The Albany, the quad of upmarket bachelor apartments near Regents Street (conveniently close to Saville Row) was also home to Raffles, E. W. Hornung's fictional Victorian cracksman. Raffles? I can do no better than quote in full the blurb on the back of the 1976 Penguin edition of his adventures:
The Yard was baffled. A sensational series of jewel burglaries from the most fashionable of residences had occurred. And there was no sign of the culprit. But in the confusion, a wary observer might have discerned the handsome profile of A. J. Raffles, a public-schoolman of the best sort, perhaps the finest slow bowler of his time and certainly its most successful amateur cracksman. A good Clubman and a born leader of men, he stole the trinkets from under the noses of the highest in the land.
Like Sherlock Holmes, Raffles appears in a series of short stories (first published in 1899). He's not quite out of the top drawer, and it's his prowess at cricket that gets him invited to the grandest country houses where he makes his living stealing jewellery. His side-kick, the Watson to his Holmes, is called Bunny. The first story in the series, "The Ides of March," opens with their getting together as companions in crime. Bunny has signed a cheque to settle his gambling debt with Raffles. But he has no funds in the bank to cover it. He's come back to the Albany to throw himself on Raffles's mercy. Otherwise, as a gentleman must, he will have to shoot himself.
It was half-past midnight when I returned to the Albany as a last desperate resort. The scene of my disaster was much as I had left it. The baccarat-counters still strewed the table, with the empty glasses and the loaded ash-trays. A window had been opened to let the smoke out, and was letting in the fog instead. Raffles himself had merely discarded his dining-jacket for one of his innumerable blazers. Yet he arched his eyebrows as though I had dragged him from his bed.
"Forgotten something?" said he, when he saw me on the mat."
And from then on, of course, the game is afoot. The obvious comparison is with Sherlock Holmes, both products of the 1890s. Raffles is probably better written — in the sense of written with more care — and perhaps more carefully plotted. But he lacks that indefinable quality which makes Holmes a living being in the minds of millions of people with no connection at all with late Victorian London.
Raffles, incidentally, smokes a brand of cigarette called Sullivan. Was there a Victorian cigarette company of that name? Or is the cigarette fictional, too? If so, why invent one? Holmes — the world's foremost authority on tobacco ash —would know. ("And the mystery of the jewel thefts, Holmes?" "Elementary, my dear Watson.")
Ernest William Hornung (1866-1921) was born in Middlesbrough, and educated at Uppingham. After school he lived in Australia for two years. Back in England he spent the rest of life as a journalist and novelist. An Australian Raffles, Stingaree, appeared in 1905 in Stingaree, A Thief in the Night.Hornung also wrote one book of poetry, The Young Guard. He lived in Sussex.
- The Albany, Piccadilly, next to the Royal Academy (and opposite Fortnum and Mason's)
- Hornung's works available at Project Gutenberg
Hornung, E W. Raffles. Penguin Books. London. 1976
Last modified 21 November 2010