E. W. Hornung Essay - Critical Essays


With twenty-six stories and a novel, E. W. Hornung created a character whose name has entered the language as the synonym for a daring and successful thief. In “To Catch a Thief,” for example, Raffles steals another burglar’s plunder after discovering it hidden in a pair of Indian clubs, while in “The Raffles Relics” he steals an exhibit of his own burglary tools from Scotland Yard. In this sportsman-adventurer-thief, Hornung presents a complex villain-hero.

Although Raffles is a criminal, Hornung goes to some lengths to establish his admirable qualities; thus, he emerges as something of a hero. The title of the first collection of stories, The Amateur Cracksman (1899), makes an important point: Because he is an amateur thief, Raffles’s crimes seem less sordid than those of a “professor” or East End professional criminal. In addition, he is an amateur athlete, a gentleman cricketer who turns to burglary, he insists, only because he is chronically in need of money. That is, playing cricket as a professional (like stealing as an East End “professor”) would be considered declassé. In contrast, he plays as a gentleman amateur, for love of the game rather than for money; thus, he is forced into crime. Along with establishing him as an amateur and a gentleman, Raffles’s cricket has a third function: Like his amateur cracksman standing, it is intended to undercut the seriousness of his crimes. Both Raffles and Bunny tend to refer to burglary in cricketing rather than criminal terms: Waiting to burgle a house is like waiting nervously to enter a match; suffering a series of unrewarding burglaries is “playing a deuced slow game.” The word “sport” is frequently used to suggest that crime, at least as Raffles and Bunny play it, is, like cricket, simply an exciting game. This important point is further reinforced through the sportsman’s code that Raffles translates into an ethics of crime. Although he is not averse to breaking the law, he does eschew some activities; using drugged whiskey is “not a very sporting game,” for example, while committing murder is “not the game at all.” This code functions to redeem or at least palliate his crimes, because it acts as a measure less of right and wrong than of style; Raffles’s adherence to his own code papers over the criminality of his thefts by making them seem merely an aspect of his insouciant style.

“Gentlemen and Players”

The story “Gentlemen and Players” illustrates all the aspects of Raffles’s character that are intended to ease the reader into accepting the criminal as a hero. The title refers to the distinction made at the time between Gentleman (amateur) and Player (professional) cricketers, a distinction very important to Raffles. As a gentleman, he is ordinarily loath to abuse his position as guest by stealing from his host’s home, but he is insulted that Lord Amersteth invites him to Milchester Abbey only to play cricket; his anger at “being asked about for my cricket as though I were a pro” shows the importance he attaches to his amateur athlete status. The equal importance of his amateur cracksman status appears in the distinction Raffles makes between himself as a “Gentleman” thief and Crawshay, a competing East End “Player” thief; both men are interested in a valuable necklace belonging to Lady Melrose, like Raffles a houseguest of Lord Amersteth. His determination to steal the necklace and thereby “score off” both Crawshay, the professional thief, and Mackenzie, the professional detective, displays his pride as an amateur cracksman, while at the same time, it illustrates the analogy Raffles often draws between burglary and cricket: To “score off them both at once” would be “a great game.” Along with this sporting rationale for stealing the necklace, Raffles offers several other reasons meant to excuse the crime: Not only are both he and Bunny hard up again, but “these people deserve it, and can afford it.” Finally, the burglary itself, like his admirable cricket, exhibits Raffles’s daring and skill; as Bunny remarks, both require a “combination of resource and cunning, of patience and precision, of head-work and handiwork.” The manner of the theft—while the professional thieves succeed in stealing Lady Melrose’s jewel case, Raffles has already emptied the case of the necklace while its owner slept—is intended to impress the reader with Raffles’s daredevil style.

Another aspect of Raffles’s style,...

(The entire section is 1842 words.)