The Amateur Cracksman
by E. W. Hornung
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle encouraged his brother-in-law Ernest William Hornung (1866–1921) to publish a series of articles in the same Strand
magazine in which the former's tales of Sherlock Holmes were also printed. Hornung went ahead and created the comic antithesis of Holmes: A. J. Raffles, a charming, athletic rogue who supports his playboy lifestyle by perpetrating a series of daring burglaries. Or perhaps it's the other way round, and Raffles uses his fame as a cricket player and gentleman's-club-haunting bon vivant
as a cover for his true calling. For surely, no jewel thief ever brought a cooler head, a subtler artistry, or a keener enthusiasm to the crime.
As Holmes has Watson, Raffles has a half-hero-worshiping, half-resentful sidekick to narrate his escapades: an old public-school chum whom we know only by his pet name Bunny. (Later books in the series reveal that his full name is Harry Manders.) In this collection of the first eight Raffles stories, Bunny reveals how their first heist together diverted the bankrupt freelance writer from the plan to blow his brains out. Owing his life to Raffles, Bunny follows him from one caper to another, always a little at sea because of his friend's slowness to let him in on the plan. They come away from a close scrape empty-handed, pull success out of the jaws of failure, solve a murder they planned to commit(!!), help a prisoner escape, and all the while feel the haggis-scented breath of Scotland Yard's Inspector MacKenzie on the napes of their necks, as the law slowly but inevitably catches up with them.
If it seems, at the end of this book of whimsically naughty tales, that it's all over for Raffles and Bunny, take heart. This is only the first of three sets of stories featuring the rascals. The Black Mask (published in the U.S. as The Further Adventures of the Amateur Cracksman) depicts a later phase of their career, after Raffles' cricketer secret identity has been blown. A Thief in the Night includes additional stories from both phases of their career. And the series culminates in a full-length novel, Mr. Justice Raffles. If you're into the Holmes stories and you would like to see a contemporary representative on the other side of the law, this series may be for you. If you've ever noticed how often the name "Raffles" comes up as the answer to a crossword clue (gentleman thief, 7 letters), or wondered about it when a character in an English novel dropped his name by way of an pre-World War I pop-culture reference, here is your chance to experience at first hand the subversive humor, light suspense, mild surprises, and roguish sex appeal that made Hornung's hero a favorite in the 1890s and early 1900s.
Political Incorrectness Advisory: Just a caution to schoolteachers looking for books to share with their students: You might want to give this one a pass. The book makes several references to being a "fag" and "fagging"—which at the time meant something other than what today's young people will probably think—and, in describing one character's black servants, drops the "N" bomb as well as a "K" word that became a no-no during the controversy over South African Apartheid. A word to the wise, etc.
Saint Louis USA
Recommended Age: 12+
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