“The School Of Hard Knox, or a Decalogue For The 1990s” by Simon Brett
In his classic 1944 essay on crime fiction, “Raffles and Miss Blandish,” George Orwell describes the accomplishment of E. W. Hornung’s Raffles’ stories as their shift from a focus on the policeman, or law- abiding detective, to that of the criminal. The character of Raffles, himself, also marks a change in crime fiction of the period because he is a gentleman cracksman, with public school ties, and an upper-class lifestyle. Orwell also notes that the fact Hornung made his character a cricket player not only provided Raffles with a plausible disguise, but because cricket is largely a game of “style” and “form” with ill-defined rules, playing the game is partly “an ethical business” which allowed Hornung to draw the “sharpest moral contrast” imaginable for the society for which these stories were written. Finally, Orwell claims, now more than fifty years ago, that these tales may be read not only for their exacting period atmosphere and exceptional style but also as moral exempla of contemporary worth.
Ernest William Hornung was born in Yorkshire in 1866 and was educated at Uppingham School. For his health in 1884 he traveled to Australia, the setting for several of his later novels. When he returned to England Horning took up journalism and worked for newspapers and journals in London where he met Arthur Conan Doyle, whose sister, Constance, he married in 1893. It has often been remarked–even by Doyle himself–that Raffles and his Bunny resemble an inversion of Holmes and Watson.
The first Raffles story appeared in Cassell’s Magazine in 1898, and over the next half a dozen years Hornung wrote another twenty-five Raffle’s tales which were gathered into three collections: The Amateur Cracksman (1899), The Black Mask (1901)–which appeared in the U.S. as Raffles: Further Adventures of the Amateur Cracksman–and A Thief in the Night (1905). He wrote a novel featuring his anti-hero, Mr. Justice Raffles (1909) and with Eugene W. Presbrey, two plays: “Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman” and “A Visit from Raffles,” both of which enjoyed some success. During the Great War Hornung worked for the YMCA organizing a mobile library for the troops. After the war he returned to France and settled at St. Jean de Luz where he died in 1921 and is buried beside another British author, Geroge Gissing, in the local cemetery.
As Orwell pointed out, Raffles’ distinctive characteristic is his social position, the maintenance of which provides one of the motives for his illegal activities and values of which largely determine the rules of his criminal behavior. For example, although Raffles steals from the rich who are often acquaintances of his, he never violates the code of hospitality by thieving from his host. He and Bunny unquestionably accept the rules of “Society” and are the most conventional of British patriots. Raffles never carries a gun and usually does not contemplate murder. Orwell is at pains to point out that Raffles actually does kill one man and is responsible for the death of two others, but since they are all three “foreigners” and behave in a “reprehensible manner” that presumably really doesn’t count. In the final story in The Black Mask, “The Knees of the Gods,” he dies fighting against the Boers, thereby redeeming himself from his criminal activities in the eyes of both Bunny and the reader.
Clive Bloom in his introduction to The Collected Raffles Stories observes that Raffles was a product of the age of the mass reading public which created new markets for inexpensive, large circulation magazines that demanded self-contained narratives which had “clear beginnings, middles, and ends, with climaxes and resolutions which were wholesome and sexless and yet exciting and escapist.” Hornung’s ability to deliver stories conforming to these requirements largely accounts for the content and shape of the Raffles’ tales and for his success as a literary figure. Raffles’ contemporary fame–like his brother-in-law’s creation, Sherlock Holmes–was so prominent that the name of “Raffles” slid into the English language as a term for a “gentlemanly” thief. It is an linguistic accolade achieved by very few literary characters.
Hornung’s Raffles stories are witty satires on the manners and mores of a late Victorian world, but they provide more than social commentary. The characters of Raffles and Bunny today remain fresh in part because they change throughout the tales and because Hornung combine so well the contraries of decency and criminality. As Bloom reminds us, we read these stories “to enjoy the frisson of the illicit and the secretive whilst remaining respectable,” and because in our modern age of mass culture, international corporations, and huge governmental bureaucracies, Raffles remains an individual, “the last Victorian hero and the first modern anti-hero, an entrepreneur, a gentleman, and a thief.”
An Annotated Simon Brett Reading List
Selected Mrs. Pargeter Mysteries
Mrs. Pargeter's Plot, 1996
Simon Brett’s career as a radio, television and stage producer, writer and occasional actor provided the background for his series featuring the charming, hard-drinking English actor, Charles Paris. Brett’s Mrs. Pargeter series features a criminal’s widow who makes excellent use of her dead husband’s contacts. Simon Brett’s most recent Charles Paris novel, Dead Room Farce, was published by St. Martin’s in 1998. His new Mrs. Pargeter caper, Mrs. Pargeter’s Point of Honour, will be coming from Scribner this year. Simon is currently working on the first of a new series of mysteries, set in the English seaside village of Fethering.
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