In live theater, every action has to be broad. When you wave, you don’t just flick your wrist, you move your whole arm. The audience is sitting at least a few yards away from you and you’re only life-sized; in order to see the significance of your action, every motion has to be exaggerated.
Perhaps this can explain to a certain extent the exaggerated characterization in Maurice Leblanc and Edgar Jepson’s Arsène Lupin (otherwise known as Arsène Lupin: The Book of the Play—and not to be confused with the very first Lupin book, the collection of short stories Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar). This work of uncertain literary pedigree is based on a 4-act theatrical play Leblanc wrote with Francis de Croisset in 1909. Unlike other English-language Lupin novels, this is apparently not a direct translation of a French volume, but rather an early example of “novelization”—written solely by Jepson but based on Leblanc’s play. As such, its writing style is significantly different from Leblanc’s other Lupin works. I’d love to know what Leblanc himself thought of it.
The story’s origin as a 4-act play is readily apparent; the action is limited to only about three primary locations, and mostly takes place at the Paris townhouse of a millionaire businessman, M. Gournay-Martin, whose millions are not sitting lightly on his head: having been robbed once, three years before, by Arsène Lupin, he has now received word that he is to be robbed again. Lupin has promised to rob him not only of valuable furnishings and artwork from his Paris townhouse, but also of a fabulous coronet, valued at half a million francs, that he prizes most highly. And all this comes at what should be the time of Gournay-Martin’s greatest happiness, as his daughter Germaine is soon to be wed to the handsome young Duke of Charmerace, newly returned from a 7-year expedition to the South Pole. Charmerace races to the scene of the crime in Gournay-Martin’s only remaining car, but is too late—the house has been stripped clean by the time he arrives, with the exception of the coronet—locked in an impregnable bedroom safe.
But never fear—the French police are on the case, in the form of Examining Magistrate M. Formery and Chief-Inspector Guerchard. Formery and Guerchard do not get along well; Formery is so short-sighted and full of himself that he could be considered a progenitor of The Pink Panther‘s Inspector Clouseau; he largely serves as comic relief. Guerchard, however, is significantly more competent, and is clever enough to be one of the most challenging adversaries that Lupin has ever faced. It is likely that Guerchard, described by one of the characters as “the greatest detective we’ve had in France since Vidocq,” is more than a match for any ordinary criminal—but Lupin has never been merely ordinary.
But then, as they investigate, another message from Lupin comes: since he wasn’t able to get the coronet earlier that day, he’s going to strike a third time—showing up between 11:45 and midnight to steal the crown in person. Tension mounts as the hour draws near. Will Lupin show his face, with the police ready and waiting? Will he capture the coronet, or will Guerchard capture him?
The peculiar thing about Arsène Lupin is that the titular character barely appears in the book at all. Instead, we follow the household—Charmerace, Germaine, and Gournay-Martin in particular—as it is stirred up by Lupin’s promised burglary. Then we follow Charmerace, Formery, and Guerchard as they investigate the case. It is only at the climax that we actually get to see Lupin…or is it? He is a master of disguise, after all…
The book is written to try to keep the secret of where Lupin is and what he is doing while the household is thus agitated, only hinting here and there and then springing it on the audience at the end as a surprise. But to be honest, this book was written at a less-sophisticated time, and today’s readers—having been innoculated by exposure to thousands more twisty plots (thanks to television, movies, and mystery books) than the average reader of that day could have known—will probably guess where Lupin is hiding before the end of the second chapter. (You probably have a pretty good idea already just from reading this review.) But even if you guess, you can still enjoy the book simply as a police procedural (or perhaps I should say “criminal procedural”), like Columbo or Jake and the Fatman where you already know who committed the crime and the pleasure is in watching the police unravel it. That is, if you can get past the uneven writing style.
The first chapter or two are, to be honest, not terribly prepossessing. Characters are not so much characterized as they are semaphored at you. Not a single mention is made of Germaine Gournay-Martin without belaboring the point of how totally spoiled, self-centered, and all-around disagreeable she is; not a single mention is made of Germaine’s servant Sonia Kritchnoff without expressing how melancholy and oppressed she is by being subject to Germaine’s whims. And it is blindingly obvious from the first time we meet him that the Duke of Charmerace is far more taken with Sonia than with Germaine, as they cast wistful looks at each other behind the self-absorbed Germaine’s back (or even in front of her face). It’s so over-the-top that it descends into melodrama; you practically expect a mustachio-twirling villain to step through the door and tie Sonia to the railroad tracks. Leblanc’s other Lupin stories, even via their varied translations, are never so cheesy as this; it is largely this that leads me to believe Jepson wrote this work himself, with Leblanc’s only contribution being the dialogue and stage direction.
Another difference is that the humor seems to be broader, and more blatant, than in the other Lupin stories—sometimes bordering on the farcical. This can be partly explained by it being an adaptation of a play; for the play to keep people entertained, the playwrights would have had to throw in jokes every now and again, as well as comic-relief characters. It could be that these jokes were put in by Leblanc’s writing partner when the play was originally written, and were then translated to the page by Jepson with the rest.
And some of these jokes may be a trifle obscure to the modern audience.
“I mean to marry my daughter to a worker—a worker, my dear Duke,” said the millionaire, slapping his big left hand with his bigger right. “I’ve no prejudices—not I. I wish to have for son-in-law a duke who wears the Order of the Legion of Honour, and belongs to the Academie Francaise, because that is personal merit. I’m no snob.”
A gentle, irrepressible laugh broke from the Duke.
“What are you laughing at?” said the millionaire, and a sudden lowering gloom overspread his beaming face.
“Nothing—nothing,” said the Duke quietly. “Only you’re so full of surprises.”
Modern-day readers, especially American readers, might not get the joke to its fullest extent—the Academie Francaise is the redoubtable French organization that, among other things, polices the French language, insisting that people use good old-fashioned French rather than English loan-words like “hot dog” or “Walkman.” Thus, not only is it snobbery, it is the very height of snobbery—and that’s the real reason why Charmerace is laughing.
And then there’s the servant who was arrested twice—once for participating in a Socialist demonstration, and once for participating in a Royalist demonstration—when he worked in the service of Socialist and Royalist politicians, respectively.
“You don’t seem to have very well-defined political convictions,” said M. Formery.
“Oh, yes, sir, I have,” the concierge protested. “I’m always devoted to my masters; and I have the same opinions that they have—always.”
Many characters are none-too-subtly ridiculed by the narrative—especially when the characters are themselves comic relief. For example, the bumbling M. Formery is described as “[appearing] to be of the opinion that Nature had given the world the toothbrush as a model of what a moustache should be.” Gournay-Martin—a self-important, florid-faced, overweight fellow with close-set eyes, is another favored butt of narrative jokes; when he receives some unwelcome news and sits a touch too heavily in an antique chair, we are treated to a physical description of a slapstick gag. It probably worked much better on the stage than in print.
But once it settles down, comedy elements aside, the story is compelling. Despite Lupin’s apparent absence for most of the book, he serves as a sort of larcenous Godot—the fact that he’s coming drives the narrative; the characters become more anxious as the hour of his scheduled arrival draws nearer. Guerchard, at first so calm and analytical, begins to lose his cool as all of Lupin’s detective adversaries invariably do—even the great Sherlock Holmes, ahem, pardon me, “Herlock Sholmes.” And there’s also the matter of the Duke of Charmerace’s growing attraction, despite his impending nuptuals, to Sonia Kritchnoff—and Sonia is hiding a secret that could cost her, and Charmerace, dearly.
As an Arsène Lupin novel, Arsène Lupin is atypical. Not really written by Leblanc, it’s rather like a novelization of a James Bond movie script (oh yes, they do exist—I own the one for The Spy Who Loved Me), or “Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Fred Saberhagen”—a story written at one or more removes from the original author’s work. It’s not really a mystery, despite the presence of a criminal and a detective; it’s more of a drama about the duel between these two larger-than-life personalities. It is a trifle melodramatic and farcical, and it probably worked significantly better on the stage than on the page. (I dearly wish I could see an English-language version of the play staged; I’ll wager it would be great fun.) But even considering all of that, it has a compelling story and snappy dialogue, and is worth reading on that count alone.
(If I weren’t so terribly modest, I’d also point out that the fact that you are able to read it, if you read it via Gutenberg or another public domain repackager, is at least in part attributable directly to me; I’m the one who volunteered his copies of Arsène Lupin and The Hollow Needle for scanning and addition to Project Gutenberg. You can see the scans at Greg Weeks’s website.)
Although he is hardly remembered today outside of France, save for his role as the predecessor to the popular Lupin III anime, Arsène Lupin used to be an absolutely huge part of French pop culture, and to some extent still is. The play upon which this book was based was adapted for film and television numerous times, including three silent films and an early 1932 “talkie” that starred John Barrymore as Lupin and Lionel Barrymore as Guerchard—their first appearance together in a motion picture. (The Barrymore picture is not terribly faithful either to the play or to real life; it features Lupin stealing the Mona Lisa by rolling up the canvas on which it is painted—except that in reality, the Mona Lisa is painted on a sheet of wood.)
And Lupin inspired more than just Lupin III. It is at least possible and on the whole quite likely that he inspired Leslie Charteris’s The Saint, and Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat can only be one of Lupin’s direct descendants. Come to think of it, since he was among the very first modern criminal heroes, every heist or caper film ever made probably owes something to Lupin—particularly that David Niven/Peter Sellers comedy about the debonair ladies’-man jewel thief who matches wits with the semi-competent French Inspector. Yes, that one. (Especially since I seem to recall that in at least one of the Lupin novels, Lupin also romanced the wife of the Inspector who was trying to catch him.)
For more information on the original Arsène Lupin, and how he compares to his modern-day anime descendant, check out the MP3 commentary track I recorded for Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro. Be sure and watch the movie without it first, though!