Book Review: Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman

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The romance and the peril of the whole proceeding held me spellbound and entranced. My moral sense and my sense of fear were stricken by a common paralysis.

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

Exciting news – with this last book, I’m finally done all my reading for the semester (at least novel wise)! This was the last book I had to read for my seminar in Victorian detective fiction, so soon you’ll be seeing a wider variety of genres on this blog.

In any case, though, Raffles is an interesting read. The author, E.W. Hornung, was the brother-in-law of Arthur Conan Doyle, and in fact, this book is dedicated to Doyle. The partnership between A.J. Raffles, the titular amateur cracksman of the title, and his faithful (sometimes codependent) sidekick Bunny is an obvious play on the famous relationship between Holmes and Watson. Instead of being a detective and a doctor, however, Raffles and Bunny are two supposed gentlemen who make their living through thievery.

While reading Sherlock Holmes stories earlier in the term, I found it difficult to shake the idea that Holmes and Watson’s relationship is more than just friendship – especially from Watson’s perspective. Watson is constantly abandoning his (newly married) wife at home to enjoy adventures (often for extended periods of time) with Holmes, and his loyalty to Holmes is unshakable.

With Raffles and Bunny, this relationship is taken even further. Apparently Hornung based Raffles and Bunny on Holmes and Watson, but also on Oscar Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. In any case, Bunny literally owes Raffles his life, and their relationship is one of friendship, gratitude, and, at least from Bunny’s perspective, dependence. Whenever Raffles is off alone at night, Bunny waits up for him as a worried wife would, and he even admits to jealousy when Raffles pays more attention to an attractive young woman than to Bunny. Even the affectionate nickname “Bunny” is undeniably effeminate, and adds to this theme. All of the Victorian detective fiction I have read so far has been dominated with male characters, and the homoerotic overtones in each text was one of the key points of interest for me.

As for the stories themselves…I wouldn’t say I found them particularly interesting. As both a gentleman and a thief, Raffles transgresses boundaries in a time when class structures were quite rigid. After reading several works of detective fiction, though, both from the perspectives of the detectives and those of the thieves, I wouldn’t say Raffles is incredibly noteworthy. It’s a quick read, though, and not unenjoyable…although I suppose describing something as “not unenjoyable” also speaks volumes.

YES OR NO?: I’m on the fence about this book. It’s not a very strong read, but it’s also not terrible. If you’re looking for detective fiction, I’d honestly rather recommend something else. That being said, I’m excited to finally start reading for pleasure again! Although I loved reading these novels for school, it’ll be great to get some more variety in my reading.

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