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Literature / Raffles

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Raffles is a series of stories by E.W. Hornung, written beginning in the 1890s, and starring A. J. Raffles, Gentleman Thief.

Hornung was the brother-in-law of Sherlock Holmes creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Raffles was intended as a sort of dark reflection of Sherlock Holmes: rather than an asocial Bunny-Ears Lawyer who works toward law, Raffles is a seemingly respectable gentleman who commits crimes, and rather than the bluff Watson, he is assisted by his chronicler, "Bunny" Manders, something of a Cowardly Sidekick.

The Raffles stories have been adapted for various media. Six Raffles films came out between 1917 and 1939; the best remembered is probably the 1939 version that featured David Niven and Olivia de Havilland, directed by Sam Wood. It was one of Niven's first starring roles. There's also the 1930 one with Ronald Colman and Kay Francis. In 1975, there was a British made-for-TV movie which led to a Raffles television series. In addition, there was a BBC Radio 4 series broadcast from 1985 to 1993. Viz comics parodied him as Raffles Gentleman Thug

Hornung's original stories having long passed into Public Domain, they can all be accessed (with lovingly-researched annotations, to boot!) at yonder link.

Contains examples of:

  • The Ace: Raffles is a strikingly handsome man, a successful thief, an excellent sportsman (he's a famous cricketer and was a good rugby player at school), and is so charismatic that he tends to draw the attention to himself wherever he goes.
  • Affably Evil: Raffles is this trope—he's charming, funny, a good friend to have and a very valuable man to have on your side in a tight pinch...and an unrepentant thief who occasionally flirts with the idea of more serious crimes, like murder.
  • Affectionate Nickname / Embarrassing Nickname: "Bunny" is an unflattering cricket term for an extremely incompetent batsman, which is what Bunny was in his school days; since Raffles has known Bunny since they were boys, he never stopped referring to him as such (and Bunny, for his part, doesn't seem to object).
  • Alliterative Name: Reuben Rosenthall, the antagonist of "A Costume Piece". He is based on the real Barney Barnato, also a Jew who became rich in the South African diamond industry.
  • Alliterative Title: The short story "Le Premiere Pas".
  • Ambiguously Gay: Raffles and Bunny, who have lots of HoYay. Raffles is based on cricketer and LGBT activist George Ives and, to a lesser extent, on Oscar Wilde, and is described as associating with the latter's aesthetic movement — but being surprisingly macho.
  • Amoral Afrikaner: Reuben Rosenthall, an illicit diamond buyer who made his fortune in South Africa.
  • Anti-Hero / Villain Protagonist: Raffles varies between the two from story to story.
  • Attending Your Own Funeral: Done by Raffles after he fakes his death in "The Old Flame".
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: While Raffles is presented as Affably Evil, some of his victims are no saints, and could be said to deserve some comeuppance... a crooked South African diamond magnate, an unscrupulous Australian land baron, and a brutal, brutish American prizefighter all fall into this category.
  • Born Lucky: Raffles often notes his extraordinary good luck, although that starts running out eventually.
  • Caught by Arrogance: In "A Trap to Catch a Cracksman", a Barney Maguire shows his new friend Raffles his collection of trophies and jewels, and boasts that there's a trap for any would-be thieves. Naturally, Raffles waits until later, breaks in, collects up the loot, and is caught after helping himself to Maguire's most expensive whiskey — which Maguire had drugged.
  • Coat, Hat, Mask: A more criminal example than usual, but this is what Raffles and Bunny normally wear when on the job.
  • Colliding Criminal Conspiracies: In "Gentlemen and Players", Raffles and Bunny are at a country estate planning to steal an expensive necklace; a different group of thieves is also staying at the manor with precisely the same plan.
  • Con Men Hate Guns: Played straight with Bunny, and averted with Raffles, who normally carries a revolver when on the job (even if he tends to avoid using it).
  • Depending on the Writer: While Hornung intented Raffles to be a thoroughly unsympathetic character, the association of him with the Gentleman Thief trope meant he came to be seen as similar to Arsène Lupin or The Saint. Barry Perowne, who wrote Raffles stories after Hornung's death, took this perception and ran with it, to the extent that a parody by John L. Breen has Hornung's Raffles and Perowne's Raffles as separate characters.
  • Disguised in Drag: Bunny does this in "The Rest Cure".
  • Downer Ending: The series ends with both Raffles and Bunny getting shot in The Second Boer War. Raffles dies and Bunny becomes an invalid.
  • Driven to Suicide/Interrupted Suicide: How it all begins. After losing all his money and facing disgrace, Bunny comes to Raffles to ask for help. When Raffles explains that he doesn't have any money either Bunny tries to kill himself but Raffles stops him.
  • Droit du Seigneur: A plot point in the short story ""Faustine".
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Raffles will not steal from a home while he is a guest there (stealing from other guests is OK by him, though); he will not cheat at games; he will not betray a fellow thief, even one who's blackmailing him (he despises blackmailers); and in many ways, thieves or no, he and Bunny retain most of their late-Victorian upper-class code.
  • Evil Counterpart: As noted above, Raffles and Bunny are this to Holmes and Watson.
  • Evil Makes You Ugly: Lampshaded and averted; Bunny notes that his life of crime and his stint in prison have done nothing to rob him of his youthful good looks and his innocent-looking face.
  • Faking the Dead: Raffles does this. Twice.
  • Gentleman Thief: One of the first examples of the trope, although Raffles steals because he needs the money—he's not an upper-class man and only keeps up his front as a gentleman-of-leisure thanks to the profits from his crimes.
  • Greedy Jew: Reuben Rosenthall.
  • Hair-Contrast Duo: Blond, naive Bunny and dark, cynical Raffles.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Although there would be plenty of Homoerotic Subtext without it, it's definitely furthered by Bunny's references to himself as being Raffles' "fag" while they were at school together. There is also some straight-faced talk of man-diddling.
  • Hero Antagonist: Inspector Mackenzie of Scotland Yard, an Expy of Inspector Lestrade.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Sort of. While there's definitely subtext and most fans see their relationship as a homosexual one, it never actually states that their relationship is anything but platonic (being written in Victorian times and all) and both characters do have female love interests.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: And how!
  • Important Haircut: Raffles used to have a mustache, but he shaved it off after his first heist.
  • Indy Ploy: In the Holmes stories, Sherlock doesn't tell Watson many of his plans ahead of time, and Watson is consistently astonished and impressed when he learns about the successful results. Raffles keeps leaving his "Watson" out of the loop, then Bunny blunders into the middle of them, then Raffles blames him for screwing up plans he didn't know about. Bunny calls him out on this, sometimes.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: The stories are presented as Bunny's memoirs.
  • Job Title: The first short story collection, The Amateur Cracksman.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: "It's not only been the best time I ever had, old Bunny, but I'm not half sure-"
  • Land Down Under: The Origins Episode, "Le Premiere Pas", is set in Australia.
  • Master of Disguise: Raffles, in a nod to Sherlock Holmes.
  • Nerves of Steel: Raffles, who never loses his cool (outside of situations like Bunny getting shot during the war).
  • Obfuscating Disability: Post-Time Skip, Raffles takes full advantage of his grey hair and often pretends to be an invalid confined to a wheelchair when in public.
  • Of Course I Smoke: Mirabel Renny in "The Raffles Bombshell".
  • Older Than They Look: Bunny is implied to look quite young. In Mr. Justice Raffles, when explaining he and Raffles knew each other from school, Camilla Belsize comments that she'd thought Raffles would have been a little before his time. After the Time Skip he is described as having a moustache that can only be seen in certain lights despite being in his early 30s by then.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Bunny's real name is only ever mentioned in one story: "The Last Word". (It's Harry.)
  • Origins Episode: "Le Premiere Pas", the fourth story of the first collection, is a Whole Episode Flashback where Raffles recounts his first-ever theft.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Raffles often steals from nasty, new-money people. And although he does not normally kill, he does cause the deaths of some very nasty Camorra men through an inadvertent plan. He also connives in allowing a murderer to escape, but the person in question killed a would-be blackmailer, which, by the standards of the time, "didn't count," according to Orwell's essay on Raffles.
  • Prematurely Grey-Haired: Raffles, after faking his death the first time. (He later dies his hair ginger).
  • Psycho Ex-Girlfriend: The titular character in "The Old Flame".
  • Redemption Equals Death: Raffles goes off to fight in the Boer War, thinking it's about time he gives something back to his country. He gets shot and killed.
  • The Resenter: The books have an undertone of class tension, as the (middle-class) Raffles is bitter that his cricket skill is his only ticket into polite society; oftentimes, the nobles treat him no better than the help when they engage his services for the team.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Bunny and Raffles.
  • Sidekick: Bunny. More precisely a Cowardly Sidekick.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Raffles famously favors Sullivan cigarettes to the point that, when returning to London after being lost and presumed dead, he doesn't dare smoke them, since he was so well-known to love that particular brand.
  • The Syndicate: The Black Hand, which featured in two of the later stories, "The Fate of Faustina" and "The Last Laugh", and were a staple of Victorian melodrama in general.
  • Tall, Dark, and Snarky: Raffles.
  • Time Skip: Set between The Gift of the Emperor and No Sinecure.
  • Unbuilt Trope: While Raffles isn't the first Gentleman Thief, he comes from an era where people weren't as accepting of criminal heroes (who got away with it), and so he reads like a nastier version of the Gentleman Thief we are familiar with (Arsène Lupin is the straighter version of that trope).
  • Unreliable Narrator: Lampshaded; in Bunny's own words, "I have omitted whole heinous episodes. I have dwelt unduly on the redeeming side."
  • Victorian London: The setting of many of the stories (although the English countryside, Italy, Australia and Africa also make appearances).
  • The Watson: Bunny, of course.
  • With Friends Like These...: Raffles often treats Bunny cruelly in various ways, such as letting Bunny think Raffles is really dead, not telling him what the real plan is, and making it clear that he doesn't think much of Bunny's brainpower. But Raffles eventually does come around to admitting that in a crunch, there's nobody he'd rather have at his back...and Bunny would cheerfully die for Raffles.
  • Worthy Opponent: The antagonist of "To Catch a Thief", who is a Gentleman Thief like Raffles.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: in "The Return Match", Raffles knocks himself out with chloroform and a blow to the head to prevent the police from thinking he let a criminal escape willingly.
  • Younger Than They Look: During the Time Skip Raffles' hair turns prematurely white and he is described as having aged 20 years.

Tropes particular to the 1939 film:

  • Chekhov's Gun: Raffles notes with admiration the inspector's stylish greatcoat. Later in the movie Raffles puts on the inspector's coat and hat, turns the collar up to obscure his face, and thusly escapes from the cops.
  • Colliding Criminal Conspiracies: Raffles arrives at the Melrose mansion with thoughts of stealing Lady Melrose's necklace, but Lady Melrose's servant is conspiring with her common criminal boyfriend to steal that same necklace.
  • Dramatic Irony: The inspector grouses about the Cracksman's exploits, saying "if it wasn't for him I'd be watching the cricket match," while gesturing to the TV that is showing A.J. Raffles playing in the cricket match. (The most surprising thing about this scene is that it shows a character watching sports on TV in 1939. If this isn't the first film showing a character watching a television program, it must be one of the first.)
  • Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: Newsboys calling out the Amateur Cracksman's latest heist at the start of the film.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "Perhaps you're wondering why I'm in such a gay mood tonight."
  • No Ending: Raffles, having been exposed as the Cracksman, escapes police custody. He leaves a note promising to meet the inspector at 7 pm. He then ducks back into his apartment to meet Gwen, and they have a scene where he promises that no matter what, they'll be together forever. Raffles again exits via the window—and the film ends, with Raffles on the run, before he meets the inspector (or doesn't). Combined with the fact that the film is only 72 minutes long, it plays as if an ending scene was cut from the movie.
  • Stealing from the Till: Bunny goes to Raffles for help after foolishly gambling away army mess money.

Tropes from other adaptations: