The exploits of the gentleman burglar A.J. Raffles, narrated by Bunny, his occasionally reluctant but ultimately stalwart comrade in theft, mirror the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and his friend and chronicler, Dr. Watson. That’s precisely what Hornung had in mind, having observed the astonishing success of his brother-in-law Arthur Conan Doyle. (He was married to the latter’s sister.) Inverting the Sherlockian formula, Hornung places his jaunty, masterful hero and his loyal-sidekick figure on the far side of the law. Like Doyle, however, he has created a saga whose real subject is neither crime nor crime-fighting, but male companionship—the rough-and-ready satisfaction that it affords, the trace of melancholy that runs through it.
Boyish camaraderie animates the Raffles-Bunny friendship at its outset. Raffles, a celebrated cricketer, and Bunny, an old chum whose only trade is that of a Grub Street scribbler, both lack the legitimate means to live properly as “men about town.” So they opt for safe-cracking and jewel-lifting, and they delve into the job as if it were a boarding-school lark. Their labor might not be honest, but they uphold the lofty code that extends from the ancient public school to the Pall Mall club: Among these thieves, there is honor aplenty.
Yet, as this larcenous collaboration progresses, a note of homo-romantic drama comes into play. In the final adventure, Raffles and Bunny share a ship’s cabin as they sail across the Mediterranean; their aim is to grab a pearl that belongs to a fellow passenger. When Raffles launches into an onboard flirtation with a young woman, Bunny begins to sulk. He calls the interloping female a “Colonial minx” (she hails from Australia) and a “chit.” About her and his friend, he writes: “They were always together. It was absurd.” Bunny’s pouting itself seems absurd, at least to modern eyes. It makes for a strange turn—comic but also slightly dark—in an otherwise genial sojourn through the “high life” of the late-Victorian bachelor.
At the level of plot, the eight loosely linked stories in this début collection (two other Raffles books followed from Hornung’s pen) are slighter than even the most mediocre Holmes tales. Rather than pulling off ingenious heists, Raffles and Bunny devote most of their on-the-page time to making narrow escapes from one bumbling pursuer or another. Beyond all of the derring-do, what stands out are some passages of fine writing—“fine” not in a fussy or precious way, but in the sense of being actually pretty good. Hornung certainly knows how to set a mood: “I could see no house at all, only the angle of a high wall rising solitary in the night, with the starlight glittering on battlements of broken glass; and in the wall a tall green gate, bristling with spikes.”