Arsene Lupin

I’m giving a paper on Gentleman Burglars at the Masculine Middlebrow conference in London next month. I’ll  mostly be concentrating on ex-soldier burglars like Burrage’s  Captain Dorry and Bruce Graeme’s Blackshirt (and The Saint, who may or may not have been an ex-soldier to start with, until Leslie Charteris definitely decided he wasn’t).

Anyway, I thought I’d better take a look at Arsene Lupin, the famous French gentleman-cambrioleur, who began his career in 1906, to see how he related to these, and to Raffles, the daddy of them all. He was immensely popular in his time, and before 1920 inspired films in France, England and the U.S. John Barrymore was in a 1932 American movie, and there was a French version as recently as 2004.

arsenelupin4

Unlike the English examples, Lupin has a quality that I can only describe as abstract. He is always there in the stories, but you don’t necessarily know which character is Arsene Lupin until the end. The author, Maurice Leblanc, is not interested in giving him the sort of credible social background that is essential to Raffles or the ex-officers. He is less of a character than a magical power, able to perform the extraordinary.  Leblanc achieves this by narrative trickery. There is one story, for example, that prefigures the bravura narrative trick that Agatha Christie uses in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). In other tales, the reader is led along one narrative path, only to have it twisted around quite flamboyantly, with a fine disregard for verisimilitude.

Like the English examples, Lupin has his Robin Hood aspect, robbing the unsympathetic rich and giving to the poor. Even more than them, though, he is a lord of narrative misrule, as Leblanc tests and twists the conventions of storytelling fpr the sheer fun of it.

A sad thing happens to gentleman thieves as their careers progress. They gradually change from thieves to detectives, and Lupin is no exception. I suppose that this is because the detective genre is easier to keep fresh than the burglarious one. It’s a pity, though; these anti-heroes are  always most interesting when they are most anti-social.

6 Comments

  1. Posted March 15, 2009 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Following up on our recent meeting at the Masculine Middlebrows:

    Arsene Lupin figures in Canning’s Mr. Finchley goes to Paris. He is a hero to Robert, the 10-year-old waif that Mr. Finchley adopts, and when he and Mr. Finchley are kidnapped Robert accuses the kidnapper of being Arsene Lupin.

    Another interesting gentleman thief was created by Canning in Young Man on a Bicycle, http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/wordscape/canning/youngman.html, where Paul Ashcroft cosies up to old ladies, steals their jewellery, and then tells them that he can recover the jewels from the thief “Gringo the Greek” in return for a reward, which he then donates to charity. The denouement occurs when the real Gringo the Greek finds out that he is being blamed.

    All the best,

    John

  2. Posted March 15, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    John –
    Thanks for the references. Victor Canning is not an author I know well. I’ll definitely take a look at Young Man on a Bicycle. It sounds like fun.

  3. Posted March 25, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    “He was immensely popular in his time”

    Arsène Lupin is still immensely popular in Latin countries, especially his fatherland France. Why his popularity waned in England and the United States is something I don’t know, but he’d sure deserve a revival there. You might want to read the article I wrote one year ago on my blog:

    http://atthevillarose.blogspot.com/2008/01/larsne.html

  4. Posted March 25, 2009 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Xavier –
    A selection of stories has recently been reprinted by Penguin, so maybe that will revive Lupin’s popularity in Britain. The 2004 film made little impact here. I liked your blog article; some of the stories you mention sound well worth seeking out.

  5. Peter
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Hi,

    I realise I’m a little late with this, but I’ve read that in 1905, Pierre Lafitte, head of a new magazine Je sais tout, asked Leblanc for a novel modelled on the Raffles of E.W. Hornung. In other words, Raffles was the starting point. Any idea whether this is true?

    Peter

    • Posted July 2, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

      I didn’t know this. The editor of the Penguin selection of stories suggests that (like Hornung) Leblanc was trying to emulate the success of Sherlock Holmes – but imitating Hornung does seem more likely.


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