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The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar Kindle Edition
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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.
Although these nine loosely-connected mysteries are pure fantasy, their detail and context open out the Belle Epoque milieu in which they are set. One of the major themes is that the 'respectable' bourgoisie Lupin robs are often as dishonest and even criminal as he, indulging in the illegal speculations/swindles rife at the time or organising elaborate charades to conceal financial decline. The invidiousness of social inequality is a factor in Lupin's psychological make-up. The antiquity of French history and national character is in conflict with the disruption of modernity (telephones, photographs, automobiles etc.). The vulnerability of the bourgeoisie contrasts with a democratising popular press avidly chronicling Lupin's every move, making him 'our national thief'.
I don't want to get too solemn, such is the breezy pleasure of this book, but I believe 'Lupin' is more than simply an engaging riposte to Sherlock Holmes; Lupin is more than someone who pilfers from the rich. Whereas most crime literature seeks to re-order a violated society through a central, reliable, narrational consciousness embodied in the figure of the detective, 'Lupin' disrupts order at every opportunity. Lupin's facility with disguise is matched by his disruptions of the text, which changes narrator and point-of-view without warning, Lupin himself often betraying the reader's trust by assuming the first-person on false pretences. With wit, playfulness and a light touch, leBlanc undermines our certainties as readers, just as Lupin does his victims, filling each tale with alternative narratives, jarring tones, shifting modes, unfulfilled expectations. Lupin is always taking his bow, leaving the stage and slipping away, as terrified by his own lack of a recognisable identity as he terrifies everyone else. For omnipotence and fame come at a price - existential dread and sexual impotence: the penetration of homes and homosocial company must substitute for failed relationships with women.