Book Review – “The Amateur Cracksman” by E. W. Hornung

amateur cracksman

The figure of the gentleman thief has become so much a part of our psyche in the western world that it’s easy to take such a character for granted.  Generally dashing, good looking, sly, stealthy and charming with the ladies, such figures are sympathetic despite their capers or perhaps even because of them.   We admire their cunning and ability to swindle those we don’t particularly like anyway, the idle rich. In E. W. (Ernest William) Hornung’s The Amateur Cracksman, we have such a gentleman swindler in A. J. Raffles.

Raffles has seen numerous incarnations in film and several on television.  There were two silent versions, one starring John Barrymore and two other better known representations in the thirties.  Breathtakingly, Ronald Colman played him in a 1930 early talking version opposite the luminous and striking Kay Francis.  Between her slinking and his lurking the screen was awash in luxurious charm.  A later version in 1939 suffers some from the long arm of the Production Code, sanitizing the interplay between the two principals, yet it has its considerable charms, the elegance of David Niven and Olivia de Havilland being primary.  Both versions appear to be based upon a 1903 stage play crafted by Hornung after he had achieved considerable success with his books featuring the devious scoundrel.

The first story to feature Raffles was published in a magazine in 1898 and introduces the present compilation.  Consisting of a series of short stories, tied together by its engaging central character embarking upon underhanded capers, this book was so popular that the author continued to write tales featuring the cunning bandit, with even further excursions into burglaries, mistaken identities, forgeries and other rarefied crimes.  Raffles shares a bit of Robin Hoods’ spirit.  The victims of his crimes are usually more than due their misfortune, yet there is one primary difference:  While the latter brings justice and spoils to those suffering oppression, the former luxuriates in the gains that provide him with the outwardly decent, respectable lifestyle of a true gentleman.  By some measures, he has an enviable life indeed.

Interestingly, Hornung was the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and wrote these short stories of an anti-hero as almost an homage and this first book is indeed dedicated to the Sherlock Holmes creator.  Certainly the central relationship of a mastermind supported by a willing admiring assistant is replicated here.  Yet as the popularity of Hornung’s creation grew, Conan Doyle expressed misgivings regarding the impact of such a warm and generous portrayal of one essentially trolling about in the underworld.  Foreshadowing the feelings of those who later instituted the Code, he expressed concern that Hornung had perhaps made “the criminal a hero”.  Yet it was too late.  The gentleman thief had already been born.  We would later see him appear time and again in cinematic history.

Raffles reluctant accomplice in his escapades is his former school chum Bunny who, as he does in the films, presents as a young man desperately in need of money.  That curse of the upper-crust, gambling debts, has brought him to the point of self-destructive despair.  The similarity ends there as Bunny on the page slowly becomes a greater accomplice to these recurring escapades, a status he never achieves in the films, especially the 1939 vehicle which of course requires Raffles pay for his crimes.

Ronald Colman Raffles 1

Bunny is an interesting narrator.  He admires Raffles cunning and ingenuity with appalling awe.  Bunny is seemingly seduced, beyond the initial episode, by the cracksman’s charisma and charms. (And I have to say that for me Raffles charm was only enhanced by hearing his words in the voice of the melodiously gifted Colman). This collection is filled with deliciously detailed descriptions of Raffles mannerisms, facial expressions and moods.  We are treated to a recounting by a man wholly captivated by his seductor to the sinister, in a Victorian age. This lingering accounting lends an immediacy to the proceedings.  We see Raffles through the eyes of this disconcerted admirer as Bunny is reluctantly drawn into the world of sophisticated, yet amateur criminal behavior. The money and easy living seduce him even further.  Bunny’s moral misgivings and subsequent slide into a seamy acceptance of devious deeds, with their secretive glamor, becomes our own as we too are charmed by this gentlemen thief.

Having been raised on varying portrayals of these upper crust scoundrels, I fully expected there to be a significant love interest.  I turned page after page awaiting an alluring feminine presence infused with the spirit of Kay Francis, Grace Kelly or Olivia de Havilland.  But no such woman appeared.  In fact there are very few women at all in these stories which are in fact somewhat sexy precursors to what first started as road trips, morphed into buddy movies and then became simply bromances.  The admiration, seduction and conspiratorial nature of the relationship between Bunny and our hero has a definite homoerotic air.  In fact the willing accomplice becomes quite petulant in the final story when Raffles (finally!) becomes seemingly smitten with a young female shipboard passenger.  At last, I thought, a woman!  But we barely get a real glimpse of her before our protagonist makes a necessary hasty get away.  I almost got the sense that she was thrown in, just at the very end, to dispel any notions that might be occurring on the part of the reader.

In order to enjoy these stories, it’s necessary to enter into this world within its context. The Amateur Cracksman as both character and book expresses the sense of entitlement that fueled the rise and fall of the British Empire.  The stories take place during its unraveling yet there is none of that here.  These are quickly told tales designed to amuse in an afternoon or evenings read, suffused with the English ambiance, language and sentiments of the time.

I’d say that this was a fairly satisfying read however I’ve a fondness for British literature of the period.  The short stories do require a certain setting aside of the accepted norms of the era, an understanding that as presented and in context, this is indeed a white male centered universe, where the spoils go to those most able to navigate its niceties and sometimes not so nice underbelly.  And while there are hints of the basis for the films in here you won’t find the actual plot or alas even Lady Gwendolyn.  But you will find the beginnings of a crafty sort of enigma who persisted as a film specimen on through the Sixties.  He continues to show his suave self and dazzle us from time to time today.

This post is a part of the 2017 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge Blogathon hosted by the lovely Raquel Stecher.  She can be found reading and blogging at Out of the Past.  Check her blog for periodic updates from other blogging readers that will run from June 1 – September 15th.  The goal is to read six classic film related books; we’ll see if I make it through six.  I hope to discover some good books in the meantime. Thanks Raquel for hosting 🙂

Summer Reading Challenge 2017

harlow peeking red dust

Notes and Extras

  • This book is now in the public domain and is available for Kindle due to a community of volunteers.  I would like to thank those patient people for allowing me to snuggle up with this one.
  • It was first published in 1899.
  • For my review of Raffles (1930) the movie,  please see here. It’s one I would highly recommend due to its charm.  I think it’s a pretty successful early talking film.

Ronald Colman Raffles 2

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