Monday, 25 March 2013

Review: Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung

Orange penguin edition - Raffles the Amateur Cracksman by Hornung
Excuse the generic book cover image - a decent, even moderately-acceptable-looking one does not exist. Not in real life, not on the Internet. It's a semi-famous book of stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle's brother-in-law, for God's sake! Why the hell can't I buy a decent copy!?

Plot summary: Gentlemen thief Raffles is daring, debonair, devilishly handsome - and a first-class cricketer. In these eight stories the master burglar indulges his passion for cricket and crime: thieving jewels from a country house, outwitting the law, stealing from the nouveaux riches and, of course, bowling like a demon - all with the assistance of his plucky sidekick Bunny.

I particularly like the dedication in this book - 'To A.C.D. This Form of Flattery.'

These stories were, after all, created from a suggestion of Arthur Conan Doyle himself and imitation Sherlock Holmes almost perfectly. The resemblance is uncanny - the language, the tone, the characters... it really does seem like an anti-Sherlock. Raffles and Bunny are villains after all; the loveable kind, but villains nevertheless.

I actually have Encounters of Sherlock Holmes to thank for this. I wasn't actually all that fond of it, but one story features a cross-over of the two sets of characters (which I'm sure has been done over and over, but was the first I'd seen) and I knew enough to recognise that Raffles was a literary character in his own right, but that was about the extent of it. I looked him up, downloaded a copy of the first book (this one) on my Kindle and here we are.

Like with any collection of short stories, some are better than others. They seem a lot more chronological than the Sherlock Holmes stories - each new tale starts pretty much directly after the latter. If there's a gap, apparently it's because they haven't been doing anything in the meantime. I think I like this approach better, although I know it's just short of sacrilege to say so!

They're not overly clever in themselves, but that's okay. There's no dazzling works of deduction or amazing heists, so I'm not sure it would have worked as a fully drawn-out series. Still though, Hornung clearly knew this himself as there are only... three, I think, of these collections. They're more than a novelty, but not quite a literary masterpiece.

I also like how The Amateur Cracksman begins right at the start of Raffles and Bunny's relationship. We see them work their first job together and get used to each other, instead of jumping straight into the middle.

I know I've been comparing this to Sherlock Holmes incessantly, but it's important to remember that it isn't actually trying to be similar. It's not a spin-off; Raffles isn't Holmes' long-lost cousin or anything like that. No references are made. A similarity in tone and atmosphere comes simply from the era in which they were both written and the similar genres. 

However, the last story is appalling and I actually sat there with my mouth open, staring at my Kindle. The prose is just fine, but the plot is cobbled together with characters springing up for no reason, and, and.... Holmes would never do that to Watson! Not impressed. It was completely illogical and just kind of wrong, to be honest. 

Concluding story aside, I actually really liked Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman. It's similar enough to Sherlock Holmes to be interesting, but different enough to make it a breath of fresh air. It's not quite up to the Conan Doyle standard, but it's definitely worth a read regardless.

Read my review of Encounters of Sherlock Holmes.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like fun just because it's about baddies! I like likeable bad guys. And I haven't read any ACD before (I know, how lame is that) so if I try it I won't be comparing it to Sherlock in my head. Interesting!


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