Gentleman Crooks

or:  the appeal of glamorous transgression to the male reader of the nineteen-twenties

(A paper given at the Masculine Middlebrow conference at the University of London, 2009)

Graham Greene was fond of quoting these lines from Browning’s ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology’:

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist. (Greene, 85)

If those were Greene’s interests, he was very like the average middlebrow reader. From the Robin Hood ballads to The Sopranos and The Wire, the enduring heroes and heroines of popular fiction have very often been walking oxymorons – gallant highwaymen, principled outlaws, sincere prostitutes, rule-breaking cops. The contradictions within the character allow writers consider the contradictions within society, and invite the reader to recognise conflicts between – for example – law and ethics. The gentleman burglar is a good example; as a thief he sets himself outside the law, but as a gentleman he should be aware of the ethical and social implications of what he is doing. Like all the best genres, this one adapts to the needs and preoccupation of the age in which it is written.
The gentleman thief descends from the ambiguous hero-villains of Victorian Newgate novels, but the important precursor for writers of the 1920s was Raffles, created by Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, E.W. Hornung, and first serialised in 1898 in Cassell’s Magazine, a rival to the Strand (where Sherlock Holmes’s adventures appeared). Raffles was an anti-hero for the aesthetic 1890s whose talent and elegance were displayed through his prowess at cricket; he was ‘a dangerous bat, a brilliant field, and perhaps the very finest slow bowler of his decade.’ (Hornung 1899, 68.) Making him a slow bowler is significant; Raffles’ successes come from guile, not brute force. As a figure of the fin de siècle, his career has similarities to that of Oscar Wilde. His talent gives him an entree into the best circles, and his social skills ensure his success, while, secretly, he is deeply subversive. Wilde claimed to respect no rules but the rules of art; we are told that ‘the only laws of man that Raffles really respected were those of the M.C.C.’ (Hornung 1909, 141.) Like Wilde, Raffles had glamour, which made him dangerous. Cassell’s Magazine certainly thought so. When they published the first of his adventures in the June 1898 edition, they took pains to surround it with the trappings of morality. The series did not then have the jaunty title of The Amateur Cracksman but was called In the Chains of Crime, a title that was incorporated into an image of a desperate Bunny (wearing the evening dress that signifies his social position) being dragged to perdition by a grim hooded skeletal figure representing Death, or Crime, or possibly Justice. The subheading (‘Being the Confessions of a late Prisoner of the Crown, and sometime accomplice of the more notorious A. J. Raffles, Cricketer and Criminal, whose fate is unknown.’) reassures readers that retribution will occur.

Hornung offered his readers a choice of literary pleasures. As well as the standard satisfactions of the crime story – the sense of jeopardy, the thrill of vicariously entering the dark places of society, and the delight of a neat narrative closure – Mr Miniver and his fellow readers could, as they pleased, find more. The victims of Raffles’s crimes were almost always clearly labelled as the undeserving rich, which allowed some readers temporarily to identify with Raffles’s panache and glamorous rule-breaking. Others might take moralistic pleasure in his status as a kind of vigilante, stealing from the undeserving rich. Still others could derive a different kind of gratification from identifying with Bunny, the nervous sidekick and adoring chronicler, whose sufferings are in proportion to Raffles’s success, for when Raffles is unmasked, it is Bunny who is sent to prison. Raffles has to go into hiding, but he comes back for more adventures, and his final come-uppance is a glamorous one. He dies a hero’s death on a Boer War battlefield, with his past sins heroically paid for, and there is a rich sentimental pleasure to be derived from that kind of story, too. These stories therefore provided a rich assortment of potential pleasures for the readers of the day – and of later days, too, since the character had a considerable afterlife. As well as the stage adaptation by Hornung and Eugene Presbrey, there were at least five film adaptations of Raffles stories during the silent era and several later ones, the most notable of which was the 1939 film starring David Niven (full details can be found on the Internet Movie Database). After Hornung’s death the stories were continued by other writers, most notably Barry Perowne, whose stories, originally published in fiction magazines, filled nine collections, from Raffles After Dark in 1933 to the posthumous Raffles of the M.C.C. in 1979.
Out of all the pleasures that the Raffles stories offered, which were most important to readers? Three contrasting series about gentleman crooks that appeared in the decade after the First World War possibly help to indicate the relative importance of the ways in which this genre appealed to readers. These are the ‘Captain Dorry’ stories by A.M. Burrage, which appeared in Lloyds’ Magazine during 1921; the series of ‘Blackshirt’ novels by Bruce Graeme, which were published from 1924 onwards; and the ‘Saint’ stories of Leslie Charteris, which first began to appear in the late twenties. The heroes of each of these series have These series are very different from one another, and their fortunes
Alfred McLelland Burrage (born 1899) was a prolific writer for the magazines, and from a magazine-writing family; his father and uncle were both prolific producers of boys’ fiction, and young Alfred had his first story published when he was only 16. By the time he was in his mid-twenties he had established himself as a dependable producer of light romantic fiction in magazines such as The Storyteller and The London Magazine. In 1916 he enlisted as a private in the Artists Rifles, and he continued to produce magazine stories even while serving in the Army (see his scabrous book of mamois, War is War, published under the pseudonym of Ex’Private X in 1930). After the War he seems to have wanted to extend his literary repertoire, away from light romances into more challenging territory.
The Strange Career of Captain Dorry is a series of five stories about an ex-officer who left the Army with an M.C. but with poor employment prospects. Dorry is recruited by a mysterious character called Fewgin to join a select band of ex-army thieves – who steal only from ‘certain vampires who made money out of the war, and, by keeping up prices, are continuing to make money out of the peace.’ (Lloyds Magazine, March 1921, 381.) Fewgin justifies what he does:

I help brave men who cannot help themselves. I give them a chance to get back a little of their own from the men who battened and fattened on them, who helped to starve their dependents while they were fighting, who smoked fat cigars in the haunts of their betters, and hoped the war might never end. (Lloyds Magazine, March 1921, 382.)

These are the tough-minded values of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond taken one step further. Drummond in The Black Gang (1922) sets up a proto-Fascist organisation to punish the enemies of England in ways that the police could not — by vigorously employing a rhino-hide whip, for example —but his motives are disinterested. Dorry and Fewgin commit outright crime, and happily profit from it.
In the first of the stories, they rob a profiteer, a man who made a fortune manufacturing inferior jam during the War, one Isaac Sheintz (these stories are consistently anti-Semitic). Sheintz has bought a valuable pearl necklace for Muriel Stedwich, the daughter of an impoverished family, who is being forced to marry him to save the family estate (Young women threatened by similar fates are also used by Hornung in Mr. Justice Raffles, and by Sapper in Mufti). Dorry and Fewgin steal the necklace, but in this case the proceeds go to the impoverished decent ex-soldier whom Muriel truly loves, so that she can now marry him. Other stories deal with a second-hand dealer who cheats old ladies, so is robbed in his turn, a family of nouveaux-riches who have bought up an old family home, and are scared out of it by apparent poltergeists, and a dishonest Trade Union leader who is cheating both his members and his Russian paymasters. Perhaps the most interesting of the group is about some treasure buried in wartime, and an officer who has murdered the men who share the secret of it. Dorry and Fewgin suffer few qualms; they take for granted their right to punish the unworthy, and in the five stories printed in Lloyds Magazine they get no kind of come-uppance or punishment. They are presented as ex-soldiers tackling the social problems of the post-war world, and the stories back them to the hilt.
Considerably more troubled is another ex-soldier – Richard Verrell who, in the long series of novels begun by Bruce Graeme in 1924, assumes the identity of ‘Blackshirt’. Verrell’s early life, we learn, had been eventful. Snatched from his nurse when an infant, he had been brought up by East End thieves who trained him as a pickpocket and burglar. He freed himself from that environment, and became a best-selling author of crime novels.

Then came the war. Who should be the first to answer the call but Verrell, whose soul craved for adventure? Time after time he performed deeds of valour which caused his name to ring loud with renown throughout the army, but miraculously his life was spared and his bravery earned its own reward, for he was presented with the M.M. (Graeme 1925, 25)

‘Nine months after the Armistice’ (and there seems to be a deliberate symbolism in this gestation period) ‘Blackshirt’ is born. Dressed entirely in black, and with a black mask, he engages in daring burglaries, just for the thrill of it. There is a strong implication that the War had fulfilled his craving for adventure, and that in peacetime only crime will do the same. The proceeds are kept in his safe, rather than being sold for profit. Many of his adventures are about his breaking in to houses to put the goods back where he found them, for the sake of honour. Blackshirt’s victims are the rich, and one at least is an unpleasant industrialist of the type that Captain Dorry would have gone after on principle, but his motives are not vengeful. Nor are they political, Graeme insists. At the start of the first ‘Blackshirt’ book, one character responds to hearing the criminal’s name with ‘Sounds to me like a Fascist!’, but another tells him he is on the wrong track, for ‘whereas the Fascisti stand for law and order, Blackshirt is responsible for many mysterious affairs which are decidedly against the law.’ (Graeme 1925, 13)
The black uniform is something that separates him from the common run of crooks, and it is very close to the uniform of a gentleman:

What little difference there was… Merely the matter of a shirt; although Blackshirt wore the evening clothes of his other self, the one thing he never used was the spotless white shirt of Richard Verrell, knowing full well that to do so would, in effect, be asking for trouble. (Graeme 1929, 87.)

Verrell is constantly in jeopardy. He receives mysterious telephone calls from a woman who has guessed his identity, and who gives him missions to fulfil. He falls in love with her voice. If his stealing is the result of a war neurosis, she gives him the talking cure. At the end of the novel, he marries her, and his criminal career is at an end — which was a problem when the book’s success prompted Graeme to write a sequel.
In The Return of Blackshirt, (1927) Graeme solved the problem of his character’s reformation by involving him in a train crash. This produces amnesia (a favourite device of novelists and other writers in the post-war decade).ii Verrell forgets all about his cure and his marriage and settles back into the old thieving routine — and once again Bobbie gives him the telephone cure. Blackshirt Again (1929) takes him back to his pre-cure days and involves him in another dangerous exploit. Having executed a brilliantly planned robbery, he is motivated by his conscience to give some of the jewels back, which involves him in perilous complications with people who guess his identity. Once again, he begins by stealing for thrills, and spends the rest of the book suffering.
The Blackshirt stories are far less probable than the Captain Dorry ones, yet they were far more successful. Despite giving clear voice to the standard prejudices of the immediately post-war years, Captain Dorry never made it out of the magazines and into hard covers, and does not seem even to have managed a second series in the magazines. Possibly Burrage made the prejudices too explicit, and the cruelty too obvious. In his ‘Berry’ stories, Dornford Yates often has his idle rich heroes and heroines besting a nouveau riche foreigner who has done well out of the war, but his arch and elaborate style insists on his playfulness, and offers the reader the excuse that the doling out of poetic justice is just in fun. Captain Dorry lacks the light touch. You are invited to take him seriously.
Blackshirt is serious, too, but he offers a different sort of literary pleasure. In ‘Blackshirt’ the daring of Raffles and the vulnerability of Bunny are combined into one character. He is a thrill-seeking daredevil executing audacious feats, but he has both a conscience and a consciousness of the jeopardy in which he finds himself. What is more, the stories suggest a subtext of unconscious motivation that would have an appeal to readers in the twenties when the Freudian ideas were entering middlebrow culture.
It was a mixture that worked. Bruce Graeme produced ten ‘Blackshirt’ novels in all, and, under a slightly different name, a series about Blackshirt’s swashbuckling eighteenth-century ancestor, Monsieur Blackshirt. In the nineteen-forties he began a series about Anthony Verrell, Blackshirt’s son, and when he grew tired of the character, his son continued with him into the nineteen-fifties, under the pen-name of Roderic Graeme.
The success of Blackshirt, however, was considerably less than that of another character invented later in the nineteen-twenties. Simon Templar, or the Saint, was only occasionally a burglar, and sometimes not considered a gentleman, but he is definitely within the buccaneering Raffles tradition. Where Dorry, Blackshirt and Raffles are provided by their authors with fairly detailed back-stories, the Saint appears from nowhere in Meet the Tiger (1928), and his early life and background are never explained.
The origin of Leslie Charteris, his author, however, is interesting, and possibly significant. Born Leslie Charles Bowyer Yin in Singapore (then a British colony) on May 12, 1907, He died in Windsor, England on April 15, 1993 at age 85. His father, Dr. S. C. Yin was a wealthy Chinese surgeon, (Charteris claimed he was a direct descendant of the emperors of China during the Shang dynasty) his mother was English. At the end of the Great War his parents split up, and in 1919 Charteris was sent to school in England – first prep, then public. He described his schooldays as ‘a most unhappy time’. (Lofts and Adley, 15)
In 1925 he went to Cambridge, and in 1926 he drove a strike-breaking bus during the General Strike. Then he gave up university, legally changed his name by deed-poll to Leslie Charteris and became a writer of crime stories for magazines like The Thriller. In 1927, he sent the manuscript of his first novel to Ward Lock, who gave him a three-book contract — at the age of twenty. It seems likely that his own sense of being a social outsider was put to artistic use by being sublimated in the creation of a hero who glories in being an outsider, triumphing over the conventional.
Simon Templar’s early history may be mysterious, but unlike Raffles or Blackshirt he did not arrive fully formed in his first adventure. In Meet the Tiger he is not quite the suave hero of later books, but much more of a rugged outdoor type, an adventurer out to owes a great deal to Bulldog Drummond, the ex-officer as hero. Simon Templar’s age is 29 in 1928. He would have been just old enough to fight in the Great War, and his servant, Orace, definitely did, being a wounded ex-sergeant whose military career is frequently mentioned. They live together in a disused pill-box that had been part of coastal defences, So that Templar is surrounded by wartime imagery. He has many of the habits and characteristics of Drummond, especially the facetiousness that Drummond used as a weapon, because he knows ‘this particular form of baiting invariably infuriated Peterson.’ (Sapper, 148)
In Simon Templar, this facetiousness becomes enlarged and exaggerated. The Saint has his trusty throwing knife and the cigarette case with the edge sharpened, ready to cut through the ropes that villains use to restrain him, but his main weapon is language. His tone is incorrigibly jokey, especially when he is in a tough situation. He has what Charteris calls ‘a superbly reckless bravado.’ If an enemy is pointing a gun at him, you can depend on it that the saint will coolly compose an impromptu limerick to disconcert him. Is this what the half-Chinese adolescent had done to gain a moral victory over the school bullies? Or what he wished he could have done?
The Templar of Meet the Tiger is not quite the fully-formed Saint, however. The book only did moderately well, and Charteris invented other heroes. When Templar appeared again, it was in the Thriller magazine, as a member of a team, the Five Kings, who rob and punish criminals of various sorts. At the scene of their crime they leave five playing cards — four Kings and a Joker. Simon Templar is the Joker, and his facetiousness marks him off as different from the rest of the group, and as their spokesman and leader. It must have become clear to Charteris that the Joker was the one who could rule the kings, because he is different, and the distinction that marks him as different from them, and therefore as leader, is the language. His panache is similar in degree to that of Raffles, but different in kind. Whereas Raffles deployed a charm that got him accepted in any society, the Saint’s facetiousness emphasises his separation from the norms of society; it is found profoundly irritating by many characters, and not just the evil ones. Only his own small circle of followers, and the readers who are on his wavelength, fully appreciate it.
One of the sources of his facetiousness is reference to the conventions of the thriller genre. In that first novel, Meet the Tiger, he says:

I’ve met the most wonderful girl in the world. By all the laws of adventure, I’m bound to have to to save her life two or three times during the next ten days. I shall kiss her very passionately in the next chapter, and we shall be married. (Charteris 1928, 21.)

In the event, he kisses her passionately, and more, in the last chapter, but he doesn’t marry her.
Like his hero, Charteris himself plays fast and loose with generic expectations. In the same book, Meet the Tiger, there is a silly-ass character, with a silly-ass name – Algernon de Breton Lomas-Coper. He is defined by Charteris in literary terms, as:

one of the genial Algy’s made famous by Mr P.G.Wodehouse, and accordingly he often ejaculated “What? What?” To show he could hardly believe his own brilliance. (Charteris 1928, 22.)

The story then takes us through a typical narrative manoeuvre of the late twenties – the silly ass is proved to have strength and courage after all (maybe this a version of the standard middle-class myth of the General Strike, when undergraduates, apparently frivolous in their plus fours and patterned socks, came out to drive the buses and trains, and kept the country going, Leslie Charteris among their number.) Algy, the heroine decides, ‘was the goods, under his superficial fatuousness.’ (231) But then, when generic expectations are satisfied, Charteris puts another twist on the story, and this silly ass is exposed as the master criminal. In the obvious delight in playing with generic expectations, one can see a similarity between early Charteris and early Agatha Christie; her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), is as much a playful parody of detective story conventions as it is a detective story — and of course she would continue to play with and rearrange those conventions throughout her career.
Some claim that thrillers are finally conservative because the values of society are generally reasserted at the end; Raffles dies fighting for his country, for example. But that is like saying that the point of a roller-coaster is the fact that it eventually stops. I would argue that the values of the Saint at least, are not conservative but anarchist. In The Last Hero 0f 1930 the Saint sets himself not only against criminals who want to gain control of a new super-weapon death ray, but also against the British government. When a keen young British secret service agent appears in quest of the same secret, the usual conventions of the thriller would suggest that he and the Saint should team up, as Hannay teams up with the authorities, for example, in The Thirty-Nine Steps. In this novel, however, the British agent becomes not the saint’s ally but an obstacle, since the Saint does not trust the British government to use the super-weapon responsibly. He remains an outsider who refuses to trust any authority.
Critics of thrillers often complain that they use stereotypes and stock situations, but in the better writers these conventional ingredients allow generic expectations to be aroused, only to be confounded. Indeed, it is the subversion of generic expectation that the most successful books in this genre have in common. The most celebrated French gentleman thief, Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin, is a clear example of this. In the early stories, which are the best, he is hardly a character at all, just a device for upsetting your assumptions about the rules of narrative. (One of the earliest, for example, features a trick prefiguring the one that Agatha Christie would famously use in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.) Raffles, born in the moralising nineteenth century, defies the moral framework in which his first editors try to confine him, and emerges independent and flamboyant, a mythical character remembered for his triumphs, not his eventual come-uppance. Blackshirt has a similar panache, but his author complicates it by giving him a conscience. The reader is kept in suspense – not just will he be caught, not just will he face social ruin, but will he face moral ruin? The Browning quotation that I quoted at the beginning continues:

We watch while these in equilibrium keep
The giddy line midway:

The pleasure of watching Blackshirt trying to maintain his equilibrium was enough to keep readers buying all the increasingly implausible sequels.
Captain Dorry lacked both panache and moral conflict. The fact that Burrage’s stories about him did not succeed suggests that middle class readers demanded more than just a recapitulation of their prejudices. They wanted, in fact, specifically literary pleasures. Mrs Miniver and her like may have relished realist novels of the ‘Galsworthy and water’ type, but their husbands usually preferred a ‘thriller’, by which they meant a book which played with the idea that the whole social system was threatened and precarious. In the best of these, and especially in those featuring a gentleman thief, the very genre itself could prove excitingly unstable, and the greatest success came to Leslie Charteris, whose stories matched the hero’s transgression of social norms with their own transgression of literary norms, and a self-aware discourse that foregrounded its own fictional status.

Works cited:
A.M. Burrage The Strange Career of Captain Dorry , serialised in Lloyds Magazine, March-July, 1921.
A.M. Burrage, (‘Ex-Private X’), War is War. London: Gollancz, 1930.
Leslie Charteris, Meet the Tiger. London: Ward Lock, 1928.
Leslie Charteris, The Last Hero. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930.
Bruce Graeme, Blackshirt. London: Unwin: 1925.
Bruce Graeme, The Return of Blackshirt. London: Unwin, 1927.
Bruce Graeme, Blackshirt Again. London: Hutchinson, 1925.
Graham Greene, A Sort of Life (1971). London: Vintage, 1999.
E.W.Hornung, The Amateur Cracksman. London: Methuen, 1899.
E.W.Hornung, Mr Justice Raffles. London: Smith, Elder, 1909.
W.O.G.Lofts and Adley, Derek, The Saint and Leslie Charteris. London: Hutchinson, 1971.
Sapper, Bulldog Drummond: The Carl Peterson Quartet. London: Wordsworth Editions, 2007.
Details of A.M. Burrage’s writing career are taken from Jack Adrian’s introduction to his collection of Burrage’s supernatural stories, Warning Whispers (London: Ash Tree Press, 1999). See also my own Who was A.M.Burrage? page, which tries to amass details of what can be known about his life.

2 Comments

  1. David Jones
    Posted August 30, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting reading. ‘The Durable Desperados’ is a 1973 book which discusses these topics further.

  2. Roger
    Posted August 31, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Surprised yoou didn’t mention John Buchan’s John Macnab, where the central characters take up poaching- a half-way stage to outright criminality- as a cure for boredom.


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