Sidekicks have been an essential accompaniment for many literary, cultural or cinematic ‘heroes’ in the past. However, with the rising popularity of crime fiction in the late C19th and early C20th, the sidekick became a recognisable and fundamental element within this genre of literature. Indeed, the loyal sidekick provides the crucial, complimentary foil by which the main protagonist can be compared and contrasted. Fred Fintstone and Barney Rubble, Batman and Robin and even Shrek and Donkey are just a few of the double acts we encounter in popular culture today. I intend to examine the fascinating relationship between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s infamous “unofficial consulting detective” (Doyle ‘Sign of Four’ 3), Sherlock Holmes and his loyal sidekick Dr.Watson. Doyle strongly maintained that “you must not make the criminal the hero” (qtd. in Lancelyn xlii), yet E.W. Hornung explored this less traveled route in Raffles: The Amateur Detective (1899).
Doyle and Hornung present us with two close male relationships between ‘master’ and ‘sidekick’. However, the boundaries between homosocial and homosexual are at times hard to distinguish, particularly with Raffles and Bunny. Certainly, both Watson and Bunny are subordinate in their individual relationships, but I would argue that Watson is less so than Bunny. Indeed, Holmes relies on Watson for mutual assurance and medical input, therefore making it a more successful friendship and more efficient working partnership. By contrast, Raffles continually belittles Bunny. Their relationship is extremely turbulent due to the unpredictable mood swings of the individuals and the emotional turmoil the sidekick experiences whilst seeking his ‘superior’s’ approval. Watson and Bunny both deeply desire acceptance from their ‘idols’ but Raffles, unlike Holmes, is less inclined to offer such acknowledgement. Still, both the sidekicks are given agency through their narration and through Holmes’s narration in The Blanched Solider; we are given a deeper understanding of the relationship between he and Watson, something never offered with the other partnership. Placing these brother-in-law authors and their characters side by side, guarantees a lively literary debate and I intend to be a part of that discussion in the following essay.
The two adoring sidekicks are the faithful biographers and mediators of all the individual stories I am discussing, apart from Doyle’s The Blanched Soldier, where we are given a unique and rare glimpse into the mind of Holmes. Here, Doyle provides us with the opportunity for a fuller understanding of his relationship with Watson. We learn that Holmes greatly values Watson’s input, saying that “if I burden myself with a companion in my various little inquiries it is not done out of sentiment…Watson has some remarkable characteristics of his own” (Doyle ‘BS’ 1). As Watson usually narrates their crime solving adventures, we are only allowed access to Holmes’s actions and speech rather than his personal thoughts. The Blanched Solider gives us the opportunity to see their relationship from a contrasting perspective and learn that that sidekick’s respect is reciprocated. Holmes’s relaying of events is far more simple than Watson’s elongated narrative style and there is little to work out and a lack of customary suspense. Yet, the point with this story is not the success of the narration but rather the narrator himself and the interesting insight his story gives us into their relationship. By contrast, we are never granted access to Raffles’s thoughts and feelings which makes any analysis of Hornung’s criminal duo one-sided. Subsequently, any assessment of these relationships must take this point into account.
The subordinate sidekick as narrator also has an important literary function. The sidekicks make possible “a hierarchical articulation of knowledge, in which [they] obviously occupy the humblest position” (Caprettini 332). Due to Watson’s being “so often puzzled, so often in need of heroic assistance to explain crime and disorder” (Knight 369), Doyle is able to show us Holmes’s skills through his repeating of complicated theories to his sidekick. Moreover, in The Speckled Band, Watson tells Holmes that he sees “dimly what [he is] hinting at” (Doyle 19), therefore, by imparting his knowledge gradually and slowly to Watson, the reader is also able to understand the detective’s methods and engage in the climactic build up. Indeed, “a confederate who foresees your conclusions and course of action is always dangerous, but one to whom each development comes as a perpetual surprise…is indeed an ideal helpmate” (Doyle ‘BS’ 1). When Holmes tells Watson to be patient, he is also telling us to persevere during the investigation until the final denouement. Bunny notes that “the thinking is done entirely by Raffles, who did not always trouble to communicate his thoughts to me” (Hornung 44). So, his narration functions not so much as the opportunity for Raffles to explain his plans, for he often refrains from telling his sidekick crucial details, but more as an insight into the initially pathetic but gradually more emotionally vulnerable man with whom we greatly sympathise. Indeed, Watson and Bunny often act as mere sounding boards on which their ‘superiors’ can mull over their brilliant and often complicated plans.
The sidekicks also function as the reflective surface on which he and the protagonist can be compared and contrasted. For example, when Holmes is in one of his depressive, lethargic moods, Watson becomes more active and “can elevate [his] simple art, which is but systematized common sense, into a prodigy” (Doyle ‘BS’ 8). Moreover, often when “Holmes puts his extraordinary ability into action, Watson is reduced to a slow, incapable, absentminded but always faithful disciple” (Caprettini 334). Yet despite the contrasts and power struggles between the sidekicks and their dominant ‘supervisors’, the hierarchy always remains whereby Bunny and Watson generally remain in their submissive roles. However, the nature and extent of their submissive roles undeniably varies between the two relationships.
I believe Watson is far less subordinate to Holmes than Bunny is to Raffles. For while Holmes feels Watson’s presence is usually valuable, Raffles says “two eyes are as a good as four and take up less room. Never hunt in couples unless you’re obliged” (Hornung 27). Holmes and Watson know each other on a personal level, Holmes even remarks, “I have the advantage of knowing your habits, my dear Watson” (Doyle ‘CM’ 134). On the other hand, Raffles and Bunny’s lack of personal understanding and their unequal status is set out from the very beginning when Bunny says, “I hardly know you…but I fagged for you at school” (Hornung 3). Subsequently, a stagnant and hierarchical dynamic is always present within their relationship because of their history; it is as though Bunny is still at school. Asserting his acquiescence is “due to more than the mere subjection of the weaker nature to the stronger…Raffles would be my friend! It was as though all the world had come round suddenly to my side” (Hornung 6). The sidekick is simply overjoyed that he will be in a partnership with one whom he so admires. Indeed, Bunny confesses that he will “do anything in this world” (Hornung 7) for Raffles but there is no evidence to show that the commitment is reciprocated, Raffles even calls Bunny a “real desperate character” (Hornung 10), which although true, is not the sort of comment we can imagine from Holmes or any genuine friend.
Orwell famously condemned Raffles’s continual belittling of Bunny, who is “so often reduced to ignominious self-abasement” (Powell 267). Indeed, despite the occasional apology and faint acknowledgment that he has “treated [him] very shabbily all round” (Hornung 30), Raffles does not show much concern for the sidekick himself or any relationship he may have with him. On the other hand, Holmes is more respectful of Watson, introducing him to others as his “intimate friend and associate” (Doyle ‘SB’ 2). He is able to come down to Watson’s and the reader’s level which is one of the reasons why Watson is so devoted to his “dear fellow” (Doyle ‘SB’ 2) and their partnership works so well. The detective’s insistence on his sidekick’s presence as “invaluable” (Doyle ‘SB’ 18) during his investigations also makes their partnership more rewarding and equal. After Holmes has looked into various clues in The Crooked Man, he encourages Watson to “accompany [him] in that last step [where he] might be of considerable service” (Doyle 134). Moreover, in Sign of Four, Holmes tells his sidekick “your presence will be of great service to me” (Doyle 59). Evidently, Watson’s practical skills as a doctor are extremely useful to solving the various cases with which they are engaged. By comparison, Bunny, as a writer, does not add anything directly to the criminal partnership. If anything, his subjectivity and creativity contribute to his emotional vulnerability and his lack of practicality, qualities Raffles finds extremely irritating. Therefore, despite Watson remaining a sidekick, he and Holmes depend upon and encourage each other, unlike Bunny and Raffles. For example, Holmes encourages Watson “to try a little analysis yourself…you know my methods. Apply them, and it will be instructive to compare results” (Doyle ‘SOF’ 52). By contrast, Bunny admires Raffles’s “resource and cunning…patience and precision” (Hornung 43) but the ‘master’ mainly finds his sidekick a burden, not boosting his spirits as Holmes often does with Watson.
The different personalities of the four men greatly affect the nature of their relationships. Raffles is undoubtedly charismatic and Evers even argues that he has “wit, warmth and humanity” (‘Moral Riddles of AJR’ 2012). Raffles does “live by [his] wits” (Hornung 14), but I disagree that he possesses warmth and humanity due to his treatment of Bunny. Indeed, he has “the subtle power of making himself irresistible at will” (Hornung 6) but he continually mocks his sidekick, telling him he was “never built for crime” (Hornung 49). He demonstrates a certain hardness and emotional ineptitude, making their relationship far less congenial than that between Doyle’s men. Bunny is completely seduced by the alluring personality of Raffles, just as the reader is often pulled into the effervescent magnetism of the anti-hero criminal, he is attracted by his bold audacity and his “fiendish cleverness” (Hornung 14). Bunny says “it was impossible not to follow one who led with such a zest. You might question, but you followed first” (Hornung 12). He is drawn in by the dark ‘knight in shining armour’ who shows apathy and amusement when he threatens suicide, “neither fear nor horror were in his face; only wonder, admiration and such a measured pleasure” (Hornung 6). Bunny comments, “You devil… I believe you wanted me to do it”, which sets the scene for their subsequently testing and hellish relationship. Raffles is the devil who tempts Bunny into an unhealthy relationship and a life of crime. After Bunny threatens suicide, Raffles admits he was never “more fascinated in my life. I never dreamt you had such stuff in you” (Hornung 6). As the stories progress, the sidekick becomes increasingly dependent, emotionally insecure and hysterically obsessed with Raffles, who aware of both his weaknesses and strengths, plays “on both with his master’s touch” (Hornung 14). However, although Bunny’s constant mistakes and unwavering devotion to Raffles make him a pathetic character, his emotional and physical blunders allow for greater sympathy and thus a stronger connection with the reader. Indeed, William Vivion Butler argues that despite being a sidekick, Bunny was as great a creation as Raffles and thought he acted as an embodiment of the frustrated romantic urges of the Victorian period (Lancelyn xlv). Like myself, C.P. Snow, in a Financial Times review, defended Bunny’s outpouring of emotion and cited it as the definitive reason why Raffles was such a triumph. The erratic, unpredictable and one sided relationship within Hornung’s duo, was something many readers could relate to and therefore many were intrigued by their dynamic. On the other hand, the respectful, but often more straightforward relationship between Holmes and Watson was arguably less thrilling due to its predictability.
Holmes himself however, is far from predictable. He has more individualism than the common hero, and is “aloof, arrogant, eccentric, even bohemian. His exotic character humanises his scientific skills” (Knight 369). Indeed, he is a “lofty hero, but a crucially human one” (Knight 269). Holmes’s intellectual astuteness impresses Watson, who remarks “I had no keener pleasure than in following Holmes in his professional investigation and in admiring the rapid deductions, as swift as intuitions and yet always founded on logical basis” (Doyle ‘SB’ 2). As an individual, Holmes is far more intellectual than Raffles due to his “abnormally acute set of senses” (Doyle ‘BS’ 6). Yet I would argue that Raffles is more daring than Holmes, illustrated in his jumping off the ship at the end of the text. It is this ruthless spirit that Bunny finds “irresistible” (Hornung 26). He simply has to “act [his] part” (Hornung 97) in the Raffles extravaganza and I believe he is more of a puppet than an active sidekick. It is their mutual thirst for adventure, the promise of “romance and…peril” (Hornung 17) and a common desire for wealth which drives Bunny to “take part in the game” (Hornung 17). Raffles states, “we’re in the same boat Bunny, we’d better pull together” (Hornung 7), illustrating how he draws on Bunny’s desires to encourage him to become his sidekick.
Nevertheless, Holmes also takes risks despite his obsessive practicality. He regularly injects cocaine to recharge his senses when he cannot be out solving crimes with Watson. McLaughlin argues that his drug taking acts as his “ticket to romance; it provides an escape from routine boredom and access to exotic pleasure… [he] risks his physical self in order to stimulate his mental self” (56). However, unlike Bunny, Watson is not attracted to this risky side of Holmes’s character. His medical conscience is concerned and believes he will be damaged as a result of the cocaine, thus his “great powers [and] his masterly manner” (Doyle ‘SOF’1) will decline. As his intellectual skills form the basis of Watson’s respect, the relationship is threatened by the drugs. On the other hand, despite his disapproval, the doctor is still fascinated by it. Therefore we get a mixture of fear and awe within their relationship, which can be said of Bunny and Raffles too. During Holmes’s drug taking, Watson’s eyes linger on the detective, as Bunny’s so often do on Raffles, whilst he “re-presents and vicariously re-experiences the scenes in careful lingering detail” (McLaughlin 54). Indeed, there is anxiety for Holmes and Raffles, but there is also some form pleasure in the display of risk.
Watson’s adoration of Holmes reflects what many contemporary critics saw in him too – as the unquestionably moral hero. Indeed, we forgive “the detective’s social abnormality only because these are attached to individuals we take to be normal” (Gregoriou 25). However, “modern interpretations… often dwell on his ambiguous morality” (Anonymous 2012), and as I have just discussed, even Watson questions some of his actions. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in the BBC’s Sherlock series supports these more modern, ambigous interpretations of Holmes. It is a “fast flowing, playful twist on the Holmes adventure, crafted for the I-pod generation” (Godfrey 2).While in the Doyle stories, Holmes can arguably act more like “a machine… than a man” (‘CM’ 134), the BBC adaptation shows a man who is often mechanical but has a dry sense of humour, someone who is trying to find his way in the foggy metropolis. Yet it is important that we critique literary and screen characters in the context of the target audience and the time in which they are created. Indeed, Knight argues that for the time, Holmes was an extremely thrilling character because Doyle did not let his detective “become a passive academic figure like Poe’s Chevalier C.Auguste Dupin” (369). Moreover, Witchard states that, “the appearance of the literary detective in the C19th is generally accounted for by its relation to a middle-class desire for social regularity” (447). Indeed, the contemporary readers of Doyle and Hornung were participating in an “expanding global marketplace, one that was constantly being ‘invaded by new commodities and cultural styles whose origins, conditions of production and uses were, to a large extent, still a mystery” (McLaughlin 55). Smith argues that Raffles, “a genteel English cricket star by day and a jewel thief by night” (36), proved to be a remarkably popular hero despite his distinctly amoral ventures. So the popularity of Raffles at the same time as Holmes, speaks to the simultaneous desire for social regularity alongside curiosity about the ‘other’, in this case, this criminal. The sidekicks embody these paradoxical desiring forces.
Despite the differing relationships and the contrasting reasons for the sidekicks’ adoration of their superiors, there are similarities between Holmes and the anti-hero Raffles that subsequently blur the boundaries between the detective pair and criminal pair. Even Watson states that Holmes is “so swift, silent and furtive…like a trained bloodhound… I could not but think what a terrible criminal he would have made had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law instead of exerting them in its defence” (Doyle ‘SOF’ 53), which is exactly what Raffles does. Holmes and Watson also sneak into the house in Speckled Band, just as Raffles breaks into the jewellery shop at the beginning of The Amateur Cracksman. Moreover, Holmes entices a child to go on an errand for him in Sign of Four (Doyle 77) whilst Raffles, with the help of Bunny, play tricks on almost everyone they encounter. Holmes also ‘accidentally’ kills a man in Speckled Band, telling Watson “I am no doubt indirectly responsible for Dr.Grimesby Roylott’s death, and I cannot say that it is likely to weigh very heavily upon my conscience” (Doyle SB 23). Raffles, the criminal, does not even go this far. However, whilst Holmes has questionable habits, such as his drug taking and his incentives for fighting crime are partly selfish (to stimulate his mind), he does fight for social justice in the process and though Raffles may not actually commit murder, he is willing to in order to fulfil his personal goal of financial gain.
The justification that Raffles gives for his acts is that “the distribution of wealth is very wrong to begin with” (Hornung 21) and, like Holmes, for personal satisfaction. “Art for art’s sake…I confess it appeals to me” (Hornung 26), Raffles says and he also tells Bunny he “would rob St.Paul’s Cathedral if [he] could” (Hornung 26). Holmes is also devoted to Victorian aestheticism but takes pleasure in solving crimes rather than committing them. He “abhor[s] the dull routine of existence…[and] craves mental exaltation” (Doyle ‘SOF’ 3), he solves crimes “for love of his art…[rather] than for the acquirement of wealth” (Doyle ‘SB’ 1). Through inventing the profession of amateur consulting detective, “Holmes merges work and art, utility and play” (McLaughlin 57). Similarly, Raffles, as an amateur cracksman is able to maintain his gentlemanly reputation and acquire wealth through his criminal pastime. For Holmes, his “profession is its own reward” (Doyle ‘SB’ 3) and he solves crimes purely for personal interest, intellectual pleasure, to “reveal enigmas, to explain mysteries… [for his] aim in not ethical but logical” (Caprettini 334) which is what so fascinates and impresses his sidekick. People are “at liberty to defray whatever expenses [he] may be put to” (Doyle ‘SB’ 3), but there is no obligatory payment. Holmes will work for free if necessary, but “cannot live without brainwork…[for] what is the use of having powers…when one has no field upon which to exert them” (Doyle ‘SOF’ 10). Money is not important to Holmes as it is to Raffles. They both take pleasure in their particular art but what differentiates them, aside from their contrasting moral purposes, is that Raffles has a monetary motive alongside an aesthetic one.
No discussion of these two relationships would be complete without exploring the question of homoeroticism vs. homosociality. Of course these are two homosocial relationships – they are close partnerships of the same sex. However, the extent to which either Doyle or Hornung is hinting as something more erotic has been greatly debated.
Although Holmes prefers the company of either himself or his “dear doctor” (Doyle ‘SOF’ 9), he doesn’t avoid women entirely. In fact he has a congenial relationship with his landlady Mrs.Hudson. However, Holmes would prefer to spend time alone or with his sidekick, than brew over any emotional attachments with the female sex. He is a romantic, brewing Byronic figure, but he has no interest in romancing women. This is evident when Watson remarks what an attractive woman Mary Morstan is and Holmes says “Is she…I did not observe” (Doyle ‘SOF’ 17). We know that Holmes meticulously observes everything and everyone so this comment illustrates his unusual indifference towards women. Such strong apathy towards the female sex has led many, understandably, to equate his behaviour with homosexuality and thus deduce that Doyle was presenting he and Watson as in a homosexual relationship. In other stories, Holmes is attracted to ‘The Woman’ but his fascination is based on her role as the female criminal, once again equating his stimulation with solving crime rather than the female sex. Caprettini states that Holmes eliminates any subjective emotion in order to maintain his “logical purity of reason…[within] the sphere of analytical and abductive reasoning” (330). In other words, he deduces that his lack of interest in women in not based upon homosexuality but on his need to keep his mind clear of passion and distraction, because feelings and passion are “the object of knowledge and never its subject” (Caprettini 330). I am more inclined to support this view and while many critics have found suggestively erotic language in the stories, we have to be careful not to be totally one-sided with such an argument. At the very start of The Sign of Four, Watson does employ suggestive language to describe Holmes injecting cocaine, as he “thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm chair with a long sigh of satisfaction” (Doyle 1). However, it is only suggestive and we cannot make an objective case for Doyle insinuating that Holmes and Watson have a homosexual relationship through such minor suggestions and the fact that they live together. Yes, Holmes does miss Watson when he is absent and there is language to suggest jealousy due to Watson’s eventual marriage to Mary Morseten, which he sees as “the only selfish action which I can recall in our association. I was alone” (Doyle ‘BS’ 1), but we cannot immediately call this homosexual when they clearly have a close homosocial friendship.
Within Hornung’s duo, it is Bunny, the sidekick, who is more against socialising with the female sex, while Raffles does flirt with women, such as the “colonial minx” (Hornung 127) on the boat to Capri at the end of the T he Amateur Cracksman. However, with Raffles and Bunny, to call the erotic vibes subtext, is to blatantly ignore textual evidence. Bunny feels that Raffles can sift “the very secrets of my heart” (Hornung 7) and that their “intimacy was curiously incomplete” (Hornung 27). Raffles also says that he wishes Bunny would share his cabin on the boat to Capri, where Bunny’s jealousy of Miss Werner, with whom Raffles is spending most of his time, reaches its climax. He says he does not understand “what he could see in her… of course he saw no more than I did… it was too absurd… I resented her success with Raffles… there was something not unlike jealousy rankling within me” (Hornung 127). The language illustrates how Bunny knows more about Raffles’s sexuality than we do and his extreme jealousy demonstrates how his feelings transcend a purely homosocial relationship. Moreover, Bunny is constantly describing Raffles’s body, particularly his eyes, and thus we have a strong sense of his physical presence and the obsessive adoration of his sidekick. While Watson also conveys Holmes’s physical movements while he is examining evidence, his descriptions are more objective and less carnal than Bunny’s. I agree with Knight’s view that it is doubtful if Doyle was particularly conscious of the relationship between Holmes and Watson being perceived as homosexual. He argues that the French and Americans “tend to see and depict Holmes as a foppish dandy, with a distinct effeminacy, but they’re misled by the languid manners that among the English are held to reveal effortless superiority” (Knight 378). However, in his more recent critical work Knight has argued that “Hornung develop[s] consciously, as Doyle only suggested, the ambiguous relationship, part fraternal, part erotic, between his two male charges.” (70). Indeed, some critics argue that Hornung was displaying an overt homosexual relationship, while others state that there is nothing to suggest that his writing is focusing on anything more than the type of homosocial relationship that was seen as innocent before Oscar Wilde was made a social pariah in the 1890s. While both relationships are certainly homosocial, there is evidence to show that Bunny and Raffles may be more than just partners in crime – especially on the boat at the end of the text. It is my view that, blinded by love and infatuation, Bunny goes on a much darker psychological journey than Watson. I believe Watson is more concerned with learning from the intellectual brilliance of Holmes than having a sexual relationship with the detective.
As we journey deeper into the foggy narrative world occupied by the detective bachelors of Baker Street and the criminal duo who reside at the Albany, we get to know four very different men and witness the complex relationships of which they are a part. Yes, “the relationship between Raffles and Bunny inevitably invites comparison with the association of Sherlock Holmes and Dr.Watson” (Powell 267). However, Hornung’s The Amateur Cracksman “consistently questions the assumptions that crime fiction (and ‘masters’ and their sidekicks) must always be respectable” (Knight 70). Indeed, Doyle’s stories have their own appeal due to the tremendous power and influence they had in developing the genre of crime fiction during the late C19th and early C20th and certainly the two authors engage with an essential crime fiction convention – that of the sidekick who acts as a foil to his ‘superior’. The authors present juxtaposing duos and therefore serve as perfect accompaniments to one another. Indeed, Raffles and Bunny are Hornung’s alternative to the “rapier-sharp genius of Holmes and the buttoned down loquacity of Watson” (Evers, ‘Moral Riddles of AJR’). I believe that the homosocial relationship between Holmes and Watson is more stable, courteous and respectful; therefore it is a more successful working relationship and friendship. On the other hand, the homosocial and perhaps homosexual relationship between Raffles and Bunny is more inconsistent and emotionally charged. Consequently, although it is a less successful working relationship and friendship, it is at times more enthralling due to Bunny’s sincere and heartfelt account.
Reading a Holmes story means being “placed in his big violin playing hands and taken for a ride, safe in the knowledge he will wrap up the case” (Evers, ‘Moral Riddles of AJR’). By contrast, become immersed in a Raffles case and you could end up in prison, on a boat or safe in your bed by the end of the story! Still, wherever you end up by the final pages, Doyle and Hornung give us the unique opportunity to engage with two fascinating relationships that challenge the conventions of friendship, homosexuality and subordination during a time and within a genre that did not usually do so.
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