Hornung writes unevenly, with the first, middle, and last stories being quite well realized, and the others seeming like so much filler, merely to attempt to flesh out Raffles and his associate–and our narrator–Bunny. Even in those good stories, there’s relatively little tension in the crimes, nearly no real cleverness displayed by Raffles, but merely good luck, charm, and a sense of superiority over his victims that brings him to constant, regular, and quite easy victory. His opponent, Inspector MacKenzie, is equally flat, merely appearing as a boring law-and-order type who will calmly, soberly, and single-mindedly pursue his man.
But where Raffles and MacKenzie fall short–and they do, however much Hornung really and truly wants us to be feel tension between them, and wants us to be utterly charmed by Raffles–Bunny, as narrator and central consciousness, provides some real interest and moral complexity. And if the crimes are without real intrigue or entertainment, the moral questions of the book are rather intriguing. Raffles is a gentleman thief who only burgles for the “sport” of it, with burglary really no different than his day job of cricket. Burglary is merely a skill to possess and to practice and cultivate, like bowling or batting. Yet it is also an opportunity, like cricket (it is significant that the cricket match at the center of the book is “Gentleman vs. Players,” with the gentleman, led by Raffles, of course winning) to prove the superiority of men like Raffles. Though he never steals from those who would be significantly hurt by his thefts, and often steals from petty, wealthy bourgeois who deserve some sort of comeuppance, Raffles never appears as a Robin Hood or other sort of vigilante who crimes are in pursuit of a good. To the contrary, Raffles’ crimes are only in pursuit of proving the superiority of Raffles. Hornung thus gives us a picture of a late-Victorian, early-Edwardian self-important nihilism that worships the self. Bunny is both horrified and incredibly attracted to such a way of living and thinking.
In short, these are casually entertaining (though even that is obscured by references and language hyper-specific to the time period), if not very good, short stories, that nevertheless present a very real and very important relativist, self-worshipping morality that is all-too-often overlooked in our fiction. That Hornung marries a means of thinking so repellent to so many of us with a character whom he intends to appear to us as incredibly charming, and that a narrator so like us is so deeply attracted to this character, should give us pause and make us think. But the problem of the book still persists; Hornung may have been a good enough writer to give us entertaining, smart “anti-detective” stories, or may have been a good enough writer to give us a novel about the morality of aristocracy. Unfortunately, he’s not a good enough writer to do both, in making the attempt, neither really succeeds.