Monday, July 4, 2011

July in Paris - Arsene Lupin, gentleman thief

'If you were a French newspaper-reader of pre-1914 Paris, you took your Lupin between sips of Pernod at cafe-tables on the boulevardes: you allowed him to entice your idle eye away from neighboring columns about Bleriot's channel-crossing or the assassination of Archduke Charles' (British critic William Vivian Butler)

I would have liked to have followed the development of the French crime novel in chronological order but when you're at the mercy of public libraries you'll have to read what you can get. Here we'll step back from Simenon's policier novels to look at turn of the century French crime writing.

Maurice Leblanc began his writing career with realistic works influenced by Maupassant and Flaubert. In 1905 he was commissioned by the publisher of Je Sais Tout journal to write a story in the mould of Arthur Conan Doyle and Doyle's brother in law Hornung (author of the Raffles series). Leblanc created Arsene Lupin, gentleman-thief.

Well groomed and debonaire, Lupin steals from the rich and gives (a little) to the poor. He is the master of disguise (this in the era before fingerprints). He delights in a challenge and is always ready to show off. He is, above all, a charmer. There is a definite element of humor in his escapades. The stories are treated in a way as an elaborate joke - with Lupin chuckling as he escapes with the booty.

It's speculated that Leblanc was influenced by real thief Marius Jacob (an anarchist who vowed never to kill and only steal from the rich - yet there were other gentleman thief characters around, which seems a more likely factor. You can also see the influence of fictional rogue Rocambole. Leblanc himself pointed to the works of Edgar Allen Poe as a major influence and you can see this in the fantastic nature of the crimes (Poe has a significant role in the history of French crime novels and deserves a blog post of his very own) - but it would be hard to see how else.

The Penguin edition, Arsene Lupin, gentleman-thief, translated by Michael Sims, is something of a 'best of'. As much of Leblanc's work was serialized, this book is made up of short stories and covers tales from the early to late period. It also includes an encounter with Sherlock Holmes. Leblanc included Holmes in several stories - though after an exchange with Conan Doyle's lawyers, he appears as Herlock Sholmes. In my opinion these stories are best forgotten. The remaining stories are very engaging - Lupin is a delightful character.

The Penguin edition is prefaced by an excellent essay - in which I learn that, such was Lupin's fame, Agatha Christie briefly toyed with the idea of creating Hercule Poirot in his image (and what a loss that would have been!) Like Maigret, Lupin was the subject of many films. He has inspired a Japanese manga and anime series (the best of which, The castle of Cagliostro, was directed by one of my favorite anime directors, Hayao Miyazaki). Only this year, Guerlain released a fragrance in Lupin's honor! And of course, it goes without saying that the Lupin tales led to the creation of The Saint.

They're not really mysteries as we know them. Lupin specialises in the impossible and there's many a 'locked room' theft. It all requires a huge suspension of disbelief but it's such awfully good fun. You'll be shaking your head wondering how he'll pull things off. In the later stories he takes on more of a detective role. Whatever the situation, he's a real charmer.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Caroline said...

Thanks for the reminder to read Leblanc. I have some of his books. Arsène Lupin totally stands in the shadow of Sherlock Holmes. He never acquired the same fame although I believe the episodes were awaited with as much anticipation in France as those of Sherlock Holmes in England, don't you think?

Curvy Kitty said...

I believe you're right. I'm not such a fan of Sherlock Holmes but I'm now feeling obliged to have another go. Lupin is much more fun!