Sherlock Holmes versus Raffles

We all know about Sherlock Holmes, but what about Raffles?
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Sherlock Holmes versus Raffles

In the 1890s there emerged a completely new character in popular fiction. He was intelligent, a master of disguise, accompanied by a faithful assistant and unorthodox. But it wasn’t Sherlock Holmes. It was the cricketer – and amateur cracksman – A.J. Raffles. Indeed, Raffles could be seen as an alter-ego to the consulting detective. The connection between the two characters was further enhanced due to fact that the creator of Raffles, E.W. Hornung, was Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law.

Yet whereas Holmes has endured, shape-shifted and flourished for over a century (and one could argue that his popularity is greater now than ever) the star of Raffles has waned, or gone out completely for most people. Yet, ironically, the success of both the recent film and TV adaptations of Sherlock Holmes is in part due to the famous detective borrowing certain traits from the gentleman thief. It was Raffles, far more than Holmes, who spoke in a clipped, aristocratic tone. And, far more than Holmes, Raffles was anti-establishment and anti-authority. Whereas Holmes was often in the employ of the great and the good, Raffles robbed such people. He took from the rich to give to himself. Holmes was forever exclaiming that the game was afoot, but Raffles was the far greater lover of sport.

When I picture Raffles, I think of C.B. Fry – and not just because of the cricketing connotations. I was, aptly, in the Savile Club the other evening (where Fry was a member) when I overheard two gentlemen discussing who was English cricket’s greatest all-rounder. The younger of the two men staunchly argued that it was Ian Botham and quoted all manner of records to back up his point. The other gentleman, however, argued that England’s greatest all-rounder was Charles Burgess Fry. When challenged as to why this was so he answered “just because” – and contentedly left it at that.

Later that evening I found myself chatting to our C.B. Fry fan and, after a couple of glasses of wine, I asked him out of the blue (to satisfy my curiosity) which character he preferred, Sherlock Holmes or Raffles. I dare say you can guess his reply – but as to the explanation he said that Sherlock Holmes had now become like football – brash, loud and populist. Yet for him Raffles personified the elegance and intelligence of cricket.

There is a sense of being part of a club now, in regards to the recent popularity of Sherlock Holmes (and it is a perfectly fine, friendly and enjoyable club to be a member of). Yet for those who still also read and admire the amateur cracksman, know that you are in a club within a club.

And if Holmes is worthy of countless revivals, then Raffles surely deserves at least one.

Richard Foreman is the author of Raffles: The Complete Innings.