Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Hat
Arsène Lupin has been another character on my reading radar for a while, which a timely Christmas present has allowed me to try out. As some of you will know Lupin is a gentleman thief who enjoys carrying out convoluted but well-executed robberies which avoid bloodshed. This collection of Lupin short stories sees Lupin and Holmlock Shears (one of the more famous Sherlock Holmes parodies), in a battle of wits as each of them tries to outmanoeuvre the other. Within the first collection there are two episodes or stories, the former, The Fair Haired Lady being considerably larger than the second, The Jewish Lamp. Each of these stories is divided into short stories or chapter which were originally serialised in the Je Suis Tout and are set in and around Paris.
The Fair Haired Lady
This story begins with a series of chapters which detail a number of robberies; a stolen lottery ticket and the theft of a blue diamond, involving Lupin and a fair haired woman. The murder of General Baron d’Hautrec complicates matters as it suggests an unknown element in these crimes, as Lupin himself never stoops to killing anyone. Both Lupin and his accomplice seem to have the ability to leave buildings undetected despite the strenuous efforts of Chief Inspector Ganimard. His failure to capture Lupin and/or recover the stolen property leads to Holmlock Shears being called into help, who declares he will have Lupin arrested in 10 days.
Things do not begin well for Shears, not least because of his devoted but moronic assistant, Wilson, whose dim-wittedness is parodied to extremes. It is not surprising that Shears is often very sarcastic with him:
‘Wilson, what’s your opinion: why was Lupin in that restaurant?’
‘To get some dinner.’
‘Wilson, the longer we work together, the more clearly I perceive the constant progress you are making. Upon my word, you’re becoming amazing.’
It is also not surprising that Shears wants to wring Wilson’s neck early on in the case when through his stupidity they lose all their luggage to Lupin. Thankfully a broken arm reduces Wilson’s role in the investigation.
However, even without Wilson, Shears suffers setbacks including being kidnapped, which is one of the chapter titles. Perhaps this is a suggestion to far but I wondered especially in light of the way the kidnap occurs in this story, whether Leblanc was alluding in a small way to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Kidnapped (1886). As the story comes to a close, success switches sides rapidly and frequently, as Shears and Lupin battle to come out on top.
In terms of characterisation it hardly shocking that Lupin gets the better end of the deal, being depicted in an almost flamboyant Oscar Wilde style:
‘Do you mean to say that you are still a vegetarian? … And do you never break your rule?’
‘Oh yes… when I go out to dinner, so as not to appear eccentric.’
‘He really had a manner about him, the manner of a great actor playing his instinctive, spirited part impertinently and frivolously.’
Moreover, throughout the stories Lupin takes on the role of the hero, but in quite a fantastical way. The fantastical also comes across in the mechanical devices and plans Lupin conceives, which is epitomised at the end of the story. In contrast, Shears is likened to an ordinary bank clerk, with an exaggerated polite manner in the face of adversity and Lupin consistently pokes fun at his “English” ways. However, this is lessened a little nearer the end of this story when things manage to go more Shears way and the text presents them more as equal adversaries. In addition, Lupin calls him ‘maître’ or master, which is partially mocking but also acknowledging Shears’ detecting powers. Rex Stout may have postulated in an address to the Baker Street Irregulars that Watson was a woman, and therefore in a relationship with Holmes, but LeBlanc gets there earlier when he describes Wilson conversation with Shears as ‘full of marital ardour’. It was unusual having Lupin, the thief as the hero, as opposed to Shears, because as a long-time fan of the Holmes stories, I am used to him taking on the protagonist heroic role. Shears in this story is determined to solve the case and be the successful detective. But in order for Lupin to not be utterly vanquished Shears’ nature and actions tend to alter or rather they become more passive or inert at the denouement of this story, as well as in the second story, in order to create the necessary loopholes for Lupin. I am not entirely sure I am satisfied with this set up but see why it needs to happen.
Interestingly in these stories Lupin is adept at winning the confidences and support of young but reliable women, who even work against their own family interests to further personal endeavours. Within this story there seems to be a vein of romance between Lupin and his female accomplice and gives Lupin the opportunity to come across as the valiant and honourable hero when he makes concessions to save her. However, she is not mentioned in the second story so perhaps this relationship does not stand the test of time…
Second Episode: The Jewish Lamp
This second story is centred around the theft of a Jewish lamp from the home of Baron Victor D’Imblevalle, which held a valuable jewel inside it. The disgruntled Baron asks for Shear’s help and Shear’s acceptance of the case is fuelled by the fact that Lupin asks him to refuse it. Something which comes across in this story is the monumental ability Lupin has of having eyes and ears everywhere and like in the first story Lupin also makes use of the newspapers as an extension of his loveable rogue persona. Wilson is unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) put out of action at the start of the case with a serious stab wound. But like Shears the reader tends to forget about him.
If this had been a full novel I think this story would have had a number of interesting possibilities, including a suicide, coded messages and a guilty looking governess. But crammed into two chapters this story did feel rather rushed, though I did enjoy the confrontation between Lupin and Shears in a sinking boat in the middle of the Seine. This scene is strong in contrasting the two characters, with Lupin constantly jesting and talking, whilst Shears sits there quietly and calmly. Although it seems as though Lupin’s bravado may be his undoing:
‘You talk a great deal too much and you often err through excessive confidence and frivolity… it was in this way… you supplied me… with the information I wanted.’
I think within this story LeBlanc is also parodying the type of clients Sherlock Holmes would normally get, with the Baron and his wife being very ungrateful and disbelieving of Shear’s findings. The ending of this story is interesting and again would have worked even better in a longer story, as it emphasises the issues of protagonist vs. antagonist, good vs. bad and in doing so complicates the roles Shears or Lupin have in the story.
I think the early chapters of his collection were less successful as they tended to use anonymous first person narrative and also lacked Shears, a character others in the tale like to put down, but in fact is essential for improving and enlivening the narrative. With the introduction of Shears and the timely incapacitations of Wilson, along with the use of an omniscient third person narrative the stories become stronger. A problem I had in the stories was that I wanted to root for Shears and struggled to identify with and support Lupin. I am interested to see if this changes when I read stories which feature Lupin without Shears, as I think this would remove the issue surrounding character loyalties and make his position as the loveable rogue protagonist more enjoyable.