Pan, London, 1977
The blurb on the back:
The prince of amateur cracksmen in the golden age of Victoria.
I know I shouldn't be disappointed, but damn it all, I am. I'm disappointed.
AJ Raffles - for those of you not fully up to speed - was the creation of late-Victorian writer EW Hornung, and he was a thief. Not just any thief, mind you, but a gentleman thief, a decent ex-public schoolboy who played cricket for England, lived in The Albany and nicked the odd necklace on the weekend. He was a wonderful character, clearly intended as a counterpoint to Sherlock Holmes (created by Hornung's brother-in-law, Arthur Conan Doyle) and an enduring figure in popular culture. Following on from Ronald Colman (1930) and David Niven (1939), Anthony Valentine surprised everyone by producing the definitive interpretation of the amateur cracksman in a 1977 TV series. That version was written by Philip Mackie, and this book is based on his screenplays.
And there's the problem. The original stories are really very fine indeed, so why not just republish them with Mr Valentine's photo on the cover? Why bother rewriting them? Particularly if the result is going to miss out on the single most modern element of the tales. Because while Mr Valentine made a beautifully decadent Raffles, there was no real suggestion of the homosexual undercurrents that informed the original. And by the time it's all been rewritten here, there's definitely nothing left.
In case there's any suspicion that I'm reading into the text a bit too heavily, let me marshal my artillery to demonstrate that the Hornung stories do constitute a gay text:
AJ Raffles was a Victorian gentleman leading a double life, having to conceal his real nature for fear of scandal.
The stories were told by Bunny Manders, formerly Raffles' fag at school and now his colleague in crime. Bunny, of course, is deeply infatuated with Raffles, his Byronic anti-hero and wish-fulfilment alter ego. Even by the standards of Holmes and Watson, this is a very close relationship.
When Raffles had to disappear, he went undercover using the name Mr Maturin. The significance of this may not be immediately apparent, but Charles Maturin was an Irish writer from the second generation of Gothic novelists, whose most famous work was Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). He was also an ancestor of Oscar Wilde, and when Wilde was released from jail, he travelled to exile in France under the cover-name of Melmoth. In other words, Hornung was - in the quietest way imaginable - very deliberately identifying his creation with the most notoriously disgraced figure in English society. There is really no room here for coincidence.
To me, this last point is quite extraordinary. The hint is so subtle that it's almost impossible to know who was supposed to pick it up. (Presumably not Hornung's wife.)
In any event, I'm convinced that you're convinced. And I don't even need to quote Raffles' rather fine epigram: 'I used to have rather a heavy moustache, but I lost it the day after I lost my innocence.' If you are looking for quotes, however, here's a charming little vignette from the original stories; Raffles has been abducted, but just in time Bunny manages to find him:
I think you'd have to put an Age Check on a website that illustrated this.
Anyway, my point is that there's none of that stuff here. David Fletcher (a pseudonym of Dulan Barber, who also wrote under the name Owen Brookes) simply destroys the charm and the subversion of the original and adds nothing worth having. Every decision he makes is damaging, most crucial of all being his introduction of an omniscient narrator to replace the adulatory tone of Bunny.
My advice? Seek out the original stories - still widely available - and try to find a copy of the TV series (let me know if you succeed), but avoid this stuff altogether.
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 2/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 2/5
here's some of Hornung's original stories