This semester, I’m teaching a class on French crime fiction. Although the genre started in France roughly when British and American crime fiction did (which is to say around the middle of the 19th century), I’m staying inside the 20th century, mostly so I can have my students read some of my favorite things and don’t have to edge anything out! We’ll be reading five novels, thinking about justice and social order and gender and ethnic minorities and methods of deduction and geography and space and weather and conventions of genre and style (among other things.)
The first book I had them read is the first in Maurice Leblanc’s series about Arsène Lupin. Lupin is a sort of master criminal, impossible to catch since he never leaves a trace, a high-class burglar who robs only from the rich, and even then takes only the very best of their treasures because he has such impeccable taste:
Arsène Lupin, the whimsical gentleman who only operates in castles and salons, and who, one night, when he had broken into Baron Schormann’s home, departed with empty hands and left his card decorated with this motto: “Arsène Lupin, gentleman-thief, will return when the furniture is authentic.” Arsène Lupin, the man of a thousand disguises, by turn tenor, bookmaker, son and heir, adolescent, old man, salesman from Marseilles, Russian doctor, Spanish bullfighter!
This book was written in 1907 and serialized in newspapers, and each chapter is a short story about Lupin, rather than there being a longer narrative arc to the book. This works because of the continuity of the gentleman-thief himself — a bit like reading the stories about Sherlock Holmes — and because the stories themselves are fantastic. They are witty, dramatic, often extremely funny, hugely entertaining (car chases! escapes from prison! disguises and double-crosses! jiu-jitsu and a hook to the jugular!) and they always take place at the highest levels of society. Lupin sees his crime as a game, and is a master manipulator, but he’s no Moriarty. Sometimes rich people wind up without a Rubens or so, but no one ever really gets hurt.
It’s interesting to reflect that partly because of the harsh measures acted out by the police under Napoleon III (censorship, surveillance, repressive measures against opponents, etc.) the police were rarely sympathetic characters in French crime fiction until nearly the 1930s. In early novels, you’ll see journalists fighting crime, and there are two major series — like this one — in which the criminal is the protagonist. How do we understand crime and justice when we’re rooting for the criminal to get away with it? If it’s a generally understood purpose of crime fiction that it moves from disorder to order, then what do we do with a gentleman thief? It’s also a terrific window on Belle Epoque society: Leblanc is very interested in modern technology in 1907, like motor-cars, telephones, telegrams, “petits bleus” (a system of communication by pneumatic tubes), and so on.
Arsène Lupin is a wonderful read. If you’ve never encountered Leblanc’s work, give this one a try: it’s been translated by Michael Sims for Penguin Classics. (The translation here is my own.)