His portrait? How can I describe him? I have seen him twenty times and each time he was a different person; even he himself said to me on one occasion: “I no longer know who I am. I cannot recognise myself in the mirror.” Certainly, he was a great actor, and possessed a marvellous faculty for disguising himself. Without the slightest effort, he could adopt the voice, gestures and mannerisms of another person.
“Why,” said he, “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.”
My third 1907 book for Crimes of the Century also marks my first entry in the Tuesday Night Bloggers meme, which this month is looking at the theme of disguises. You can see more blog posts (and some fantastic old Usborne artwork) collected over at the excellent crossexaminingcrime.
The stories of Arsène Lupin concern the activities of a gentleman thief, bothering the French authorities with his dazzling crimes, but as often as not on the side of the angels. He first appeared (as Arsène Lopin) in 1905 in the magazine Je sais tout, but the stories were first collected in 1907. Lupin went on for 28 more titles by Leblanc (a mix of novels, short story collections and plays). He is a good choice for Tuesday Night Bloggers because aside from being a daring and acrobatic thief, he is also ‘the man of a thousand disguises: in turn a chauffer, detective, bookmaker, Russian physician, Spanish bull-fighter, commercial traveler, robust youth, or decrepit old man’.
Each chapter in this 1907 book is a standalone story. The first, set on board a transatlantic steamer, finishes with the arrest of Lupin by the great detective Ganimard, who is there to meet him at the docks in New York. But which passenger is Lupin? And how, when the authorities have no idea what he looks like, does he manage to get arrested? Cherchez la femme…
The next story is a locked-room mystery. How can Lupin, now safely locked up in prison under constant guard, effect the theft of a number of valuable paintings from a fortress in the middle on the Seine, under the nose of his old enemy Ganimard, on a date that he has announced in advance? The story begins with a daring letter:
“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.
Like most short-story collections this is best consumed a little at a time, but the stories do not suffer from repetitive plot syndrome and are written with verve and enjoyment. I guess they are a little primitive, but they are fun. We learn something of Lupin’s history as we go along. I loved this paragraph:
Your case is unique in the annals of crime. We know not whom you are, whence you came, your birth and breeding—all is a mystery to us. Three years ago you appeared in our midst as Arsène Lupin, presenting to us a strange combination of intelligence and perversion, immorality and generosity. Our knowledge of your life prior to that date is vague and problematical. It may be that the man called Rostat who, eight years ago, worked with Dickson, the prestidigitator, was none other than Arsène Lupin. It is probable that the Russian student who, six years ago, attended the laboratory of Doctor Altier at the Saint Louis Hospital, and who often astonished the doctor by the ingenuity of his hypotheses on subjects of bacteriology and the boldness of his experiments in diseases of the skin, was none other than Arsène Lupin. It is probable, also, that Arsène Lupin was the professor who introduced the Japanese art of jiu-jitsu to the Parisian public. We have some reason to believe that Arsène Lupin was the bicyclist who won the Grand Prix de l’Exposition, received his ten thousand francs, and was never heard of again. Arsène Lupin may have been, also, the person who saved so many lives through the little dormer-window at the Charity Bazaar; and, at the same time, picked their pockets.”
During the book, Lupin starts going straight. Mugged on a train by a man pretending to be him, Lupin tracks the culprit down with the help of a lady passenger. He hands the mugger over to the police, but can’t help but take the contents of the lady’s handbag. After all, business is business.
Lupin’s chutzpah is shared with his author, who did a little ‘borrowing’ of his own in the final story, which pits Lupin against the Great Detective. Lupin wins this round, but Holmes vows revenge:
I believe that Arsène Lupin and Sherlock Holmes will meet again some day. Yes, the world is too small–we will meet–we must meet–and then–”
A fitting contest for two masters of disguise.
Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar
First published in France by Editions Pierre Lafitte, 1907
This edition Project Gutenberg