The year was 1898, and Sherlock Holmes was dead. Last appearing in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story The Final Problem, as far as anyone knew, Holmes was at the bottom of Reichenbach Falls.
Readers around the world were in mourning–and in need of a new character to claim his throne. In June of that year, a story, “The Ides of March,” appeared in Cassell’s Magazine.
Written by E.W. Hornung, the world was introduced to A.J. Raffles, a gentleman with all the apparent class of Holmes, but with a secret. Although he lived in London’s prestigious Albany apartments and played cricket for the Gentleman of England, he made his living off committing burglaries.
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The author of the stories was Doyle’s brother-in-law, and he admitted to being inspired by Detective Holmes, describing Raffles as an “inversion” of the iconic character. In his first collection of Raffles short stories, The Amateur Cracksman, Hornung dedicated it “To A.C.D., This Form of Flattery.”
Known by fans as the “Gentleman Thief” or “Amateur Cracksman,” Raffles was joined by his Watson-like sidekick and narrator, Bunny Manders.
An old friend of Raffles, the two reunited after Manders nearly committed suicide in the face of insurmountable debt. Raffles convinced the naive Manders to join him in his criminal ways, saving his life. Together they traversed high society and committed high-end robberies, always immaculately dressed.
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Despite his dubious profession, Raffles was not without a moral compass. Although he targeted the wealthy, he refused to steal from true friends or anyone who offered him kindness.
Raffles justified his crimes by observing the inequality in Victorian society. He knew that if he wasn’t a famous cricketer, many who claimed to be his friends would never allow him into their circles. He saw the distribution of wealth as unfair to those outside the upper class and thought of his crimes as an act of justice.
The Raffles stories gained rapid popularity, although Hornung only wrote 26 stories from 1898 to 1905. Much like Doyle, Hornung was interested in writing other fiction, and intended a short run for Raffles. As an intended final installment, he wrote “The Gift of the Emperor,” in which Raffles and Manders were caught while attempting a robbery on an ocean voyage. Rather than facing punishment, Raffles jumped off the ship, apparently committing suicide.
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Three years later, due to popular demand, Hornung resurrected Raffles, where he rejoined Manders –recently released from prison following his capture–and the two continued to commit robberies, while keeping Raffles’s identity a secret. Unlike the previous stories, Raffles and Manders were more straightforward criminals and arguably did not retain the same charm as they did in earlier adventures.
Although Raffles never found the same level of stardom as Sherlock Holmes, his legacy endures. His character has been portrayed in film, television, and theatre, and continues to live on in fiction. Most recently, Richard Foreman wrote six Raffle stories released in 2011 and 2012, teaming up the Gentleman Thief with Sherlock Holmes.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons