Thinking about gentleman burglars, I reckoned it might be a good idea to look at how Raffles, the model for the postwar gents that I am interested in, was first presented to the public. I therefore took a look at Cassell’s Magazine for June 1898.
This contains the first Raffles story, ‘The Ides of March’ , and the text seems more or less that of later editions. (There were a few textual changes for the book edition, but these seem to be to define the characters more closely. For example, in the magazine, at the end of the story, Bunny says, “Perhaps I’m bitten with it, just as you were.” – meaning that he too has caught the addiction to burglary. By the time of the book edition, Hornung knew that he needed Bunny to stay an unwilling partner, and so that sentence is cut.)
What is surprising about the magazine is the presentation of the story. I suspect that Cassell’s, a magazine with a nonconformist tradition and a family readership, was cautious about publishing a story that made crime so thoroughly exciting. Therefore they packaged it with moralistic trappings probably designed to deter critics. The title for the series of stories was not The Amateur Cracksman but In the Chains of Crime, and each episode was adorned with this heading, which shows Bunny (I presume, though he looks rather old) being dragged to perdition by a figure representing Sin or Death.
The subheading reassures us that Bunny will end up in prison, and therefore that conventional morality will be respected in the end. However, it’s also what these days would be called a spoiler, robbing Hornung of his big surprise in the middle of the story by telling us from the start that Raffles is both cricketer and criminal. I wonder how Hornung felt about that.
The moral tone of the stories was something that many late Victorian critics felt uncertain about, however much they enjoyed Hornung’s writing. When they were collected in a book, The Spectator wrote:
…It is only fair to add that in the long term dire disaster befalls Raffles and his comrade. Still we cannot refrain from expressing our satisfaction that this audaciously entertaining volume is not issued in a cheap form. It is emphatically a feat of virtuosity rather than a tribute to virtue.
Conan Doyle, Hornung’s brother-in-law (and part-inspiration for the stories, because Raffles was conceived as an opposite of Sherlock Holmes) was troubled by the stories:
I think there are few finer examples of short-story writing in our language than these, though I confess I think they are rather dangerous in their suggestion. I told him so before he put pen to paper, and the result has, I fear, borne me out. You must not make the criminal the hero.
Breaking this taboo made Hornung’s literary reputation, and created a new literary genre that later writers would find richly promising.