Friday, August 21, 2015

The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar by Maurice Leblanc

Sacré bleu! No jewel is safe from this master thief
Arsène Lupin is often described as the French answer to Sherlock Holmes, and for good reason. Author Maurice Leblanc seems to have created the character in response to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, and the stories of both share a common atmosphere and tone. The setting of the Lupin stories is slightly more modern than those of Holmes—more automobiles and fewer horses, for example—but both series sport an entertaining combination of period chic, intellectual challenge, delightful suspense, and good-natured fun.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar, originally published in 1907, is the first book in the Lupin series. It collects nine short stories that were originally published in the French magazine Je sais tout. The book is sometimes presented as a novel of nine chapters, but in fact each “chapter” functions as a stand-alone short story. Like the Holmes stories, however, it does pay to read them sequentially. Lupin’s debut adventure, “The Arrest of Arsène Lupin,” is a masterpiece. A transatlantic liner heading for America receives a telegram informing the crew that the notorious criminal is on board their vessel. This news leaks to the passengers, and everyone on board plays amateur detective, hoping to capture the infamous thief. Though I was prepared for a surprise ending, this one still managed to confound my expectations.

The eight stories that follow this auspicious debut are cleverly diverse in format but inconsistent in quality. Variety is their strength, as you never know what you’re going to get when you start reading one of these tales. Sometimes Lupin is a thief, planning a major heist. Other times he functions as a detective, thwarting the schemes of other criminals. Unlike Holmes, who possesses a very idiosyncratic and charismatic personality, Lupin is a chameleon. Not only is he a master at concealing his true identity, he actually has no true identity, but continually adapts himself to whatever circumstances require. Often a story proceeds for most of its length with no mention of Lupin whatsoever. At the end of the story it is revealed that this or that character was Lupin. You know it’s coming, but Leblanc keeps you guessing as to who it’s going to be.

Not every story here is a winner. “Seven of Hearts,” the longest entry in the book, is a confusing mess involving blackmail and stolen plans for a submarine. The climactic unmasking of Lupin delivers no surprise. “The Queen’s Necklace,” on the other hand, is a classic locked-room mystery that’s not only ingenious but also quite moving. “The Black Pearl” is another good caper in which Lupin sets out to steal the titular gem and ends up investigating a murder. In the book’s final story, “Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late,” Conan Doyle’s creation makes a guest appearance. Leblanc creates a mystery suitable for the master sleuth, but his take on Holmes isn’t quite fitting to the character.

At times Leblanc’s writing can get a little too cheeky as Lupin plays games with the police. I wasn’t thrilled by every story in this collection, but on the whole I would say that out of the many characters inspired by Holmes, this is the first one I’ve encountered that’s really in the same league with Conan Doyle’s stories. I will certainly be checking out the further adventures of this gentleman-burglar.

Stories in this collection
The Arrest of Arsène Lupin 
Arsène Lupin in Prison 
The Escape of Arsène Lupin 
The Mysterious Traveller 
The Queen’s Necklace 
The Seven of Hearts 
Madame Imbert’s Safe 
The Black Pearl 
Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late

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