DATE: Wed 03 Mar 2021 By:

AJ Raffles

Historical Awareness.

It is my belief that the finest written works of mankind are firmly behind us not ahead. It sees as time goes by the human ability to write with an elegant and apparently effortless poetic bent is a thing of the past.

When I read things written very recently I am often frustrated at the lack of thought about sentence structure and flow. I say this in a very self-aware way. I know that my own writings are weak and amateurish. As a reader however, I can identify a work of wonder from a writers first epub with ease.

I also think that if we go back too far we see people still crafting the craft of writing. The rawness, while appealing lacks the literary surgery that makes a story flow into the readers mind without an obvious bead of the writers sweat even beginning to appear.

The sweet spot in my opinion was between the mid-1940s and the late-1960s. There are outliers on each side and the occasional work that exists alone as a shining star of excellence for others to strive for. For me at least all the really good stuff tends to congregate in this date range.

With this as a frame for my tastes I would like to advocate for the works of Ernest William Hornung. Specifically his wonderful works on the ‘Gentleman Thief’ series featuring the astonishingly brilliant character of A.J Raffles.

This wonderful series of stories starts in 1898 London and essentially shows the ‘flip side’ of the Sherlock Holmes character. With Mr Raffles being a charming criminal, rather than a cold detective.

AJ Raffles is the embodiment of 19th century gentlemanliness, while at the same time being a darn fine burglar. The strange juxtaposition of these two worlds he straggles makes for a wonderful narrative.

There is a huge amount on Wikipedia that does more than I ever could to explain the events and historical notoriety of these works. I will not try to re-hash all that here. Honestly the Wikipedia version of events is superbly well done, given that it’s Wikipedia.

(web) wikipedia page for Raffles.

Tell me more of this gentleman thief.

What I do want to talk about is how bloody brilliant this series actually is. I have always felt that while Sherlock Holmes is obviously excellent, its cultural importance is somewhat over stated. In the case of Raffles however its mostly an historical foot note while being an honestly incredible read. It’s gritty and honest in a ways that are not common in works of this age as well as being unafraid to have grounded action with actual consequences.

The character himself is aware that he is not the hero of his own story and is comfortable with it. Many stories in this series are told as Raffles himself recounting events to his good friend Bunny. He seemingly plays down his accomplishments instead of embellishing on them. Never afraid to say he was not ‘man enough’ for the troubles he found himself in. While the fictional scribe (the aforementioned Bunny) endeavours to make clear that this is modestly not a lacking of skill or bravery. The ‘truth’ no doubt somewhere in-between.

Raffles is not a greedy man, most of his thievery is motivated by either the necessity of his expensive lifestyle or the desire to prove his skills as a criminal (and prove to himself, as he is literally the only person whose opinion he cares about.)

The one real friend that Raffles has is Bunny a school “chum” who comes to him when he is in need and slowly becomes his Watson, while perhaps becoming a little more attached to Raffles than 19th century works are allowed to explore.

While Raffles and Bunny are close friends and have a deep trust of each other Bunny is often left in the dark to Raffles plans. Raffles has a tendency to over plan and part of that means that he finds Bunny’s predictable behaviour useful to him in his plots. This means that he needs to be able to gauge how Bunny will respond to situations. The best way to do that is to not tell him things. This is a constant source of distress for Bunny who feels that he isn’t trusted fully.

Part of the allure of these stories is that Raffles is actually a very nice man. He sees no reason why being a thief and being a gentleman are mutually exclusive. He is a gracious guest, a great conversationalist and a loyal friend. He may however take the occasional thing that doesn’t belong to him. Sometimes with deep and methodical planning and a lack of concern for your bank account.

There are a few moments in the series when Raffles has to consider taking a life; he does so, not with the callousness of a criminal but with the regret and methodical justifications of a Gentleman. He understands the morality of what he does and knows how it scars his soul but he also knows he is not equipped for the life of a poor man. He does what he can. What he thinks he must. Even though he wishes his actions were not required, he does take pleasure in them.

The writing style is obviously classical (because of the age of the work) but also understated. The events are never explosive and the action is usually sedate but the emotional impact of everything that happens is very well explored. The writing is exceptionally flowing especially compared to other works from the same era. Over all, it’s just bloody charming.

I have no doubt that if you are someone who can get past the now archaic styling’s of the writing you will enjoy these stories. Personally I find the style charming, fascinating and the period authentic adventures of the characters way more engaging than they would be if the writing style were modern. Being set in the past is boring, being authentic is wonderful.

Given that a lot of this stuff is now in the Public domain there is really no reason not to at least give it a go.

Wikisource has some of the works.

Thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings.