Thursday, October 29, 2015
Genius vs. Genius.
I know it seems impossible, but a few months ago, I made a mistake. As part of my Read/Watch 'em in Order series, I reviewed the 1932 movie Arsene Lupin, based on the adventure of the gentleman thief created by Maurice Leblanc.
In that movie (based on a play written by Leblanc), Lupin steals from rich people who in some way "deserve" to be robbed--his target in the movie made a fortune as a war-profiteer. When I wrote that post, it had been awhile since I read any of the original prose stories and I stated that Lupin choose his targets the same way there.
But I've just re-read the first book--a collection of the short stories published between 1905 and 1907. I've been reminded that the Lupin of the books robs you pretty much because you are rich. It doesn't matter if you're naughty or nice. Lupin simply wants your money.
It's not that he's any less likable, though. He's still non-violent, clever, honorable in his own way and (as established in the story "The Seven of Hearts") loyal to France. But several of his victims seem perfectly nice people in their own right.
But they can afford the loss when Lupin robs them, leaving us with enough room to enjoy his adventures without having to feel badly about it. Besides, there is even a very effective acknowledgement that Lupin's chosen profession does have its downsides--he can never be with the woman he loves, sighing "What a pity I am not an honest man!"
The Lupin stories are clever and exciting. In their own way, they are mysteries. One story, for instance, opens with Lupin in prison, having been captured in the previous tale. But a rich guy is still receiving letters from the thief, stating that the rich guy's art treasures will be stolen on a specific night.
This is, of course, impossible, especially since police guards are brought in to babysit the treasures. But it happens anyways. Learning how Lupin pulled it off is great fun. The following story, which ends when we find out how Lupin escaped from prison, is even greater fun.
Having Lupin's genius explained to us, by the way, is never a problem. The thief is not without ego and he fully enjoys telling someone in detail how he pulls off his capers. Heck, sometimes he'll tell the cops.
But Maurice Leblanc is careful to give Lupin enough humanity to allow us to identify with him. For instance, "The Black Pearl" has Lupin stumbling across a murder victim while attempting to steal a valuable pearl. This elicits several moments of pure terror before he pulls himself together and sets out to find the killer to see that justice is d...well, actually, so he can still get the pearl for himself. But in his own way, he makes sure the killer is punished.
"Madame Imbert's Safe" is a flashback to one of Lupin's early capers, in which someone manages to out-con him and actually cost him money. Like Arthur Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes, Leblanc gives us a man who is undeniably a genius, but fails just often enough to keep him grounded and allow us to accept him as real.
And speaking of Sherlock Holmes, Lupin does run across the Great Detective in one story. The two, working separately, each solve a centuries-old riddle that allows them to find a secret passage into a castle. Lupin gets to one-up Holmes in a small way at the story's conclusion, but both men get their Moments of Awesome. The tale is a delightful one because Leblanc presents Holmes in a faithful and respectful manner. We have no problem accepting this Holmes as the real one.
Doyle, by the way, complained about this, so a couple of future encounters with an English detective (recounted in the second Lupin novel) saw the thief matching wits with a guy named Hemlock Sholmes.
Doyle had every right to complain, of course. Holmes was his baby, after all. But I do wish he had just gone along with it. It's very easy to think of Lupin and Holmes as living in the same world. Of course, in Leblanc's stories, Lupin manages to just barely get the best of Holmes/Sholmes and fans of the characters can argue that point endlessly.
But in the Holmes stories "The Five Orange Pips," Holmes does say "I have been beaten--three times by men and once by a woman." Maurice Leblanc gave us a clever and believable character when he created Arsene Lupin. I'm okay with the idea that one of the three men who beat Holmes was the Gentleman Thief.
You can read the first Lupin book--The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin--HERE.