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Exploits of AJ Raffles and his Bunny

Before the gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, there was A.J. Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman. The twenty-six short stories and one novel written round the turn of the century (1898-1909) by E.W. Hornung remains, like his brother-in-law's creation of Sherlock Holmes, one of the more endearing characters in English literature. But one, sadly, who has not had the endurance of his law-abiding counterpart.

For Raffles was outside the law. Although he lived the public life of a respectable English gentleman and amateur cricketer, he owed his wealth and life of leisure to his nocturnal game--that as a "cracksman," or thief.

His right-hand man is none other than Harry "Bunny" Manders, his fag from his schoolboy days. Yes, I said fag. For in the good old days, the British public school system allowed older boys to take younger boys as their personal servants. Equally, yes, I said his friend's name was Bunny. For that is the only name Raffles ever calls him by (unless it's "my dear chap," "my good rabbit" or "my dear boy").

When we first meet Raffles, his dear old fag Bunny has put himself in a disgraceful position. He has squandered his family's inheritance living his own life of gentlemanly luxury and gambling. Seeking help from his old school-mate, Bunny's suicidal hand is stayed by Raffles who then proceeds to seduce him into a life of crime.

If this entire scenario doesn't pique your almost-canon ears, perhaps a few passages from the stories--as written by the hero-worshiping Bunny--will help convince you:

Old Raffles opened his own door to me. I cannot remember finding him fresher, more immaculate, more delightful to behold in every way. Could I paint a picture of Raffles with something other than my pen, it would be as I saw him that bright March morning, at his open door in the Albany, a trim, slim figure in matutinal grey, cool and gay and breezy as incarnate spring.
No? Not convinced yet?

It was Raffles I loved. It was not the dark life we led together, still less its base rewards; it was the man himself, his gayety, his humour, his dazzling audacity, his incomparable courage and resource. And a very horror of turning to him again in mere need of greed set the seal on my first angry resolution. But the anger was soon gone out of me, and when at length Raffles bridged the gap by coming to me, I rose to greet him almost with a shout.
Honestly, you could open any page in any of the stories and find Bunny describing his Raffles as "irresistible at will" or the "most masterful man" he had ever known.

The attraction is not one-sided.

"What a rabbit you are at a quotation!

"'And I think that the field of Philippi
Was where Caesar came to an end;
But who gave old Brutus the tip, I
Can't comprehend!'
"You may have forgotten your Shakespeare, Bunny, but you ought to remember that."

And I did, vaguely, but had no idea what it or Raffles meant, as I plainly told him.

Now we had barely been a minute whispering where we stood, and the whole street was still as silent as the tomb. To me there seemed least danger in discussing the matter quietly on the spot. But even as he gave me my dismissal Raffles turned and caught the sill above him, first with one hand and then with the other. His legs swung like a pendulum as he drew himself up with one arm, then shifted the position of the other hand, and very gradually worked himself waist-high with the sill. But the sill was too narrow for him; that was as far as he could get unaided; and it was as much as I could bear to see of a feat which in itself might have hardened my conscience and softened my heart. But I had identified his doggerel verse at last. I am ashamed to say that it was part of a set of my very own writing in the school magazine of my time. So Raffles knew the stuff better than I did myself, and yet scorned to press his flattery to win me over! He had won me: in a second my rounded shoulders were a pedestal for those dangling feet.

Copyright on the Raffles stories expired in 1974; you may find the text nearly anywhere online, including The Annotated A.J. Raffles (my own invention; it's in progress, but all the text is there).

If these two Victorian burglars intrigue you, do stop by crimeandcricket!



Jan. 6th, 2010 03:34 am (UTC)
Oh yusssss. Anthony Valentine and Christopher Strauli (who is amazingly perfect as Bunny). There's a pilot that gets shown on ITV in England ever so often, but never got included in the DVD/VHS sets. The DVD sets are no longer available in North America (including Canada), but they are still available in England. And, of course, the Internets where nothing dies and old things come back to life.

There's a few movies in the '20s and '30s, and a recent remake on British television, but none of those compare to the slashiness that is the 1977 Raffles. (Except, of course, the BBC radio series from the '80s, or Graham Greene's play The Return of A.J. Raffles from the '70s....)