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.
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.