Arsene Lupin—A lovable French rogue

Pierre Ferrand

Author's notes: Bob Cotner told me that a Caxtonian asked whether I would care to write an essay about Arsene Lupin and its creator, Maurice Leblanc (1864-1941). My own comment was “Why not?” I understand that there are a number of club members who are fans of Sherlock Holmes, a character Lupin competed with.


here are some 60 “Arsene Lupin” titles in French, written by Maurice Leblanc over more than a quarter century. There are also comic strips, several plays, motion pictures, and TV series featuring the hero, including a 1932 motion picture starring John Barrymore. Sherlock Holmes had to be resurrected by Conan Doyle by popular demand after he had killed him off because Doyle had grown tired of writing about him. The same thing happened to Arsene Lupin, who also survived his original author, with additional five “Arsene Lupin” books published between 1973 and 1979 by the noted mystery story writing team of Boileau-Narcejac. (They are the authors of the novels on which the classic movie thrillers, Diabolique (1952) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), are based).

Arsene Lupin first appeared as a character in a 1905 novelette published in Je Sais Tout, a magazine. Two years later, which was two decades after the publication of the first Sherlock Holmes title, A Study In Scarlet, the first Arsene Lupin book appeared: Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Cambrioleur (“Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Burglar,” which included eight tales), and also, Arsene Lupin contre Herlock Sholmes, which started a series of stories in which Lupin was pitted against the British detective. Conan Doyle’s representatives had insisted that Leblanc could not use the Holmes’ name, so a transparent pseudonym was devised, which could not fool anyone. Dr. Watson appeared as “Wilson,” and is significantly more inane than Holmes’ friend, already no genius in Conan Doyle’s hands.

Sherlock Holmes and Arsene Lupin are diametrical opposites. Holmes, though a private detective and something of a loner, is definitely a rather stodgy member of the British establishment. He is usually on the side of law and order, and many of his investigations deal with murders. He is deadly serious as a rule. Women play a limited role in his life. Doggedly persistent, he proceeds logically, step-by-step. His solutions are usually derived from observation and material clues.

Lupin is an outlaw in the Robin Hood tradition, usually robbing the rich (especially parvenus with no taste) and generous to the poor. A man of action and a light-hearted adventurer with gallic panache and a great sense of humor, he delights in overcoming what seem to be insurmountable obstacles. He has innumerable identities and disguises, seldom leaves any clues, and performs impossible escapes, which appear plausible when explained. He often announces to his targeted victims in advance what he intends to do, and enjoys taunting the police and more serious opponents to show his superiority to them. He resolutely refuses to kill, even in self-defense and is generally generous to his enemies and particularly to the ladies. Indeed, he married four times (for love) and had several affairs.

His burglary specialties include priceless and often historical jewelry, as well as great works of art. Indeed, at the age of six, he stole the necklace of Queen Marie Antoinette from the noble family that had it. He was angry because he felt his mother, their chambermaid, was being humiliated by them. In another story, the adult Lupin demands by letter the post-paid delivery to him of paintings by Rubens, Philippe de Champaigne, and a small Watteau kept in a strong castle, commenting that he does not care for the larger Watteau there, which is a forgery. When this preposterous but tongue-in-cheek ultimatum is rejected, he arranges for the theft of these treasures by his gang, though he is in prison for the time being. He returns them against a handsome cash payment.

In “Sherlock Holmes Arrives too Late,” his first encounter with the British detective, Lupin manages to steal a castle’s treasures because he has discovered a secret passage to it, but gallantly returns them at the request of a young lady, who had earlier done him a favor. Holmes, who had been asked to investigate the burglary, had also discovered the secret passage. Lupin admires his powers of observation, deduction, and analysis, but clearly considers him plodding and pedantic, despite his insights, without his own ”joie de vivre” and delight in clever tricks. He returns to Holmes the watch he had stolen from him just for fun.

In Arsene Lupin Contre Herlock Sholmes, Holmes has been asked to investigate a series of burglaries. Lupin leads Holmes on a merry chase through Paris. In one of many episodes, Lupin manages to trap Holmes in a house overnight but arranges to provide him with a succulent dinner with his compliments. He also has him kidnapped and shipped back to England. Still, Holmes outwits his captors, returns to France to arrest Lupin, who, however, escapes as usual.

In L’aiguille Creuse (“The Hollow Needle”), a novel, (1909) the Lupin saga is lifted to a truly mythical level. The secret of the hollow needle is one that used to be known to medieval English royalty, to Joan of Arc, and to the Kings of France, and was a major key to their wealth and power. Even the Man in the Iron Mask gets involved. It, thus, includes a quick Alexandre Dumas-like romp through French history, or pseudo-history. Holmes appears at the end, having solved the mystery of the hollow needle. He tries to kill Lupin but accidentally kills his wife instead. Lupin had decided, for her sake, to give up his life of crime and donate the many authentic art treasures he had stolen (and often replaced by forgeries, which fill the world’s museums), to the Louvre.

I deliberately haven’t told much of the plot of The Hollow Needle because Caxtonians who haven’t read the book may care to find out for themselves. I will just add that it involves, among other things, some remarkable rock formations on the coast of Etretat, Normandy, often reproduced by famous French painters from Courbet onwards. Maurice Leblanc, himself from Normandy and a sometime protege of the Norman short story writer and novelist Guy de Maupassant, had a home in Etretat, which is currently exploiting his memory (and Lupin) as a tourist attraction.

It would appear that later Arsene Lupin stories become more and more adventure novels, with such features as a radioactive “god stone” curing ills, and an elixir of long life. In World War I tales, Lupin becomes patriotic. In subsequent tales, he becomes an ally of the police. I have not studied them, and I am not sure that I really want to. On the other hand, the early Lupin tales I read are literate, stylish, quick-paced, and fun. Maurice Leblanc was a born storyteller with a dazzling imagination. He was very cultured, like his attractive hero, and writes elegant French.

The English translations are not necessarily as elegant, but one can read him for the light-hearted plots and characterization. Indeed, many people have done so over the years, including T.S. Eliot, who later claimed that “I used to read him, but I have now graduated to Inspector Maigret.” (Much the worse for TS!).

In English, only the Simon Templar tales approximate the early Arsene Lupin stories as fun reading, and they do not have the same scope.

Bibliographical note: In French, the Arsene Lupin saga is extensively in print according to current catalogues (five substantial volumes in the Collection Bouquins. containing practically all the titles, including those of Boileau- Narcejac, and some 30 volumes in the Livres de Poche.) Barnes & Noble “used books” offers copies of Je Sais Tout magazines containing the first printings of some tales.

For those who want to examine how Arsene Lupin differs from the Anglo-Saxon Poe/Conan Doyle tradition, the Thomas Narcejac article in the La Pleiade Histoire des Litteratures (Vol.III) would be a useful starting point (He also wrote several standard histories of the detective story and the thriller).

In English, Dover Publications has reprinted a 1910 translation of the first nine Lupin tales, and there has been a recent edition of Arsene Lupin vs. Herlock Sholmes (Wildside Press, 2000).

Editor’s note: Caxtonian Pierre Ferrand is a European by birth, an American by adoption, a banker by profession, and a literary scholar by avocation. He has written a family memoir, A Question of Allegiance (1990), is a regular book reviewer for the Bulletin of Psychological Type, and is a widely published essayist.

L’illustration Theatrale, Journal d’ Actualies Dramatiques

Title page from L’illustration Theatrale, Journal d’ Actualies Dramatiques, Paris, Premiere performance of Arsene Lupin, October 28, 1908. Image courtesy of the Newberry Library.

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