Saturday, August 02, 2008

Classic crime-fiction situations and two historical questions for readers

I've started E.W. Hornung's The Amateur Cracksman (also known as Raffles) for a reading group to which I belong. I’ve enjoyed the devious humor and smiled at the gentlemanly ways depicted in the story, first issued in book form in 1899.

But here’s what caught my attention. The scene is an empty second-story apartment into which the cool, cricket-playing, Keats-loving burglar of the title has made his way along with his high-strung, impecunious friend Bunny. Why an apartment? Because of what lies below, at street level: A jeweler’s shop.

“I know the shop,” [Raffles] whispered, “because I’ve got a few things there. I know this upper part, too; it’s been to let for a month, and I got an order to view, and took a cast of the key before using it. The one thing I don’t know is how to make a connection between the two; at present there’s none. We may make it up here, though I rather fancy the basement myself. If you wait a minute I’ll tell you.”
How to make a connection between the two. How to get at a heavily protected jeweler's first by breaking into another, more vulnerable apartment in the same building, and then having to figure out how to get to the main target. Here, in the nineteenth century, is the basic situation at the heart of heist movies of the twentieth. Three that come to mind are Asphalt Jungle, the superior Rififi, and the spoof Big Deal on Madonna Street, which is better than both.

I have two questions for readers this time: What other caper movies or stories follow this basic plot line? And what other plot lines from crime fiction’s earliest age have reproduced in our own time?

While you're thinking, here's an article about E.W. Hornung and Raffles written by Simon Brett.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

Technorati tags:

Labels: ,

15 Comments:

Blogger Kerrie said...

Thanks for the interesting article Peter.
I actually listened to the stories - I have a copy of the book, but chose to listen to the Livrivox reading on the way to and from work.http://paradise-mysteries.blogspot.com/2008/07/review-raffles-amateur-cracksman-ew.html

August 02, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

If you mean heist or caper movies that specifically have that scenario, accessing the more vulnerable to get to the more protected, I'm out of ideas (in film). However, in short fiction I give you "The Red Headed League," wherein Holmes catches the jewel thief burrowing below the pawnbroker's shop into the bank.

August 02, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're welcome. Reading Hornung is an education for me. I had not heard of him before. And I may have to move out of town, so I'll have a long commute during I which I could listen to audio books. Or I could stay where I am now and just get a new job out of town.

August 02, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter,

Has The Bank Job been released in the US yet? Supposedly a true story, with that precise premise. Not a bad film for this genre.

Also did you catch Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. There's an interesting confrontation been Conan Doyle and his brother in law Hornung in the book. Doyle says he gave Hornung "permission" to write Raffles, but in the latter part of the story they fall out and Doyle rages at Hornung calling Raffles a 'low disreputable figure' and says his book is hack work. Hornung is hurt and furious. I dont know if this is true, but I think Barnes researched this story quite deeply.

August 02, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, that's a classic. I mean, on the one hand, tunneling or blasting in from another room in the same building could be a standard method of burglary, with no necessary literary influence from Hornung to the caper movies I mentioned.

On the other hand, wouldn't real-life jewelers have figured out that they ought to secure their inside walls, too? Perhaps the method of indirect attack through another area of the building is more attractive to crime writers than to burglars. I mean, fictional jewelers seem disproportionately to have their shops beneath or next to conveniently empty apartments..

August 02, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, to my surprise and mild embarrassment, I appear to have missed "The Bank Job." I shall consider renting it, though. I also haven't read "Arthur & George," but a reaction such as the one Barnes gives Conan Doyle would be interesting, especially the bit about Raffles' being a "low, disreputable figure."

At least at the outset of the first Raffles collection, Raffles is far chillier, more manipulative and more sinister than anything I recognize from the Holmes stories. He's more than a bit like Ripley, and maybe Conan Doyle would not have been ready for that sort of thing.

August 02, 2008  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Cannot contribute as those who are more well versed on the subject of crime fiction. But "Sleuth" comes to mind. Does it count?

August 02, 2008  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

p.s. The winners of "In Love on Coffee Breaks" are Juliette Binoche and Roberto Benigni. What do you think of "Afraid of Elvis?"
And the majority are voting for both living and/or deceased actors.
So there you go. Thank you for voting, Peter!

August 02, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Sleuth" is a somewhat different set-up from the examples I had in mind. The burglar doesn't have to figure out how to get in because he's being invited in to pull off an inside job.

And yay for the dead actors!

August 02, 2008  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Thank you for your gracious explanation! Ugh! I now have a list of thousands to contend with!
*laughing*

August 02, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Stories on inside jobs are legion, but I can't think of any that had quite the interpersonal dynamics of "Sleuth": the husband inviting his wife's lover to break into the house.

With dead actors, you will automatically winnow your lists down to those who immediately suggest themselves for a role. With live actors, I imagine you sometimes have to think hard to fill out your ballots. Think of the dead actors as a delicious, effortless dessert.

August 02, 2008  
Blogger Sucharita Sarkar said...

Wasn't there a film on Raffles with David Niven? I remember reading about it in his book Bring On the Empty Horses.

Sorry, can't come up with answers this time. But really, interesting post!

August 02, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks!

David Niven did indeed portray Raffles in a movie from 1939 or 1940. The film is apparently not regarding highly, but I might seek it out nonetheless to see if Niven is able to capture Raffles' evil, manipulative side.

August 02, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eh.I was going to say "i soliti ignoti" but then I realized you already mentioned it under his American name.

Bye

Marco

August 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And you'll notice that I called it the best movie of the three that I mentioned.

That great crime writer Donald Westlake once called I Soliti Ignoti/Big Deal on Madonna Street a laboratory for learning how to write comedy.

August 03, 2008  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home