I’ve been reading Raffles, by E. W. Hornung, as part of my occasional project of getting to know some of the prototypes of modern crime fiction. I began this endeavour in October with The Riddle of the Sands, which was the subject of an earlier post.
Raffles is one of those books that enjoys the glamour of cult status. I finally read it after discovering a copy at the discount bookshop opposite the British Library in Euston Road. (If you don’t already know this bookshop, I recommend it: it has saved me from many a dull train journey back to Yorkshire after a day working in London, having made a last-minute decision to abandon my good intention of working on the return as well as the outward trip.)
As with The Riddle of the Sands, it is the apparent modernity of Raffles which first impresses. The novel was written two years before the death of Queen Victoria and obviously long before the murder of Franz Ferdinand, let alone Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Yet Raffles and Bunny, the narrator, strike the reader as characters who would be able to cope if they were suddenly fast-forwarded into the twenty-first century. This is partly owing to Hornung’s acute ear for dialogue. He captures the rhythms of his characters’ speech with vivid precision, as if they might still be hatching their plots in the next room. It is surprising, too, how many colloquialisms of the time survive in modern slang – the use of ‘stuff’ for possessions, for example.
Less successful is the way in which the speech of the lower class characters is presented. Most of them are made to talk in a kind of pastiche Dickens, with plenty of aspirates dropped where they should occur and added where they shouldn’t. I’d guess that the woodenness of these characters reflects the author’s lack of first-hand knowledge of people who occupied the social strata below what used to be called ‘upper middle class’.
Raffles and Bunny belong to an élite cadre of privileged young men and, accordingly, show a pronounced preoccupation with cricket and gentlemen’s clubs, luxurious dinners, whiskies and sodas and, above all, the sense of ‘because I’m worth it’. This could have turned the novel into a period piece, were it not for its single most defining attribute: the amorality of the two protagonists. At a time when Thomas Hardy was still over-egging the moral cake and E. M. Forster had yet to write powerfully about life as a series of shifting ethical dilemmas, E. W. Hornung was racing ahead of the curve by creating the first proper crime fiction anti-hero. Because of this, Raffles is an enduring classic in its own right and Raffles himself the engaging forerunner of a distinguished line of compelling but morally-dubious twentieth-century characters, which perhaps reaches its apogee with John Le Carré’s portrait of the perennially-compromised George Smiley.
Oh, by the way, I wish you a very enjoyable New Year and happy reading in 2013. Thank you for dropping in!