This review was originally written for posting to alt.pulp, but given that it’s been a while since I updated this journal, and I enjoyed writing it, I should go ahead and post it to this journal so that more people might see it.
I am told that Maurice Leblanc once bemoaned that writing so many novels about master thief and adventurer Arsène Lupin had spoiled him for writing about anybody else: the protagonists of any other books he tried to write invariably turned into Arsène Lupin, no matter who they had originally been supposed to be. Perhaps this explains the curious little author’s note that begins The Eight Strokes of the Clock:
These adventures were told to me in the old days by Arsène Lupin, as though they had happened to a friend of his, named Prince Renine. As for me, considering the way in which they were conducted, the actions, the behaviour and the very character of the hero, I find it very difficult not to identify the two friends as one and the same person. Arsène Lupin is gifted with a powerful imagination and is quite capable of attributing to himself adventures which are not his at all and of disowning those which are really his. The reader will judge for himself.
A thematically-related series of eight short stories that originally appeared in Excelsior Magazine in 1922-23, Eight Strokes has the distinction of being the last Arsène Lupin novel to fall before the Bono Act public domain cut-off date—if, indeed, an Arsène Lupin novel it is. The eight tales follow the adventures of “Prince Serge Renine” (exactly what kingdom he’s supposed to be a prince of is never explained—it could well be that “Prince” is just his given name. I guess that would make him “the Prince formerly known as Lupin”) and his assistant, Hortense Daniels, as they unravel eight perplexing mysteries—or, rather, as “Renine” unravels them and Hortense tags along. Chronologically, the stories are set in 1911, between Lupin’s retirement from crime at the end of The Hollow Needle and his greatest adventure of all, 813.
In the first story, “On the Top of the Tower,” Renine prevents Hortense from eloping with a man she actually finds distasteful, but sees as the only way out of her distressing home life. (Hortense lives with her appointed guardian, an uncle whom she does not like.) He accomplishes this feat by shooting out the tires of the car in which they are leaving—and when Hortense chases him down to berate him, he charms her into accompanying him in exploring a nearby abandoned chateau. In this chateau they discover a still-running clock that chimes the hour of eight o’clock—twenty years after it should have stopped—a hidden telescope…and an ancient crime.
The solution to this mystery frees Hortense from her uncle, and Renine strikes a bargain with Hortense: as the clock struck eight times, she will accompany him on seven more adventures. At the end, he will recover a precious heirloom brooch that was stolen from her years before—and in return, she will give him…he’s too much of a gentleman to say exactly what it is he wants, but they both know exactly what he means.
And so their adventures begin, as they proceed to solve seven more mysteries together, each more mysterious than the last. How was a box set on fire when there was nobody in the room? How was a man stabbed in the back when nobody went into or out of his cottage after he entered it? Why are women being systematically murdered with identical hatchet blows to the forehead, several months apart? And will Hortense overcome her reluctance to meet with Renine as the adventures come to a close and the time to honor their agreement draws near?
Arsène Lupin is a product of the same literary period as Sherlock Holmes, albeit from the other side of the English Channel. As a result, their adventures end up being a trifle similar; as with Holmes’s Watson, Lupin often adventures with a less adroit companion—be it his girlfriend of the moment, a police inspector, or even Maurice Leblanc “himself”—to throw his cleverness into relief. In this case, the role is served by Hortense, for whom Lupin has fallen as he did for so many other women before or since. Hortense is a typical Watson in that she is invariably mystified by Lupin’s leaps of intuition, and dazzled by the cunning that he applies to solve crimes and catch true culprits. This isn’t to say that she is stupid, just that Lupin has the sort of pure brilliance that—just as with Holmes—can only be explained by the writer “cheating” and setting up the mysteries just so his protagonist can knock them down.
Perhaps it’s just that I’ve been watching the new Doctor Who and Doctor Who Confidential series lately, but it seems to me that there’s something of the Doctor about Arsène Lupin, in the way he will take on companions (and paramours) to dazzle with his whirlwind manner, amazing intelligence, and leaps of intuition for the space of an adventure or two—before moving on to someone else. Even his romance with Hortense, whom he woos over the course of the eight mysteries in this book, is fated to last only a short while before Lupin finds new loves in 813 and The Teeth of the Tiger. (Lupin’s previous lovers having died through natural causes or accidents, or rejected him when they found out he was a criminal, or even run away to a convent(!), it can be said that Arsène Lupin does not tend to have the best luck with women.)
Some of the mysteries seem quaint when viewed from a century later. In “The Tell-Tale Film,” Renine correctly identifies a supporting actor’s obsession with a silent film’s leading lady from the out-of-character smouldering glances he casts at her in the scenes they share on film. (The medium was so new back then that they could get away with that; these days, they’d call that either “bad acting” or “bad directing.”) Subsequently, Renine and Hortense discover that the actor has indeed kidnapped the actress and is hiding in one of the locations where the film was shot—this apparently being before studio movie sets were in common use.
In another story, the hatchet-wielding serial killer turns out to be an insane sociopath. It’s not a terribly surprising explanation, and one could say it even presages modern-day literary serial killers such as Hannibal Lecter—but all the same, it’s rather disappointing in a series that is generally characterized by adversaries who are fiendishly clever rather than just off their nut.
Apart from the author’s note at the beginning, and a couple of gratuitous references stuck into the story, there’s nothing really in this work that specifically requires Renine to be Lupin, apart from exhibiting the same cleverness, cunning, and personality. Renine is always referred to as Renine, though this is nothing new—Lupin is generally referred to only by his alias even in books when we already know exactly who he is (such as The Teeth of the Tiger).
All in all, the mysteries are entertaining, and the romance with Hortense is diverting, but the stories are not as interesting as Lupin’s longer novels, where more time can be taken to set up the crime and its solution, nor are they as fun as Lupin’s earlier career where he debonairly commits the most outrageous crimes while thumbing his nose at the inspectors sent to track him down. Still, as a collection of short stories, it can be read in more than one sitting without losing track of the story, and Leblanc had quite a gift for coming up with clever crimes. It’s a shame that the Arsène Lupin tales have been largely forgotten over the years.