Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Thief

arsene lupinThis 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.)

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13 Responses to Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Thief

  1. Alyssa says:

    Oh wow, Lupin sounds like a really interesting character. I love stories with a bit of history behind them, and crime fiction is a fav — totally checking this out!

  2. I know your focus is French fiction, but Lupin sounds a lot to me like Raffles, a British gentleman thief, who was, however, of a slightly later day, I believe, maybe 1920’s? Maybe Raffles was based on Lupin. It’s certainly true that any great success in the arts spawns numerous imitators in various languages….

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you for this, since I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Raffles! It does sound as if it might be a bit derivative, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

  3. Lisa says:

    I read some of these stories (in translation) and enjoyed them – and like shadowoperator above, I was reminded of Raffles. But the ones I read were more about tweaking Arthur Conan Doyle’s nose, with an inept version of Sherlock Holmes that Lupin outwitted at every turn. I can’t remember the nonsensical name of the Holmes character – as I remember, Conan Doyle threatened legal action when Leblanc first used Holmes’ name.

    • Jenny says:

      The last story in this collection involves Herlock Sholmes — is that who you mean? It is also true that there’s a policeman who appears repeatedly and is also outwitted more than once. Lupin leaves us all in the dust!

  4. Karen K. says:

    I read the Penguin translation last summer and loved it. I found the stories charming and delightful. I have so many British classics to read that it was interesting to get another perspective on this type of classic.

    • Jenny says:

      There’s a crime fiction tradition in many, many countries in the world, and it’s so interesting to see how they develop differently, based on their ideas of morality, crime, justice, the role of the police and the state, private detection, and so on. It’s quite a field of study!

  5. Tony says:

    Ah, but are you now ready for that famed Japanese manga star, Arsène Lupin III? ;)

  6. Alex says:

    I love current crime fiction but have only just started to delve into its history in any depths. I was surprised to read that the French had a police service long before we did here in the UK. Was there a long history of place corruption in France, do you know? If so, this might explain why Leblanc chose to glorify the criminal.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, as I mentioned in my review, Napoleon III (early 19th century) used the police against the people to very harmful effect. The suspicion against the police lasted quite a long time, and you don’t really see the police as sympathetic characters in crime fiction until nearly the 1930s with Simenon and his police detective Maigret.

  7. I have been wanting to give Arsene Lupin a try! He’s on my list for sure. I love a gentleman thief! Chicanery!

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