I’m fairly certain that you haven’t heard of A. J. Raffles, unless you know me personally or have exceptional taste in literature. I’m fairly certain that you do know of Raffles’s legacy, though.
Have you ever heard the expression “thick as thieves”? What about “partners in crime”? Or, perhaps, the cliché that someone well-off would have a despicable hidden side? These were all popularized by the series opening with The Amateur Cracksman and concluding with Mr. Justice Raffles, written by E. W. Hornung.
Ernest William Hornung may have faded into obscurity today, but, in his time, he was friends with such popular writers as P. G. Wodehouse (author of the Jeeves series), Oscar Wilde (the poet), and, most notably, was the brother-in-law of the famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of the Sherlock Holmes series).
In fact, Hornung wrote the Raffles series in response to Doyle’s Holmes and Doyle wrote the character of Charles Augustus Magnussen in response to Raffles. There was often a friendly rivalry between the two, and at one point Hornung’s stories actually surpassed Doyle’s in popularity.
Hornung was also a member of a cricket team that included Doyle, Wodehouse, George Cecil Ives, whom the character of Raffles was loosely based on, and several other notable persons.
Raffles was popular because he was scandalous. To have a gentleman also commit crimes — and not be punished for them (at least for a very long time) — was shocking. In the first volume of short stories, The Amateur Cracksman, as well as in the only novel, Mr. Justice Raffles, Raffles is free to move about society as any other young man of his type: he attends balls, plays cricket, visits the museums, and even spends time with Bunny in Scotland for a holiday. Later in the series, through some unfortunate occurences that I will not spell out exactly here for fear of spoilers, Raffles is cut off from these activities. However, while he is still a “man about town,” he walks around unscathed, free to do and steal what he pleases.
Throughout the series, there is a question that readers must ask themselves concerning Bunny: does he follow after Raffles because he wants to (e.g., he loves Raffles enough that the life of crime doesn’t bother him, he wishes to keep up the pretense of wealth and thus commits crimes willlingly, &c.) or does he follow after Raffles because he has unwittingly committed his life to him?
The series starts rather dimly for Bunny. After gambling away his inherited money, he comes to the realization that he is so deep in debt that the only reasonable way out is through suicide or the intervention of a friend. He comes to Raffles seeking assistance and proves his desperation through the threat of shooting himself. While this scene opens the stories in an appropriately dramatic way, one can be left questioning whether Raffles does not view this same scene as him purchasing Bunny’s life, never to return it fully.
While certainly Bunny does care for Raffles, as is seen throughout the books, the man that Bunny writes about is not always the same. For the first volume, Raffles is rather more jocular and school-boy-ish; in the second, he becomes somewhat morose; by the third, Bunny has given up all pretense that Raffles was a hero and writes him as he really was: a scoundrel of the lowest order.
As you read the series, keep an eye out for any actions of Bunny’s or Raffles’s that make you question whose life has really been altered by crime.
In addition to there being the reading of the Raffles series as one where Raffles abuses Bunny and forces him to lose his innocence, there is also the reading where Raffles ends up ruining his life and holding desperately onto the only constant force there is: Bunny. He has dragged Bunny down this dark path with him and ends up losing contact with everyone he ever knew — except for Bunny, who, thankfully for Raffles, remains steadfast and loyal by his side. In Mr. Justice Raffles, Raffles seems conflicted as to Bunny’s loyalty towards him, and he accuses Bunny of being a villain-worshipper. If that is true, then what must Raffles think of himself? One can be left to wonder, however, whether Raffles suffers more, sometimes, than Bunny does, despite never outwardly showing it.
There are cricket metaphors! Bad puns! The stories are set in elegant, Victorian society!
There are relatable characters! Raffles is a dramatic art nerd! Bunny is a poet and probably has anxiety! They’re both always out of money!
These stories will kill you, but they will also make you live!
There’s tons of subtle subtext and reading them again and again just means you can catch more of the double meanings!
There’s a free annotated version available at www.rafflesredux.com. You can also find the books (not annotated) at Project Gutenberg.
There are several film adaptations of Raffles, though most of them don’t feature Bunny, unfortunately. There’s a good TV series made in the ’70s featuring Anthony Valentine and Christopher Strauli. I would recommend that one as you’re reading the stories, though, like any TV adaptation, it’s not perfect.
You might have trouble finding them, but there are also BBC radio adaptations of several of the Raffles stories. They are very amusing.
You can read the first story, The Ides of March, on my website, here!