Wednesday, 30 September 1998

Peter Tremayne: The Return of Raffles (1981)

Edition: Severn House, 1990
Review number: 123

Seventy years after E.W. Hornung killed off his famous upper-class burglar hero, Raffles, by involving him in the Boer War, Peter Tremayne resurrected him for a new series of stories. The idea is that Raffles used the fact that everyone thought him dead to create a new identity, free from the suspicion that surrounded his own name.

In the next few years, his accomplice and devoted friend Bunny Manders has married Alice Devenish, who met him and Raffles on one of their last adventures together, and has taken up a respectable lifestyle. Staying with his brother in law while Alice is in Paris, he comes downstairs in the night to disturb a burglar, who turns out to be Raffles. (This coincidence is one of the most contrived parts of the plot, but Tremayne had to get Bunny and Raffles back together, and Raffles would have been avoiding those who knew him in the past.

As they resume their friendship, Raffles once more tempts Bunny to take up a life of crime, only to find themselves caught red-handed by their old enemy, Chief Inspector Mackenzie. After an unpleasant night in custody, the pair are suddenly taken to see the Prime Minister, of all people. There, they are offered a pardon if they will aid the government to recover a packet of letters, hidden in the German Embassy and with contents that could plunge Europe into war. In other words, the two men are recruited as spies.

One of the major reasons for the success of Hornung's original stories has now been jettisoned by Tremayne: the shock of a hero who is both an amoral thief and a member of the upper classes (and a famous cricketer who played for England on many occasions). Of course, the shock of this is far less in the last quarter of the twentieth century than in the first, and the spy plot at least enables Tremayne to put the characters he has inherited in new situations; the lack of new ideas must have been a major motive for Hornung to kill Raffles off in the first place.

In most respects, though, Tremayne's writing is a major improvement on Hornung's. Indeed, the low quality of Hornung's work - there is perhaps the biggest discrepancy between his literary merit and the fame of his characters than with any other crime writer (with the possible exception of Agatha Christie) - is jokingly referred to by Raffles, who disapproves of Bunny's low taste in fiction. (These references are great fun for anyone who knows the originals at all well, and include mention of stupid mistakes that Hornung made like having a character jump out of a window of the Albany onto the roof of a carriage, when this would have been impossible from the side of the building on which he placed the window.)

By making Bunny grow up and lose some of his rather excessive admiration for the extremely selfish Raffles Tremayne makes the whole scenario more plausible. (Hornung was, I think, trying to imply a homosexual attraction he was unable to make explicit in popular fiction in the early years of this century.)

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