Subverted Morality Tales (II): Arsene Lupin

I know that the Arsene Lupin series is a French classic gentleman-thief-cum-detective series so, I was looking forward to a night of wrongly guessing “who had done it?” and “how was it done?” I am very, very bad at figuring out mysteries. Eg. Out of the 75 Agatha Christie novels that I read, I only figured out the correct solution to 8 novels*, I think. And those were partly because she repeated her short story plots. And I never manage to out-guess Encyclopedia Brown at all even though he is just a little kid.

But 3 stories into “Arsene Lupin: Gentleman-Thief” and  I am guessing correctly every time! It was amazing! I felt so smart.

[he doesn’t really look like the character here – he was supposed to be blond and youthful looking. you dropped the ball, penguin]

Title:Arsene Lupin: Gentleman Thief

Author: Maurice LeBlanc

Published: 1905 – 1941

Synopsis: Lupin is an accomplished thief who guarantees to return “if your things are genuine”, runs circles around the police and hapless detectives, leaves behind no clues and is a master of disguises. He only steals from the rich, sometimes gives to the poor and occasionally helps people out. Le Blanc wrote some 20 books with him as the main character and this volume represents Penguin’s choice of some of his best.

I soon realized, however, that my successful guessing had less to do with my intelligence than with the fact that the series and/or its concept was so influential that so many books incorporated the same elements. Lupin might not have been the first gentleman-villain but as the gentleman-cambrioleur, he is the trope-namer and the trope codifier.  This means that

1. He is supremely intelligent, unruffled and effortlessly stays on top of things.

2. He is good looking and quite a hit with the ladies.

3. He is chivalrous and rarely steals from people who don’t deserve it.

4. He has charming rationalizations for why he embarked on a life of crime.

5. (optional) He is able to disguise himself so successfully that close friends cannot spot him.

Lupin was crafted in response to Sherlock Holmes’ popularity; a way of tapping on into the growing whodunnit serial market at the turn of the 20th century.


Perhaps because the writer is French, Lupin’s sociability, his Gallic feelings and declarations to ladies sets him apart from Holmes, who really didn’t have many friends. By inverting the cool, logical detective to become the cool, intelligent and charming super-maybe-villain, Lupin set a trend for the new anti-hero, all the more likeable because he is so roguish.

Although I am not sure whether any of these authors were directly influenced by Lupin, one could see pieces of him in a lot of popular novels. Agatha Christie’s famous twist in Murder of Roger Ackroyd could be found in the very first Lupin story. (The Arrest of Arsene Lupin). Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series’ villain-turned-chequered hero Sethos has exactly the same characteristics as Lupin. Terry Prachett’s Discworld has a school for gentlemen thieves. Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl – despite involving fairies – is much more like Lupin than Harry Potter. Even Luc Besson’s films Yamakasi and Taxi has a similar high octane action, slippery-hero feel.

Of course, Lupin wasn’t the only gentleman thief from which these writers could draw their inspiration. There were quite a number created in the early 20th century. (See this listA.J Raffles by E.W. Hornung was apparently the first gentleman-thief and the most influential in English writing. Now, when I first heard a reference to “Raffles, the gentleman-robber”, I immediately thought that the phrase referred to Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles of the British East India Company who helped to found Singapore – robbing it from the rightful Malay ruler through his (il)legal shenanigans.

source: wikipedia

My apologies to offended Raffles fans and my alma mater but the line between a respectable gentleman and a thief is indeed a very thin one. The proliferation of gentlemen-thieves in fiction during a time when being a gentleman was stifling, profitable and often exploitative highlighted the tenuous connection between legality and justice.

Michael Sims, in an interesting introduction to the newly compiled Lupin volume stated “in an era when Pittsburgh moguls are making castles out of the lives of coal miners, when the latest millionaire in London might have been cracking the whip a month before over diamond sifters in Kimberly..Lupin laments the greediness of the middle class and sometimes claim to be performing a public service.” I am not sure how far that argument holds though. We have more inequality, longer working hours and a whole of greed too, now, but where are the gentlemen thieves in fiction today? [Thomas Crown does come to mind but he doesn’t exactly give anything to the poor, does he?]

English-language Asian fiction is trending towards mysteries right now (see Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh series, Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen and of course, Japan always had great tradition of mystery stories both indigenous and adapted. ) and I am waiting with bated breath for an Asian gentleman thief. Goodness knows we have more than enough inequality, greed and corruption here.

*Postscript: In case you are wondering, the Agatha Christie novels where I did figure out the mystery was Endless Night (similar to the short story Case of the Caretaker), Sparkling Cyanide (similar to short story Yellow Iris), They Do it with Mirrors, Murder in the Mews, Crooked House, Sleeping Murder, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Murder in the Orient Express (and that was only because Christopher Pike alluded to the ending in ‘Chain Letter’ which I had earlier read.)

Also, if you are interested in reading Arsene Lupin, the copyright has run out and you can get a free e-copy at Project Gutenberg. Here’s a neat timeline of his chequered life. 

Post-postscript: Kazuhiko Kato did create a gentleman thief in Arsene Lupin III, grandson of LeBlanc’s Lupin. I haven’t read the manga so I am not sure if he counts.




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