Books

The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsène Lupin

Maurice LeBlanc

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 22, 2017
Category: Fiction

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Someone mentioned the fake Renoir in my Buzzfeed piece about the designer who decorated — and then didn’t — the President’s triplex in Trump Tower, and I thought of this….

Arsène Lupin — you know him not, but to generations of European readers he was the French Sherlock Holmes. Well, better than the Brit detective. Holmes was on the side of the law, a stodgy enterprise. But Lupin was a burglar. A gentleman burglar. A burglar with wit and style. It was a thrill to watch him work.

And, indeed, you could watch him work, for Lupin — like the anarchists in The Four Just Men — liked to announce his crimes in advance, the better to turn theft into sports. In the most famous of the Arsène Lupin stories, he breaks into a Baron’s residence, takes nothing, but leaves a card for his unwitting host: “Arsène Lupin, gentleman burglar, will return when the furniture is genuine." (To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.)

And how about this note, to a Baron so paranoid that he has had his chateau sealed, so that no one but staff may enter:

There is, in the gallery in your castle, a picture of Philippe de Champaigne, of exquisite finish, which pleases me beyond measure. Your Rubens are also to my taste, as well as your smallest Watteau. In the salon to the right, I have noticed the Louis XIII cadence-table, the tapestries of Beauvais, the Empire gueridon signed ‘Jacob,’ and the Renaissance chest. In the salon to the left, all the cabinet full of jewels and miniatures.

For the present, I will content myself with those articles that can be conveniently removed. I will therefore ask you to pack them carefully and ship them to me, charges prepaid, to the station at Batignolles, within eight days, otherwise I shall be obliged to remove them myself during the night of 27 September; but, under those circumstances, I shall not content myself with the articles above mentioned.

Accept my apologies for any inconvenience I may cause you, and believe me to be your humble servant, Arsène Lupin

P.S. Please do not send the largest Watteau. Although you paid thirty thousand francs for it, it is only a copy, the original having been burned, under the Directoire by Barras, during a night of debauchery. Consult the memoirs of Garat. And I do not care for the Louis XV chatelaine, as I doubt its authenticity.

There’s something delicious about a man who commits non-violent crimes with panache — it’s almost as if he’s liberating the art and furniture, rescuing them from nobles who take pleasure only in owning them. The French thought so, anyway: Starting in 1906, Maurice LeBlanc pounded out twenty volumes of stories about Lupin, all in the neat, near-non-fiction style of de Maupassant and Flaubert. (Inevitably, Lupin would confront Sherlock Holmes. Guess who won?) Later, there were plays, movies, even comics. And the character has been easy to update — on television, Lupin morphed into “The Saint.”

Lupin is at once a 19th century figure and a modern rogue: “Why should I retain a definite form and feature? Why not avoid the danger of a personality that is ever the same? My actions will serve to identify me.” All he cares about is his art. It gives him pleasure to commit a crime even while locked in a jail cell. And because disguise and indirection are his greatest skills, it thrills him to announce, with all candor, “I shall not be present at my trial — Arsène Lupin remains in prison just as long as it pleases him, and not one minute more.”

It is great fun to try and outguess Lupin. Consider dressing the part while you savor these tales. A smoking jacket or a silk robe. A brandy. Chopin. After a while, Lupin’s cracked morality starts to make a great deal of sense, and your mind drifts. By the third or fourth story, you’ll be contemplating a jewel theft. And why not? Mrs. X doesn’t really appreciate that necklace. And it is insured. 

BONUS VIDEOS

In 1932, John and Lionel Barrymore starred as Arsène Lupin and the police detective dedicated to catching him.

In 1938, Melvyn Douglas starred in “Arsène Lupin Returns.”

Short Takes

Travel to… Oman?

As an executive of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, my friend (and illustrator of A Christmas Carol) Paige Peterson often travels to the Mideast. And as a board member of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, she recenty went to Oman. Her article and her photos describe lovely architecture, great landscape, friendly people, a smart leader. And her final paragraph — “The United Nations economic and social council, during an annual review published in November, 2016, announced that that the Sultan of Oman was the best leader in the world. It’s not a sentence that you expect to read in a piece about the Arabian Peninsula, but Oman is one happy place”— will make you think this is a Destination. [To buy the paperback of “The Rough Guide to Oman,” click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

The story you won’t see in the film: “Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away”

In the new movie “The Founder,” Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) comes off as first cousin to a certain hard-charging, win-at-all-costs businessman who’s found a second career.

There’s much more to the Kroc story than that, and Lisa Napoli unearths it in “Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away.” It turns out that when Ray met Joan, they were both married. That he was an alcoholic, prejudiced against pretty much everybody, and on the far side of the “obsessed” spectrum. And then he died, and something great happened — his wife started giving money away, often anonymously, to causes that Ray despised. The Salvation Army. NPR. Hospices. AIDS research. Alcoholism treatment. No wonder McDonalds expressed “absolutely zero willingness” in helping Napoli with his book — it’s got considerably more protein than a Big Mac. I gobbled the pages. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

“Climbing Back: A Family’s Journey through Brain Injury”

I haven’t seen most of my college friends in 47 years. When I think of them, I see them as they were — as we were — in 1968. Elise Rosenhaupt and her boyfriend Tom: off they go, bright and shining, headed for New Mexico. So when Elise sent me her book, “Climbing Back: A Family’s Journey through Brain Injury,” the title was like a blow to my brain. It begins like this: “The last time I saw our son before his injury, my husband and I were walking toward Harvard Square.” And you sink with her: getting the news that Martin, a Harvard sophomore, had been struck by a car that launched him 100 feet in the air. He’d landed on his head. He was in Neurological Intensive Care at Massachusetts General Hospital.

There are many books that chronicle disaster and recovery. This one’s not like them. There are doctors and nurses, of course, and friends in the waiting room, and Harvard faculty showing up unexpectedly, but Elise Rosenhaupt has worked as a poetry editor, and she knows when to weave in the story of her marriage, her family, her parents and their brain disorders. The prose is taut: “There is nothing in my world but wanting Martin to live.” And you think, this is how recovery is done when it’s done right, when you marvel at the frailty of our bodies and the resilience of our spirits. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. For the audio book, click here.]

I’m no seer. But Joan Pancoe just might be.

When two friends whose opinions you respect praise a movie, book or service, it’s actionable. That’s how I found myself in Joan Pancoe’s apartment for a Soul Reading. Joan has been a karmic astrologer, psychic therapist and spiritual teacher since 1976, and has written several books. (The most recent is “Cosmic Sugar, The Amorous Adventures of a Modern Mystic,” published with a pen name for good reason; it’s explicit in the extreme. I mean, it made me blush. To buy the Kindle edition, click here.) Joan’s seen everyone from believers in past lives to skeptics. I’m somewhere in the middle. So I only felt moderately silly showing up at her Lower East Side lair with my list of Big Questions and Important Names. Then Joan went into trance and rolled out the kind of Spiritual Truths that are generally applicable… and Specific Insights that make you wonder if she’d hacked your email. Was I glad I saw her? Yes. Will you? I’m no seer. More information here.