7 February 2014

Maurice Leblanc: Arsène Lupin: gentleman cambrioleur (1907)

And now for something a little lighter. I've been meaning to go to Étretat – in Marcel Leblanc's Pays de Caux territory – for several years, mainly to visit Leblanc's house museum, but also to see the Porte d'Aval and l'Aiguille. This is the stamping ground of Lupinophiles, although I can hardly count myself in their number as until yesterday I hadn't read a single Arsène Lupin book.

So I logically began with Arsène Lupin: gentleman cambrioleur, which is the first published book about this gentleman burglar. The cover shows him in a top hat and in evening dress with a flower in his button hole, a monocle, and carrying a cane: this is certainly the typical image most people have of Lupin. However, he reminds me of Woody Allen's Zelig, who is a kind of chameleon man, changing appearance, even changing shape to some extent to suit his surroundings. He turns up everywhere, frequently using a pseudonym.

There are nine short stories in this book, only the first three of which – concerning Lupin's arrest in New York, his imprisonment in Paris, and his escape from prison  are consecutively linked. The other stories are almost entirely separate from the others, although the detective Ganimard makes regular appearances; and in the final playfully-named story – 'Herlock Sholmes arrive trop tard' (before the surname acquired a grave 'e') – the smitten Miss Nelly Underdown (who previously appeared in the first story) makes a second entrance.

Although Lupin is a professional thief it is impossible not to admire his cool, his aplomb, his sense of humor and justice, his generosity, his decency, even his sheer arrogance. Most of all it is his intelligence we admire, not just the cat and mouse games he plays with the police, but how he can think his way both out of and into even the most apparently impossible places.

The general public obviously love him and he can call upon seemingly endless numbers of people to assist him. More significantly, though, detectives – such as Ganimard and Herlock Sholmes – love pitting their wits against his.

It's perhaps hardly surprising – in a country that has so many streets named after anarchists – that Arsène Lupin should still be such a popular fictional character in France. But a very stylish one: in his Preface to this book, Pierre Lazareff says: [Lupin] isn't an aristocrat living as an anarchist, but an anarchist living as an aristocrat'.

Link to my brief post on Leblanc's grave:

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Maurice Leblanc: Cimetière du Montparnasse #1

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