“Though he might be more humble, there is no police like Holmes.”
E. W. Hornung, Arthur Conan Doyle’s friend and brother-in-law, is almost as famous for this witticism as for his creation of A.J. Raffles, the archetypical gentleman thief. But only almost. The Raffles stories are still widely read today.
As Conan Doyle observed, “Raffles was a kind of inversion of Sherlock Holmes, Bunny” – Raffles’s narrator and partner-in-crime – “playing Watson.” Horning dedicated the first Raffles book, The Amateur Cracksman, “To ACD This Form of Flattery.”
I recently read all 25 Raffles short stories. I observed similarities, differences, and cross-connections with the Holmes Canon.
Most obviously, both series are about two men in late Victorian England whose adventures are narrated by the junior partner of the team. Added to that, Raffles is an expert at disguise, apparently dies but comes back, and faces a villain he calls “the professor” (although he isn’t one). Less importantly, Raffles and Bunny enjoy the Turkish bath on Northumberland Street as much as Holmes and Watson and have an adventure that involves the City and Suburban Bank, which is featured in “The Red-headed League.”
The stories in the first two Raffles books, The Amateur Cracksman and The Black Mask, are in strict chronological order. No chronologists needed here! The third volume, A Thief in the Night, is backfill that takes place at various times earlier, but usually placed in reference to an earlier story. Obviously, this is much different from the Canon, which is a chronological nightmare.
But the biggest difference between the two protagonists, of course, is that Raffles is a thief. Holmes is a burglar five times over by my count, but never to line his own pockets. The moralistic ACD objected to Raffles in his autobiography. “You must not make the criminal a hero,” he wrote.
Ultimately, however, the life of crime is far from glamorized in Hornung’s tales. Consider: Raffles, who is often without money, is caught and disgraced, exiled, tortured to the degree that his hair turns white, and ultimately dies in the Boer War. Bunny, meanwhile, goes to prison, loses the love of his life, and is constantly wracked by pangs of conscience.
Raffles may be an inversion of Holmes, but in the end his saga teaches the same lesson as the Canon: Crime Does Not Pay.