation, which aired last November (to mixed reviews). But the enduring popularity of one eccentric hero of gaslight-era crime fiction has erased others, in particular A.J. Raffles, the original and archetypal gentleman thief created by E.W. Hornung. Hornung was Doyle’s brother-in-law, and he dedicated the first volume of Raffles stories “To A.C.D. This form of flattery”. Raffles, like Holmes, has a loyal but slightly hopeless sidekick, “Bunny” Manders, who narrates their adventures and has a sideline in journalism. Doyle recognises the homage in his autobiography: “I think I may claim that his famous character Raffles was a kind of inversion of Sherlock Holmes . . . I think there are few finer examples of short story writing in the English language than these.” (There was also one novel, Mr Justice Raffles.) But he goes on to confess that he thinks “they are rather dangerous in their suggestion”, and that “the result has borne me out . . . you must not make the criminal a hero”.
It is possible that Hornung did intend Raffles to serve as a moral lesson — Raffles eventually expiates his crimes by volunteering for the Boer War — but if so the lesson doesn’t quite work. The stories were immensely popular and the ambiguity is one of the most appealing things about them. Raffles dislikes violence, but has no remorse for his own crimes: “We can’t all be moralists . . . Besides, you’re not at it all the time.”
A good number of the stories result not in a gloriously clever and successful theft but in failure, or partial failure. One of Hornung’s skills is in dramatically changing tack and undercutting expectations, and we are never quite sure whether we are meant to be rooting for the characters or condemning them. The tone varies between mischievous and shocking. In one, Raffles steals a medieval gold cup from the British Museum, completely on a whim; when he can’t bring himself to sell it, knowing it would be melted down, he posts it to Queen Victoria in a biscuit-box as a Jubilee present. In another, he casually suggests to Bunny that they murder someone who he thinks will expose them. Raffles is not only a gentleman thief but a gentleman cricketer. The game has changed, but the idea of cricket as the epitome of sportsmanship, style and elegance still holds. George Orwell’s essay “Raffles and Miss Blandish” went into this in more depth: “In making Raffles a cricketer as well as a burglar, Hornung was not merely providing him with a plausible disguise; he was also drawing the sharpest moral contrast that he was able to imagine.”
Orwell also wrote: “It is not a 20th-century game, and nearly all modern-minded people dislike it.” The same may be true of Raffles, who is almost completely unknown by young people. But there is surely enough space in the world, or at least on television, for Raffles to exist alongside Sherlock Holmes.