Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung (1899) 231 p.
The concept behind the Raffles stories is basically if Sherlock Holmes was a criminal rather than a detective. Hornung was Arthur Conan Doyle’s friend and brother-in-law and the book is even dedicated to him as “a form of flattery.” The format mimics the famous stories of Holmes and Watson quite closely, being narrated by the hero’s sidekick, who is constantly in awe of his friend’s amazing abilities – although the Raffles stories tend to link together more closely than I recall the Sherlock stories doing.
Raffles is a fairly likeable roguish character, and Hornung has an ahead-of-his-time take on why it’s not immoral to be a thief in the corrupt and exploitative system of the British Empire. There’s also a decent story set in Australia, a location often ignored or forgotten by Victorian novelists, since Hornung spent some time there in his youth. But it wasn’t, overall, a hugely engaging book. It’s readable enough, and worth checking out as the genesis of the “gentleman thief” archetype which has influenced hundreds of other works, but I couldn’t say it was as compelling or well-written as any of Doyle’s works – and I’m not exactly a Sherlock Holmes fan either.