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Category Archives: Short Stories

E.W. HORNUNG. Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman (1899).

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.
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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.”

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2010 in British, Golden Age, Short Stories

 

CORNELL WOOLRICH. Rear Window and Other Stories (1984).

Woolrich was the prose poet of mid-century urban anomie. Which isn’t to say that his prose is all that poetic. In fact, it’s rather clunky, swerving from a mood of rhapsody that falls short in an attempt to sound like F. Scott Fitzgerald (an early literary idol for Woolrich) to a tough-guy argot that overshoots the mark in a bid to sound Runyonesque. Overall, it has a rough, brittle, dated feel, rather like the now-flaking pulp-magazine pages on which much of Woolrich’s work first saw print. But Woolrich had the vision of a poet—a vision pure and deeply personal, yet capable of touching a soft nerve in people who shared his lonely-in-a-crowd fatalism. Almost single-handedly, he created the genre known as noir.RearWindowCover.jpg

The lead entry in this collection of five novella-length tales, “Rear Window” (originally published as “It Had to Be Murder”), became the basis of the classic Alfred Hitchcock film of that title, while each of the others inspired an episode of Hitchcock’s television series. “Rear Window,” despite its renown, has a relatively blithe tone that puts it at a remove from the main body of the author’s work. It is the last tale here, “Momentum,” that most thoroughly explores the archetypal Woolrich themes. Paine, the none-too-subtly named anti-hero, has no job, no money, and no prospects. He has a wife whom he cannot feed and a crummy apartment from which he faces imminent eviction. To say that he’s “down on his luck” would be to suggest falsely that he had any luck in the first place. His last hope is to collect some back-pay from an old boss of his. But once he reaches the boss’s house, one damn thing—one damning thing—follows another. He commits robbery. He commits murder. Then, to cover his tracks, he commits other murders. Here’s a passage from the saga of Paine that exemplifies Woolrich’s often awkward style, even as it captures the bleak poetry of his worldview: “Instinctively he knew he was doomed now, if he hadn’t before. There wasn’t any more of the consternation he had felt the first two times. He kept buying off time with bullets, that was all it was now. And the rate of interest kept going higher, the time limit kept shortening. There wasn’t even any time to feel sorry.” A typical Woolrich protagonist, Paine finds himself trapped in the infernal machine that is the modern city. He lacks even the dignity that comes with being a secure cog in that contraption. Instead, the grim claw of Fate has flung him mercilessly into its gears.

Woolrich set many of his stories in New York, and his work as a whole conjures up the image of that teeming, “naked” city during the Depression-shadowed 1930s and 1940s. But in the tales that make up this volume, Woolrich bleaches any trace of specificity from the cruel metropolis of his imagination. Their setting might as well be Anywhere, USA—or, more to the point, Nowhere, USA. That schematic sense of location reinforces the strange, stripped-down quality of the stories themselves. They oddly resemble both a film treatment, with little more than a bone-bare plot to hold one’s attention, and a fever dream, with a residue of unease that lingers but eludes one’s mental grasp. In between, where individual character and social truth and the other stuff of fiction usually unfold, there is nothing.

 
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Posted by on March 16, 2010 in American, Noir, Short Stories