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The Robin Hoods of Crime Fiction

The Robin Hoods of Crime Fiction

The author was so entranced by the character of Robin Hood that he even toyed with the idea of becoming an outlaw himself. Later he decided to dive into similar characters instead, and found a host of immensely readable books featuring them — AJ Raffles, Simon Templar and Norman Conquest among them

By Vineeth Abraham | 16 September 2021

The author was so entranced by the character of Robin Hood that he even toyed with the idea of becoming an outlaw himself. Later he decided to dive into similar characters instead, and found a host of immensely readable books featuring them — AJ Raffles, Simon Templar and Norman Conquest among them

The lure of the generous outlaw

The story of Robin Hood, the legendary outlaw of Sherwood Forest in Nottingham, has fascinated me ever since I first read the illustrated comics version with the wonderful Vic Prezio cover, at the age of eight or so. At that age you want your heroes to be pure of heart and the embodiment of every human virtue, always fighting on the side of law, truth and justice. A hero who possessed most of these virtues but was also a rebel who worked outside the law was something intriguing and different while the idea of robbing the rich and giving it to the poor was novel and innovative. I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming an outlaw myself before deciding it was a tad too dangerous and decided to become a librarian instead, sternly maintaining discipline in my domain while coming down hard on those who tried to pilfer books or made even the slightest noise inside the hallowed portals of the library.

AJ Raffles and The Saint — the first Robin Hoods

I became a rabid fan of that sub-genre of books that featured heroes who worked outside the law while frequently cocking a snook at it. One of the earliest Robin Hood characters was AJ Raffles, created by EW Hornung, the brother-in-law of Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Raffles is an amateur cracksman, a gentleman and a fine cricketer who is also a jewel thief. He has his own code of ethics that he abides by and a faithful companion in Bunny Manders, who acts as his Watson. He appeared in three collections of short stories and one novel from 1899 onward and, in his time, was supposedly the second most popular character in fiction, af

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ter Sherlock Holmes.

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At age ten I discovered the character who would go on to become one of my all-time favourites, Leslie Charteris’ debonair adventurer Simon Templar, known to his friends and enemies as ‘The Saint’ presumably for his initials ST. The first book I read was Enter The Saint (first published 1930) which was the second book in the series and part of a collection of novellas featuring the character. The Saint was known to the adoring public as ‘The Robin Hood of Crime’, a nattily dressed man about town who delighted in preying on the villains and nobbling their ill-gotten gains, some of which he would distribute to the needy while retaining a portion that would allow him to live in the style to which he was accustomed. He was accompanied by a loyal crew in the early adventures, which also featured his lady love, Patricia Holm. But the later adventures featured just him.

The Saint delighted in making fools of the earnest but dunderheaded officers of Scotland Yard, especially the long-suffering Chief Inspector Claude Eustace Teal. To the Saint, nothing could be sweeter than ‘bopping the ungodly on the beezer’ while also pulling one over Inspector Teal. His calling card was a stick figure with a halo, instantly recognisable as the sign of the Saint. This figure also featured on many of the covers of the numerous hardcover and paperback editions of his books. At his best, Charteris was a wonderful writer, producing thrilling, action-packed tales spruced with a liberal dose of almost Wodehousian humour. The character featured in numerous films (many featuring Louis Hayward as the title character) and also two TV series. Future James Bond Roger Moore first achieved stardom playing the character in the first TV Serial devoted to his adventures which ran from 1962-1969. The later books were patchy in quality and some were written by ghostwriters based on outlines by Charteris, but the first fifteen or so saintly adventures are from the top drawer.

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The Gay Desperado and The ‘Toff’

Another favourite Robin Hood-type hero of mine was the dashing Norman Conquest, also known as The Gay Desperado. The Conquest books were written between 1938 and 1966 and hence his moniker did not refer to any questionable proclivity of his that a modern-day reader may surmise. The books were written by the hugely prolific Edwy Searles Brooks under the pseudonym Berkeley Gray. Brooks also wrote stories about Sexton Blake, Nelson Lee, Dixon Hawke, school stories featuring Billy Bunter, about St. Franks School and also a series featuring Ironsides Cromwell of the Yard which he wrote under the nom de plume Victor Gunn. I was introduced to the Norman Conquest series by my father who had a copy of the Nightmare House in his collection. On seeing me devouring Saint books borrowed from the Trivandrum Public Library he fished this book out and told me it was about a character every bit as good as The Saint. Conquest is very similar to The Saint. He is a gentleman adventurer who operates outside the law and has several adventures in which he uses decidedly unlawful tactics. He is not above defrauding the ungodly and keeping their ill-gotten gains for himself while helping the unfortunate and keeping one step ahead of the uniformed plodders. He is accompanied on most of his adventures by his wife Joy Everard who he refers to as ‘pixie’.

Conquest, despite being happily married, has an eye for the ladies, especially willowy blondes. Like the Saint, Conquest too has a calling card and in his case, it is the number 1066, the year of the conquest of Britain by the Normans. The books are light-hearted, high spirited, racy and humorous, chock full of action, with never a dull moment. Brooks was a born storyteller and despite his humongous output, managed to maintain a consistently high standard. Any book he wrote was a guaranteed winner.

Yet another writer who wrote two series about Robin Hood-like characters was the equally prolific John Creasey. Creasey was the author of several series and standalone novels and these included a series about the Hon. Richard Rollison ( known as the Toff, slang for posh gentleman). The first Toff book, Introducing the Toff appeared in 1938 and the series comprising 59 books continued till 1978. The Toff is a gentleman adventurer who is not above breaking the law to achieve his ends. Like the Saint and Norman Conquest he too has a calling card, a drawing of a face with a top hat, monocle, bow tie and cigarette holder.

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Meet the Baron

Another Robin Hood-like character by Creasey was John Mannering known as The Baron, a gentleman jewel thief on the lines of Raffles, who later reforms and becomes an antique dealer, who investigates jewel or art-related crimes. The series was written under the pseudonym Anthony Morton with the first book Meet The Baron appearing in 1937. The character also featured in a TV series from 1965 to 1966 with Steve Forrest as The Baron. The series ran to 49 books with the last one published in 1979. Creasey’s speciality was fast-moving adventures, each chapter ending in a cliffhanger. He wrote many other terrific series including those about Inspector ‘Handsome’ West of the Yard, Doctor Palfrey, Bruce Murdoch, Patrick Dawlish and the Crime Haters and perhaps the finest of all British police procedurals, the Commander George Gideon books under the pseudonym JJ Marric. 

They called him Nighthawk

There are more Robin Hood-like characters, especially in British thrillers of the early twentieth century. Bruce Graeme wrote a popular series featuring a gentleman crook named Blackshirt, with the first book Blackshirt appearing in 1925. The series was continued after his death by his son Roderic. The character also appeared in several issues of the iconic British comic series Super Detective Library. Several of the Blackshirt series were reprinted in India by Jaico Publishers who also reprinted several Berkeley Grey books. Another popular British thriller writer Sydney Horler wrote a series of books about a gentleman thief called Nighthawk starting with They Called Him Nighthawk in 1937. Russell Thorndike wrote a terrific series about the Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn, a vicar in Romney Marsh who is secretly ‘The Scarecrow’, the leader of a gang of smugglers and a former pirate. Sapper’s hugely popular ‘Bulldog Drummond’ is another of these gentlemen adventurers. The unique selling point of all these books is their readability with the reader plunging headlong into a maelstrom of action and escapism.

Politically incorrect, but brilliant

However, several of these writers, in particular Sapper, Horler and Thorndike, are products of their time and their books are frequently racist, sexist, jingoistic and antisemitic by today’s standards, a trait they share with many other popular writers including Sax Rohmer and Agatha Christie right down to Mickey Spillane. But for sheer escapist fun, there are few to match them and any reader would be entranced as long as he or she stows away modern-day sensibilities and gives in to the sheer storytelling verve.

By Vineeth Abraham16 September 2021