Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Doings of Raffles Haw by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Being an eccentric millionaire isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
Though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is obviously best known for his tales of Sherlock Holmes, the adventures of that great detective comprise less than half of the author’s prodigious literary output. Conan Doyle wrote dozens of other works in such diverse genres as mystery, science fiction, horror, and historical fiction. The Doings of Raffles Haw, however, does not fit neatly into any of these categories. Originally published in 1891, this delightful work is an unconventional fable on the dangers and woes of possessing great wealth. Cleverly crafted and thoroughly entertaining, it makes a great read for any Conan Doyle fan who’s looking to venture beyond his detective stories.

Siblings Robert and Laura McIntyre live in the rural English town of Tamfield, near Birmingham, with their father, a bankrupt and embittered former gun manufacturer. Their lives are altered irrevocably when a mysterious new neighbor comes to town, taking up residence in the immense house he has constructed next door. The family soon make the acquaintance of this mystery man, who may possibly be the richest man in the world. Raffles Haw is an odd and eccentric, but likable, character. A visit to his palatial estate is like a page from a Richie Rich comic book. Everything one could want is available at the push of a button or the pull of a lever. Raffles Haw does not revel in his luxury, however. He sees his wealth as an immense responsibility. He considers it his duty to spend his fortune and circulate his money in order to keep the world’s economy functioning. He earnestly searches for humanitarian projects that will better mankind, but continually realizes that every beneficence he bestows is accompanied by an unexpected, negative consequence. The influence of his great wealth even begins to effect the McIntyre family, driving them to envy, dishonesty, idleness, and suspicion. Father, son, and daughter alike are nagged by a persistent riddle: Just how did Raffles Haw make all this money anyway?

One of the joys of the book is that Raffles Haw, as bizarre as he is, is really the only truly good person in the book. Though his personal integrity has not been tainted by his vast fortune, proximity to his money brings out the selfish motives of everyone else in the book. Although there are moments when Conan Doyle offers serious insight into the effects of greed on human nature, for the most part the novel is relatively lighthearted in tone. The descriptions of the millionaire’s home and his plans to better the world often reach comically fantastical heights, causing some to question his sanity. Though his grand schemes sometimes depend on the erroneous science of a century ago, as in the works of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, instances of questionable physics and chemistry are forgivable when their sheer visionary ingenuity is a pleasure to read.

Of the half dozen or so non-Holmes books I’ve read by Conan Doyle, The Doings of Raffles Haw is by far my favorite. It is a fun and imaginative tale, penned by a master storyteller, starring one truly unforgettable character. Raffles Haw should be a familiar expression in the English language, as in, “That Richard Branson is such a Raffles Haw!” or “Bill Gates, the Raffles Haw of Silicon Valley.” Alas, it’s unlikely such notoriety will ever come to pass, but anyone willing to pluck this novel from obscurity and devote a few enjoyable hours to reading it will certainly not regret it.

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