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E. W. Hornung wrote a series of twenty-six short stories and one novel about the adventures of Arthur J. Raffles, cricketeer and gentleman thief, and his chronicler, Harry "Bunny" Manders, in London, between 1898 and 1909, with the first story "The Ides of March" appearing in the June 1898 edition of Cassell's Magazine. The early adventures were published in The Amateur Cracksman and continued with The Black Mask after Raffles's and Bunny's exposure through to Raffles's death. The last collection, A Thief in the Night, as well as the novel, Mr. Justice Raffles, tell of adventures previously withheld.
Hornung dedicated the first collection of stories, The Amateur Cracksman, to his brother-in-law, Arthur Conan Doyle, intending Raffles as a "form of flattery." In contrast to Conan Doyle's Holmes and Watson, Raffles and Bunny are "something dark, morally uncertain, yet convincingly, reassuringly English."
I think I may claim that his famous character Raffles was a kind of inversion of Sherlock Holmes, Bunny playing Watson. He admits as much in his kindly dedication. I think there are few finer examples of short-story writing in our language than these, though I confess I think they are rather dangerous in their suggestion. I told him so before he put pen to paper, and the result has, I fear, borne me out. You must not make the criminal a hero.
Raffles is an antihero. Although a thief, he "never steals from his hosts, he helps old friends in trouble, and in a subsequent volume he dies a hero's death on the veldt during the Boer War." Additionally, the "recognition of the problems of the distribution of wealth is [a] recurrent subtext" throughout the stories.
According to the Strand Magazine, these stories made Raffles "the second most popular fictional character of the time," behind Sherlock Holmes. They have been adapted to film, television, stage, and radio, with the first appearing in 1903.
Raffles is, in many ways, a deliberate inversion of Holmes – he is a "gentleman thief", living at the Albany, a prestigious address in London, playing cricket for the Gentlemen of England and supporting himself by carrying out ingenious burglaries. He is called the "Amateur Cracksman", and often, at first, differentiates between himself and the "professors" – professional criminals from the lower classes.
Bunny Manders, a struggling journalist, is Watson to Raffles' Holmes, his partner and chronicler. They met initially at school and then again on the night Bunny intended to commit suicide after writing bad checks to cover gambling debts. Raffles, also penniless, but thriving, convinced Bunny to join him instead.
Inspector Mackenzie is a Scotland Yard detective, on the trail of a gentleman thief who has committed a number of burglaries on members of British High Society. He is continually frustrated by Raffles, whom he has suspected for many years, but has never been able to provide a shred of evidence in proof of Raffles' presumed crimes. Despite the mutual antipathy, there is a cordial relationship and a grudging respect between the two. While Mackenzie is constantly outwitted by Raffles, it is suggested that he is a very diligent and effective policeman when it comes to other cases.
Occasionally he and Raffles work together, such as in the short story The Gift of the Emperor in which the two cooperate to recover a pearl from a German emissary on the orders of the Foreign Office, thereby saving the British government from an embarrassing scandal. In the last novel, Mackenzie was caught red handed with a diamond of insurmountable value and the tables are changed.
The "Raffles" stories have two distinct phases. In the first phase, Raffles and Bunny are men-about-town who also commit burglaries. Raffles is a famous gentleman cricketer, a marvellous spin bowler who is often invited to social events that would be out of his reach otherwise. "I was asked about for my cricket", he comments after this period is over. It ends when they are caught and exposed on an ocean voyage while attempting another theft; Raffles dives overboard and is presumed drowned. These stories were collected in The Amateur Cracksman. Other stories set in this period, written after Raffles had been "killed off". were collected in A Thief in the Night.
The second phase begins some time later when Bunny – having served a prison sentence – is summoned to the house of a rich invalid. This turns out to be Raffles himself, back in England in disguise. Then begins their "professional" period, exiled from Society, in which they are straightforward thieves trying to earn a living while keeping Raffles's identity a secret. They finally volunteer for the Boer War, where Bunny is wounded and Raffles dies in battle after exposing an enemy spy. These stories were originally collected in The Black Mask, although they were subsequently published in one volume with the phase one stories. The last few stories in A Thief in the Night were set during this period as well.
Like Sherlock Holmes after his disappearance into the Reichenbach Falls, Raffles was never quite the same after his reappearance. The "classic" Raffles elements are all found in the first stories: cricket, high society, West End clubs, Bond Street jewellers – and two men in immaculate evening dress pulling off impossible robberies.
There have been numerous films based on Raffles and his adventures, including:
The story of A. J. Raffles was first performed on Broadway as Raffles, The Amateur Cracksman on 27 October 1903 at the Princess Theatre. The play moved to the Savoy Theatre in February 1904 and closed out in March of that year racking up 168 performances. It starred Kyrle Bellew as Raffles, a young Clara Blandick as Gwendolyn and E. M. Holland as Captain Bedford.
The Raffles character was continued by Barry Perowne. During the 1930s and early 1940s, his series featured Raffles as a fairly typical contemporary pulp adventure hero and plays the role of detective alongside that of thief. When he picked up the series again in the 1950s, and once again during the 1970s, the stories were set closer to the late Victorian-setting of the original stories.
In 2011 and 2012 Richard Foreman published a series of six Raffles stories, collected in a single volume, Raffles: The Complete Innings. These stories, contemporaneous with The Amateur Cracksman, begin with "The Gentleman Thief," in which Raffles and Bunny are hired by Sherlock Holmes to steal a stolen letter. Later stories in the sextet see Raffles and Bunny encounter H.G. Wells and Irene Adler. Foreman's Raffles is also more moralistic than the original: the gentleman thief often donates part of his ill-gotten gains to various charitable causes.
John Kendrick Bangs authored a 1906 novel, R. Holmes & Co., starring Raffles' grandson (and Sherlock Holmes's son, by Raffles' daughter Marjorie), Raffles Holmes. The novel's second chapter tells the story of Holmes's pursuit of Raffles and his growing affection for Raffles's daughter. Bangs also wrote Mrs Raffles, in which Raffles's sidekick Bunny Manders teams-up in America with the cracksman's hitherto-unchronicled wife.
Philip José Farmer put Raffles and Manders into a science-fictional situation in his story, "The Problem of the Sore Bridge – Among Others", in which he and Bunny solve three mysteries unsolved by Sherlock Holmes and save humanity from alien invasion.
The 1977 novel Raffles, by David Fletcher, is a fresh re-write of many of Hornung's original stories, deriving from the television series of the same year.
Adam Corres authored the 2008 novel Raffles and the Match-Fixing Syndicate, a modern crime thriller in which A. J. Raffles, a master of gamesmanship, explores the corrupt world of international cricket match fixing.
The character was mentioned in the 2007 epistolary graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. Following this he recently appeared as a central character in the first chapter of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume III: Century, set in 1910.
The character of Raffles appeared in the TV film Incident at Victoria Falls under the name Stanley Bullard and played by Alan Coates. He encountered Sherlock Holmes, the creation of Hornung's brother-in-law.
Raffles makes a cameo appearance in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula (1992). Although never mentioned by name, the character is described as an amateur cracksman (a reference to the title of the first short story collection), and mutters the epigram, "You play what's chucked at you, I always say."
Raffles and Bunny also make a minor appearance in Lost in a Good Book, a 2004 novel written by Jasper Fforde. They are pulled out of the literary world into the real world to help crack a safe containing the stolen manuscript of Shakespeare's Cardenio.
Raffles, Gentleman Thug is a strip in Viz that features a character who shares his name (plus the name of his assistant, Bunny) with the literary Raffles. He is depicted as an upper-class, late Victorian or early Edwardian version of a "chav".
Jon L. Breen's story "Ruffles versus Ruffles" is based on the conceit that Hornung's Raffles and Perowne's Raffles are separate people, playing off the differing characterisation used by the two authors.