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

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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.

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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

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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.

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A Cinematic Bon-Bon: Raffles (1930)

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An United Artists Picture, Screenplay by Sidney Howard based upon the novel by E. W. Hornung,  Director: George Fitzmaurice, Art Director: Park French

A charming confection, Raffles exists in a world that meets somewhere between the allure of the truly glamorous, a harmlessly silly aristocracy and a place where crime is non-violent and victimless.  How lovely to enter this enchanting realm from time to time.

Ronald Colman and Kay Francis portray our lovely leads and radiate romantic chemistry in the luminous lighting of cinematographers George Barnes and Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane).  The very early scenes are framed by distinctively art deco décor.  Raffles first and ostensibly last heist, takes place at night in a jewelers with a black and white checkered floor, whose windows reveal the even pace of a shadowy figure, that of a bobby on the beat.  Under his watchful eye the theft occurs and we are thus alerted to the cleverness of our protagonist.

The following scene reveals his dazzling charm and romanticism as he intimately dances with Lady Gwen (Francis) and sweeps her off her feet, enough for her to accept his proposal of marriage once they return to their table.  Pay attention to the beauty of this setting with its curling railing and illuminating sconces.  Francis’ hair is shorn short and must have seemed breathtakingly modern to audiences of the time, thereby matching this sophisticated nightspot.

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And so we are introduced to this charismatic and charming couple. Raffles is portrayed as a bit of an innocent, a man who believes he can readily walk away from his life’s passions. That turns out to be not so easily done as he is persuaded by circumstance to conduct one last heist for the sake of a good friend, Bunny (Bramwell Fletcher).  The elaborate nature of this last piece of thievery makes up the bulk of this story, whose twists and turns are fanciful and owe a great debt to convenient coincidences. No matter. When reflecting upon this film it is the smoldering charm of our gentleman thief and his adventurous and sophisticatedly glamorous leading lady that stays.

Kay Francis is breathtaking and breathless as Gwen, swooning just as we do for Raffles and his slights of hand.  Gwen inhabits a world of black satin gowns and rhinestone studded spaghetti straps; Francis wears these gowns beautifully as she always does.  This was a breakout role for Francis and established her as a woman who could hold the attentions of both her leading man and audiences.

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Keeping the story interesting are comic turns by Frederic Kerr as Lord Harry Melrose and Alison Skipworth as his wife, Lady Kitty Melrose.  The former makes it abundantly clear as to why the latter becomes so smitten with Mr. Raffles upon first meeting, helping our plot and his heist tremendously. Her obvious lust for him is quite comical and a short scene of her swooning in her sleep and speaking his name leaves no question as to where she might be at that moment.  A pre-Code film this is and thankfully so for the film drops in little bits of business like this from time to time, adding to the entertainment and increasing the sophisticated adult appeal.  It follows then that quite naturally Lady Melrose’s two little pugs (the aristocracy always has little dogs in these pre-Codes) are named Whiskey and Soda.  She is one Lady who makes her priorities quite clear.

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At one point, Raffles makes an in-vain attempt to break it off with Gwen in his own gentlemanly fashion, further endearing himself to her (and us) even more.  He is about as able to give up his passion for her as he is his lifestyle and his heists, which is not at all.

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Raffles is a fairy tale for adults, one in which a gentleman thief can not only confess to crimes and get away with them but also whisk away in the night to rendezvous in Paris with his dazzling lover, all with a wink and an admiring chuckle from Scotland Yard, whose inspector provides the closing line:  “Well, one can’t help liking him”.   And we certainly do.

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Highly recommended for film history and for fun.

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Notes and Extras

  • This was the last film made in both silent and talking versions by Samuel Goldwyn.  It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound (losing to Douglas Shearer for The Big House) and it shows.  The dialogue is so pleasantly decipherable that it is easy to forget that we’ve just entered the era of talking pictures.  There is a steady hiss in some scenes that adds no more than a nostalgic ambiance.  The Warner Archive DVD is lovely with deep blacks and luminous whites, with only a faint halo around cricket players in glowing athleticism in the outdoor scenes.
  • Speaking of the Oscars, Ronald Colman was nominated at the Third Academy Awards in 1930 but not for this film.  Rather he was nominated for two other performances, Bulldog Drummond (another he was to share with John Barrymore) and Condemned.
  • Kay Francis was on loan from Paramount for this one.  As was so frequently the case, this actress needed to break out of her contracted studio to gain recognition and be allowed the opportunity to shine. Francis proved to be a perfect match for Colman in sophistication, intelligence and charm.  Audiences took to her, understandably so. As Francis commented: “I didn’t really get into my stride until I played opposite Ronald Colman in Raffles”.

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  • There were at least two previous silent versions of Raffles, one starring the thrillingly handsome (at least in the silent era) John Barrymore.  There were others to follow, in particular one in 1939, with again two fantastic leads in David Niven and Olivia de Havilland.  Unfortunately this version suffers from not only being made hurriedly just prior to Niven’s departure fight for his country and join the British forces in WWII, but also from post-Code imposed changes that stomped upon tampered with the fun and charm of the 1930 Colman version.
  • Raffles is considered the proto-type gentleman thief and originated in a series of stories by E. W. Hornung based in 19th century London.  These tales were considered a bit scandalous by some due to their sympathetic, almost heroic portrayal of basically a criminal. Nevertheless folks do love their scoundrels and the character of the gentleman thief continues to be seen in such films as To Catch a Thief.  Certainly the story and Grant’s portrayal owe a debt to Raffles and there is certainly more than a little of Kay Francis in Grace Kelly’s aristocratically concealed, yet barely contained   passion and willingness to abandon all for an adventurous life as the lover of a jewel thief.  For further evidence of Raffles long reach see The Pink Panther, The Thomas Crown Affair, Oceans 11 and many others.
  • This film is based upon the play Raffles, The Amateur Cracksman, (1906) which in itself was founded upon a book compilation of the short stories, a further testament to the enduring appeal of this character and his escapades.  The book differs in a number of ways from the film versions, primarily in the depiction of class and the purposeful staging of heists. Socio-political statements, aside from the portrayals of aristocrats as somewhat silly caricatures, were excised from most film versions to maintain their frothy flavor.
  • Watch for a pretty blonde by the name of Virginia Bruce, in an uncredited role as ‘Gwen’s Friend’.
  • This movie was well-received and grossed over $1 Million, a pretty penny in those days just following The Great Stock Market Crash, otherwise known as The Great Depression. This review from Variety provides a nice perspective from the time.
  • And just between you and me, sometime during filming Kay Francis wrote in her diary, ” God, Ronnie excites me”.  Proving once again, if you had any doubts, that movie stars are only people too.  Ronald_Colman_Raffles_RCAS4