By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Mar 28, 2011
Arsene 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 Arsene Lupin stories, he breaks into a Baron's residence, takes nothing, but leaves a card for his unwitting host: “Arsene Lupin, gentleman burglar, will return when the furniture is genuine." (To buy the book from Amazon, 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, “Arsene 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 --- Arsene 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.