Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 28, 2021

‘The Arrestation d’Arsène Lupin’ in Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Cambrioleur, (Arsène Lupin #1) by Maurice Leblanc

1907 edition of Arsène Lupin, cover art by Pierre La Fit

The latest title selected for the book club I attend as part of my efforts to learn French, is Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Cambrioleur, (Arsène Lupin #1).  It’s a collection of short stories featuring a ‘gentleman-thief’ called Arsène Lupin, and the first one is called ‘The Arrestation d’Arsène Lupin’, which is about the arrest of the anti-hero.

I’m not keen on crime novels, and the fact that this one is written in French by the French author Maurice Leblanc (1864-1941) makes little difference to me.  The Gutenberg edition that I read features an effusive introduction by Jules Claretie of the Académie Française, in which he compares Lupin to memorable characters of the dubious variety in the fiction of Balzac, Victor Hugo and others I’ve never heard of, but I didn’t find it convincing.  If the first story is anything to go by, this is lightweight entertainment, not even remotely as ingenious as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes which preceded it by over a decade.

(Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in 1887 with A Study in Scarlet, while Arsène Lupin doesn’t make his first appearance till 1905.)

‘The Arrestation d’Arsène Lupin’ is set aboard a transatlantic cruise ship where the narrator and his fellow-passengers are discombobulated to learn via the miracle of the wireless telegraph that the famous gentleman-thief is on board.  A coincidental thunderstorm cuts the connection so that they only know that he’s aboard, he’s blond, he has an injury to his right arm, and his name begins with the letter R.  And lo! before the storm has a chance to blow away (or the telegraph to be restored) some valuable jewels are stolen.

The narrator takes advantage of this situation to arc up his flirtation with a very wealthy young American woman to the role of detective-protector.  Between them they eliminate other passengers with the initial R, and this is not so difficult (a) because Miss Nelly is socially connected to most of them and (b) because they don’t need to bother looking beyond First Class.  The one remaining suspect, the son of a wealthy Bordeaux merchant, is not best pleased to discover that he is the object of suspicion and offers a reward to whoever identifies the real thief and/or the jewels. Nobody is convinced by this.

Well, as you can guess from the title of the story, Arsène Lupin is eventually apprehended, and as you can guess from the existence of the rest of the stories in the collection, he lives on to cause mayhem for another day.  The Big Reveal is, IMO, disappointing for its banality, but mine is a minority opinion because these stories were very popular.  Wikipedia has this to say:

Clearly created at editorial request under the influence of and in reaction to the wildly successful Sherlock Holmes stories, the roguish and glamorous Lupin was a surprise success and Leblanc’s fame and fortune beckoned. In total, Leblanc went on to write 21 Lupin novels or collections of short stories.

The character of Lupin might have been based by Leblanc on French anarchist Marius Jacob, whose trial made headlines in March 1905. It is also possible that Leblanc had also read Octave Mirbeau’s Les 21 jours d’un neurasthénique (1901), which features a gentleman thief named Arthur Lebeau, and he had seen Mirbeau’s comedy Scrupules (1902), whose main character is a gentleman thief.

By 1907, Leblanc had graduated to writing full-length Lupin novels, and the reviews and sales were so good that Leblanc effectively dedicated the rest of his career to working on the Lupin stories. Like Conan Doyle, who often appeared embarrassed or hindered by the success of Sherlock Holmes and seemed to regard his success in the field of crime fiction as a detraction from his more “respectable” literary ambitions, Leblanc also appeared to have resented Lupin’s success. Several times, he tried to create other characters, such as private eye Jim Barnett, but he eventually merged them with Lupin. He continued to pen Lupin tales well into the 1930s.

Travel is off the menu for a good while yet to come, but for those who might care to add it to their bucket lists, Leblanc’s house in Étretat, is today the museum Le clos Arsène Lupin.

Will I read the rest of these stories?  I’d rather not, mais je dois faire mes devoirs! (but I must do my homework).

Author: Maurice Leblanc
Title: Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Cambrioleur, (Arsène Lupin #1)
Publisher: Project Gutenberg (French version), first serialized in the magazine Je sais tout, 1905.
Source: Arsène Lupin, gentleman-cambrioleur by Maurice Leblanc – Free Ebook (gutenberg.org)

Image credits:


Responses

  1. The Netflix series updating these stories has been much promoted, but I can’t say it, or they (the stories) appeal – your account confirms my misgivings.

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    • Ah, so that’s why our teacher chose this for us to read!

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  2. I think these stories could be a light bit of fun fluff but as I do not speak or understand French I can pass them by. 🐧😁

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    • if you aren’t put off entirely, they are available in translation, and they rate reasonably well at Goodreads. (Where, I’m guessing, the reviewers are people who like lightweight crime fiction.)

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  3. After enjoying the current Lupin series on TV, I downloaded the first book from Gutenberg – in English. Thought the old fashioned turn of phrase might be too much to attempt with my learner French, so hats off to you for reading it in the original. Yes, its lightweight and fluffy, perfect for a filler. And it left me feeling amused and happy. P G Wodehouse does the same.

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    • It’s actually not very difficult in French… the long-winded preface had me reaching for the dictionary, but the actual story isn’t hard, except for the use of the passé simple (je fus/tu fus/il fut instead of J’ai été, tu as été, il a été etc). It gets used over and over so you soon get the hang of it.

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  4. LOL! I won’t be reading these in French, but I do have a big chunky Wordsworth Editions collection. It was only when my Eldest Child mentioned the series recently that I realised that something which cost me about £2.99 is now very desirable…! I think I *have* read some of these in the past and agree they’re very light – an enjoyable distraction but not with the power of Holmes.

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    • They must have to jazz them up to make them into an interesting TV series. I don’t just mean with costumes and turn-of-the-century music, they need to make them a bit more complicated so that viewers have to work a bit harder to guess whodunnit.

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  5. Ohhh, I just LOVED the TV series, so much so that I’ve made a note to watch it again whenever spirits flag (for any reason). Without having read the original stories, I can only guess at this, but my sense is that the show is aiming for spirit and idea more than content/mystery. There are certainly things you cannot figure out, things that the protagonist knows and the audience does not yet, but the delight lies in having them coalesce. More than anything, it’s concern with righting-the-wrongs appeals to me deeply. Thanks for the additional info on the French copy; it sounds like something I could try with some success.

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    • Ah, well, that’s interesting… in this story, which is still the only of them that I’ve read because I can’t muster enough enthusiasm for the others, there is no righting of wrongs. Lupin turns up on this ship, steals jewels from one of the women, and indirectly, allows suspicion to fall on someone who doesn’t deserve it. He’s just a thief.

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