A Cricketer Most Queer and Criminal: Literary Spotlight on Raffles and Bunny

August, 2021
Wenying Wu, Blog Correspondent

To borrow from the words of T. S. Eliot, good writers borrow, but great writers steal [1]. E. W. Hornung would probably propose a corollary: the greatest writers steal from family [2]. Throughout the 1890s, the explosive success of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories spawned a glut of deductive copycats and wannabe-Sherlocks, reproducing the formula of the genius detective and his bumbling assistant-slash-scribe. In the earliest edition of The Amateur Cracksman, the first collection of stories centred on E. W. Hornung’s A. J. Raffles, there was a dedication to Doyle, “To A. C. D. This form of flattery.” This direct form of address would probably have seemed either impertinent or fawning, coming just any imitator. Hornung wasn’t just anyone, though; he was Doyle’s brother-in-law [3].

As a distorted reflection of Sherlock Holmes, A. J. Raffles (who first appeared in print in 1898) resembles his creator; like Hornung, he is a thief. At the time of Raffles’ first appearance, Sherlock Holmes had already reached soaring heights success—and Doyle had already unceremoniously killed the character off in “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” published in The Strand magazine [4] in 1893 [5]. In the absence of Holmes, plenty of fictional detectives had attempted to draw Doyle’s former audience. Hornung took the alternative course to the justice-serving detective types that proliferated the market. Raffles is a brilliant criminal, who steals from the wealthy of his own milieu to fund his own comfortable lifestyle of cricket and gentlemen’s clubs [6]. His old schoolmate, accomplice, and chronicler Harry “Bunny” Manders is not a doctor, but a financially distressed journalist [7].

The Raffles and Bunny stories are notable not only for Hornung’s curious relation to Doyle, but also for their longstanding position in the popular consciousness, compared to some of their now-faded contemporaries. Writing decades after the heyday of A. J. Raffles, in his 1944 essay “Raffles and Miss Blandish,” Orwell describes the thief as “one of the best-known characters in English fiction”—though, perhaps the bulk of that fame is limited to the British Isles. There are many clear Holmesian parallels that allowed Hornung to mimic Doyle’s financial success. Raffles’ clever deception of the police and of his victims offers an inversion of the deductive twists of Holmes. Raffles and Holmes also share certain skill sets, such as their almost magical capacities for disguise. Bunny’s cluelessness as to Raffles’ plans creates a similar delayed gratification to Watson’s narration, with an added layer of suspense as Bunny panics over the possibility of prison and public disgrace.

Bunny is no mere copy of Watson, however. In a stylistic feature that one critic claims contributes to a certain datedness in the stories [8], Bunny’s narration frequently flirts with hysteria, as a consequence of Raffles’ opacity with regards to his schemes [9]. Hornung uses Bunny to imitate the narrative structure of a Holmes story. The detective keeps his assistant in at least a little ignorance, to make the final reveal of the mystery’s solution all the more exciting—which makes sense from a narrative perspective—though that consideration is often overshadowed by his insecurity and need for Raffles’ approval. Also keeping Bunny’s cortisol at uncomfortably high levels is his internal struggle with the moral shame of his crimes. Though they may seem quaint [10], the mood swings in Bunny’s narration add a charm and excitement to the stories. While a detective’s failure to solve a crime does not usually overturn the status quo, any failure for this duo may mean jail, death, or—God forbid—public embarrassment. Raffles and Bunny are playing with their lives on the line, and the reader is along for every emotional up-and-down. Every single one.

Perhaps the centre, soul, and conundrum of the stories lies in the relationship between two primary characters: the suave and charming Raffles, and the emotionally erratic yet loyal Bunny. Hornung possibly modelled Raffles off of such noted figures of Victorian queer history, such as author Oscar Wilde (with Bunny modelled off of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas) or poet and early gay activist George Cecil Ives, both of whom Hornung knew personally. In “The Gift of the Emperor,” Bunny spends a hilarious portion of the story being jealous of a young Miss Werner, with whom Raffles has an ambiguously romantic relationship. Bunny explains that he “resented her success with Raffles,” resembling nothing more than a scorned spouse. Of course, as much as these stories are charming tales of subtextually queer Victorians, the homoerotic undertones are uncomfortably intertwined with criminality.

In a distorted parallel with discourses of the corrupting glamour of homosexual behaviour, Raffles is a criminal out of pleasure, not necessity. He and Bunny are frequently in desperate financial straits, but Raffles also often enacts heists for items that would be impossible to fence, merely for the thrill of it all. Raffles’ aesthetic approach to crime, with a focus on its excitement and appeal rather than its moral preoccupations, echoes contemporary Aestheticism—a movement frequently associated with sexual deviancy that found proponents in people like Oscar Wilde.

This decadent “crime for crime’s sake” attitude also bears the marks of class snobbery. Raffles’ role as a larceny hobbyist neatly elides the Victorian social conditions that produced English crimes, and represents a criminality inextricably tied to class status. Poverty? Necessity? Even on the edge of financial ruin, Raffles would never be so vulgar [11]. In a way, Raffles is a creation that mocks the superficiality of upper-class morality in the late Victorian era. In Raffles, the gentleman becomes a series of etiquette and aesthetic preoccupations that produces a model criminal. In another echo of the politics of Victorian homosexuality, Raffles leads a double life, playing at cricket and at crime.

Indeed, Raffles’ gentlemanly pursuits can greatly benefit his secret life. In his aforementioned essay, Orwell identifies cricket as one of the primary characteristics of Raffles in the public consciousness [12], and a central signifier of his social status. In one story, “Nine Points of the Law,” Raffles offers his services to a lawyer trying to surreptitiously acquire a painting for his client. To Raffles’ surprise, the lawyer recognizes Raffles from their cricket matches. Raffles, not wanting to connect his crimes to his real name, is no longer able to brag about his hefty larcenous resume. Instead, he claims to have never stolen a thing before in his life, only turning to thievery now due to desperate straits.

And, despite the entire lack of qualifications he presents with, the lawyer hires him.

Because he’s good at cricket.

Despite all the hijinks and the schemes of his exploits, Raffles can sometimes take a serious turn, but in a way so contradictory and melodramatic that it becomes comic instead; whether or not that’s intentional is a matter of disputes. One of Raffles’ serious ideological stances is a proud patriotism. In “A Jubilee Present,” Raffles steals a beautiful golden cup from the British Museum. Though he originally planned on melting down the gold and exchanging it for cash, the cup he obtains is so thin and so finely wrought that its value would be all but obliterated by the melting process. Instead of keeping the trophy with him, Raffles, to the great shock of Bunny, sends the cup to Queen Victoria as a present because Raffles considers her “infinitely the finest monarch the world has ever seen.”

So comically out of step with his daily incursions on the Queen’s law, Raffles’ intense patriotism rears its ugly head once again in a 1901 story, situated at the end of the Raffles timeline. “The Knees of the Gods” is set at the outbreak of the Boer War, which captivates Raffles and Bunny’s attentions, leaving them uninterested in crime. Soon thereafter, both Raffles and Bunny decide to enlist. After a series of events, including battles, and the unmasking of a spy, Raffles perishes heroically in service of Queen and country, one of so many young men who died to ensure the continuity of the British Empire. So the criminal Raffles, who flaunts conventional morality, dies for the glory of the Union Jack.

There is always a temptation to distance the beloved classic from its time, or highlight seemingly modern aspects as transcendent of its era. The Raffles and Bunny stories demonstrate the weaknesses of this perspective. Though its central representation of queerness (which is rather ambiguous, I might add)  and its challenge of upper-class morality may draw in modern readers, these aspects are constantly intertwined with period-and-author-typical racism, eruptions of class snobbery, and the championing of the Mighty British Empire. So what does that mean? Do these stories hold kernels of modernity in a Victorian container? Or maybe Raffles and Bunny, with their many contradictions, show us that the past—Victorian or otherwise—has so many more multitudes than we idly imagine.



[1] As Eliot’s 1920 essay collection Sacred Wood puts it: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

[2] After all, family would have more difficulty levelling public and vitriolic accusations at you for the plagiarism. It’d make the reunions too awkward.

[3] I’m assuming the logic was something like, “Hey, if Arthur can get the big bucks writing this kind of story, surely I can too.”

[4] No, not that one.

[5] Although Doyle made a fortune off of Sherlock Holmes stories, he viewed his detective fiction as a lesser pursuit that diverted his time from his higher calling: to advocate for spiritualism, a movement predicated on the belief that the souls of the dead can communicate with the living. Doyle was friends with Harry Houdini, who tried and failed to dissuade Doyle from his spiritualist beliefs.

[6] A far cry from Robin Hood, but there’s something presumably less stylish about stealing for necessity.

[7] This likely reflects periods of Hornung’s own career. He was primarily a journalist prior to his success in fiction, and we all know how journalism pays.

[8] Read Stuart Evers’ 2009 article for The Guardian, “The moral riddles of AJ Raffles.”

[9] This is also just a consequence of Bunny’s rather erratic and rash personality. Their first story—”The Ides of March”—opens with Bunny in heavy debt and threatening suicide if Raffles is unable to aid him. In paraphrase, this is the plot that ensues:

Bunny: I’d do anything for the money, anything!

Raffles: Anything?

A few hours later, mid-robbery:

                  Bunny: Wait, no, we’re committing—a crime?!

Raffles: Well, you said anything. What were you thinking of?

[10] Bunny is the epitome of “he’s hot and he’s cold / he’s yes and he’s no / he’s in and he’s out [of the heist],” etc.

[11] According to Orwell, the later loss of Raffles’ amateur status is a great blow and tragedy to the thief, as it indicates an irreconcilable break from his prior social status.

[12] As well, Orwell characterizes cricket, never quite as popular in England as football and the like, as a sport of the wealthy that prioritizes glamour and style in the gameplay—very much a parallel of Raffles’ approach to crime.

Bunny explains that he “resented her success with Raffles,” resembling nothing more than a scorned spouse. Of course, as much as these stories are charming tales of subtextually queer Victorians, the homoerotic undertones are uncomfortably intertwined with criminality.

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