19 March 2014

Maurice Leblanc L'Aiguille creuse | The Hollow Needle: (1909)

Crime novels are far from my staple literary diet, although a short time ago I read Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin Gentleman Cambrioleur and was impressed. With a few reservations, I'm impressed with L'Aiguille Creuse (The Hollow Needle) too.

L'Aiguille Creuse is largely set in the Pays de Caux in Normandy, which can – as Leblanc describes it – be fairly accurately located in the triangular area between Le Havre, Dieppe and Rouen, with the north being the coastal strip between Le Havre and Dieppe, the south being the River Seine between Le Havre and Rouen, and to the east the valleys between Dieppe and Rouen.

Without going too much into the wildly unbelievable story – which includes murders, mistaken identity, obsessive sleuthing, incredible coincidences by the bucketful (no exaggeration), nail-biting chases and an ineffectual, Spoonerised Sherlock Holmes (as Herlock Sholmès) – L'Aiguille Creuse is essentially a battle of wits between Lupin and Isidore Beautrelet.

Lupin is a highly intelligent burglar and a kind of anarchistic would-be aristocrat – in the end he'd like to be remembered by having rooms in the Louvre named after him for instance – and Beautrelet is a fantastically gifted seventeen-year-old student of rhetoric at a lycée who is more a match for Lupin, who two thirds of the way through has to confess that the 'Bébé' is much more dangerous to his success as a thief than the inept police chief Ganimard or the bungling English dick Sholmès.

Fortunes swing to and fro for the two main characters here, and Beautrelet goes from hero for saving his father and Raymonde de Saint-Véran from the amorous clutches of Lupin – as well as discovering that L'Aiguille creuse is the château de L'Aiguille in the département of Creuse – to cry-baby when he finds that Lupin is one step ahead and knows that the château is a red herring netted by none other than Louis XIV. And then, when Beautrelet works out that the real Aiguille creuse is in fact the hollowed rock formation off the coast of Étretat* (incidentally the town where Leblanc used to live), he is shocked to learn that Lupin (using another identity) has in fact married Raymonde.

Lupin's fortunes swing too – not only is he upstaged by a schoolboy upstart, not only does he have to give up his luxury home in the hollow needle surrounded by kings' treasures and priceless paintings by old masters, but Sholmès shoots his beloved wife dead.

Maybe I just felt in the mood for a little light reading but – in spite of the old-fashioned-sounding words ('diable !', 'damnation !', 'gredin' ('rascal')), etc, instead of more modern words like 'putain', 'connard', and so on, I was quite surprised how fresh a lot of this seems, how crazy, and well, how enjoyable. I won't be turning Lupin into a reading habit, but all the same Leblanc a very good writer...

*No, it's not hollow in real life.

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