In 1905 in Paris, the publisher Pierre Laffite had an idea. His new journal Je Sais Tout (I Know Everything) had just launched and he was looking for an author who could do for his magazine, what Arthur Conan Doyle’s phenomenally popular Sherlock Holmes had done for The Strand magazine, in London. He turned to the writer Maurice Leblanc, and one of the most memorable and successful characters in French popular fiction was born: the gentleman thief Arsène Lupin.
Lupin is cunning, sophisticated, quick-witted, a master of disguise, always one step ahead of the police, and a thief of humble origins who steals only from the wealthy upper classes.
But why did this gentleman thief achieve such instant and lasting renown? How does he fit into popular crime fiction more widely and how, you may be wondering, did he end up as the basis for one of the most popular shows Netflix has ever made?
Works Mentioned & Referenced
Foussard, Guillaume. The Emergence of French Crime Fiction during the Nineteenth Century. The Journal of Publishing Culture Vol. 4, May 2015.
Drake, David. Crime Fiction at the Time of the Exhibition: the Case of Sherlock Holmes and Arsène Lupin.
Schutt, Sita A. “French Crime Fiction” in The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction
RogerEbert.com Lupin review
Lupin listener stats
Sophie Gilbert. “The Literary Origins of Netflix’s Latest Smash Hit” Atlantic.com
Herlock Sholmes arrive trop tard… (1990) [clip]
Arsene Lupin film (1932) [clip]
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Looking for more detectives? There this episode on Golden Age Detective fiction
Want more disguised adventures? This episode is on The Scarlet Pimpernel
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Transcripts: Arsène Lupin
Before I begin this episode, I just wanted to ask you a favour. It’s episode 50 – hurray! – and I’m doing a short survey to find out a little bit more about you, and what you like about the show. I really want to make another 50 episodes of Words To That Effect, but I’d like to make a few changes and shake things up a bit, and I’d love to hear what you have to say.
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I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect
In 1905 in Paris, the publisher Pierre Laffite had an idea. His new journal Je Sais Tout (I Know Everything) had just launched and he was looking for an author who could do for his magazine, what Arthur Conan Doyle’s phenomenally popular Sherlock Holmes had done for The Strand magazine, in London. Laffitte wanted a French rival to Sherlock Holmes – both in character and in the ability to attract a mass readership.
At this point, the Holmes tales had become renowned across the world, and the great detective, killed off by his creator in 1893, had returned from the dead just two years previously, in 1903. The French public were just as avid readers of Holmes’ exploits, with Conan Doyle’s work widely available in French translations.
And so, Pierre Laffitte approached the writer Maurice Leblanc and commissioned him to write a story with a character to rival Holmes. Leblanc obliged and, in doing so, created one of the most memorable and successful characters in French popular fiction: the gentleman thief Arsène Lupin.
With the publication of the first story in 1905, a brilliant new literary creation was born: Lupin was cunning, sophisticated, quick-witted, a master of disguise, always one step ahead of the police, and a thief of humble origins who steals only from the wealthy upper classes.
But why did this gentleman thief achieve such instant and lasting renown? How does he fit into popular crime fiction more widely, and, you may be wondering, how did he end up as the basis for one of the most popular shows Netflix has ever made? Bigger than Stranger Things, Bridgerton, or, god help us, Tiger King?
The first Lupin story, The Arrest of Arsène Lupin, introduces one of the crucial aspects of the gentleman thief’s success – his ability to utterly transform his identity. The characters in Lupin’s stories are never sure who, in a given group of people, might be the master criminal. But neither are you, as the reader. The narrator changes from story to story, sometimes a Watson-like figure, sometimes an omniscient narrator, sometimes changing mid story. And frequently the narrator is highly unreliable. When you start reading a Lupin story, you may have your suspicions but, like the characters, you are never sure. Lupin could be anyone.
There are certain things that tend to stay the same though – he will generally pose as a member of the upper classes – a politician or wealthy businessman maybe or, more typically, a prince or baron or count of some description. All the better to infiltrate the upper classes and relieve them of their priceless artwork and jewels.
Regardless of persona, though, he will always be suave, highly educated, charismatic. Lupin is a conman and he gains the confidence of all those around him with ease. And while he may be a master of disguise, his name is known across the world, something he uses to great effect.
He announces publicly that he will escape from jail, or that he is going to rob a particular work of art, using the public fascination with his escapades to distract from what is really going on. As the constantly frustrated detective Ganimard comes to realise, Lupin never does anything without a reason. If Ganimard finds a clue, it’s because Lupin wants him to find it; if Lupin seems to be in trouble, or to have bungled a job, it’s because Lupin wants it to seem that way.
The story “The Red Silk Scarf” is a particularly good example of this, where despite all he knows about Lupin, Ganimard is still pulled into trying to solve a murder with Lupin’s help, only to realise too late how Lupin has been pulling the strings the entire time.
He’s a rogue and a genius, and the public love him for it – he pulls off daring heists and steals only from the wealthy upper classes. Although he’s not, it should be noted, a Robin Hood figure – he steals from the rich but he doesn’t really give to the poor. He steals because he enjoys it and he uses the money to fund his daring and extravagant lifestyle – and to pay the vast network of accomplices he needs to carry out his robberies and avoid the law.
Arsène Lupin may seem like a familiar character, and in many ways he is. The parallels with Sherlock Holmes are clear, and I’ll come back to that. But Lupin has, in turn, influenced crime fiction and popular culture in France and further afield. Simon Templar, The Saint, Leslie Charteris’ books and their many subsequent TV and film adaptations, is one clear successor. In many ways too, he is a James Bond figure, something that Omar Sy, the actor who plays Lupin’s successor in the new Netflix show, acknowledges in an interview. When he was asked what character he would love to play, his answer was Lupin. “If I was English”, he says “I would say James Bond, but Lupin is the best character for that: he’s fun, funny, very elegant; there is action. Lupin is just the perfect character to cross [off] everything on the bucket list.”
But, of course, Maurice Leblanc’s creation didn’t arrive out of nowhere. It came in a long and esteemed tradition of French crime novels. Detective fiction is often seen as emerging out of Britain and the U.S., but it was always in conversation with French detective fiction.
In the 1840s American writer Edgar Allan Poe gave the world one of the first detectives – but C Auguste Dupin is a Frenchman and the stories are set in Paris.
The first French police detective followed in the 1860s with Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq. And both Gaboriau and Edgar Allan Poe were influenced by a real-life figure: Eugene Francois Vidocq.
So Vidocq was a criminal turned police informant and then founder of the Sureté, the world’s first detective branch – the inspiration for Scotland Yard and the FBI amongst others. Vidocq lead an extraordinary life, celebrated in his sensational bestselling memoirs – his mastery of disguises and ability to work for long periods under cover, and his contacts in and knowledge of the criminal underworld, allowed him to become a brilliantly effective detective.
And this was a time when the lines between real and fictional crime were often blurred. Vidocq’s memoirs were ghost written and widely embellished, but based on his real-life exploits. Meanwhile, cheap French newspapers reported in lurid detail on crimes and criminals while simultaneously commissioning authors to write crime fiction to run alongside the news. This was how Gaboriau’s detective Lecoq was born, for instance.
So Vidocq and his adventure-filled life influenced everything that came after him and he gave status to the detective; he made the life of a police officer heroic.
Vidocq, Lecoq, Sherlock. They’re all connected.
And out of all this came Arsene Lupin. A Frenchman with the analytical mind of Sherlock Holmes or Auguste Dupin, whose life has the romance and adventure of Vidocq. Also, just like Vidocq, later in his career Lupin would leave his life of crime behind in favour of detective work, even if there are those who never trust he has fully left his old life behind.
There was also the influence of another English literary character of the period – the writer E.W. Hornung, who was actually Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law. He created Raffles, a gentleman thief, like Lupin, rather than a detective.
Raffles, like Holmes and Lupin, is a master of disguise, just like another famous character from this period: The Scarlet Pimpernel, the creation of Baroness Orczy. The Scarlet Pimpernel, the secret superhero identity of a foppish English aristocrat, can disguise himself sufficiently to infiltrate Paris and save aristocrats from the bloodthirsty revolutionaries. I did an episode on this – check it out after this, it’s episode 15.
So disguises are everywhere, reflecting a lot of anxieties of this period, often conflicting ones: on one hand, criminals could be anywhere, not just easily-identifiable lower class thieves, but *gasp* in the ranks of the upper classes. But so too could the detectives hunting them down.
But then these police detectives may find secrets that should not be uncovered, family secrets and crimes that should remain buried in their country manors and chateaux.
Criminals like Lupin could be heroes, stealing from those with more wealth than sense, yet detectives could also lead lives of daring and adventure. Sometimes, like Vidocq or Lupin, the hero could be criminal turned detective. And sometimes, like Sherlock Holmes, the line between detective and criminal could be very thin indeed.
With each new Lupin story published, Maurice Leblanc’s character became more famous across France. The first set of stories were collected in 1907 and he would go on to write dozens more, alongside novel length Lupin adventures. The first of several stage plays arrived in 1908 and, later, the inevitable film and then TV adaptations. The stories have never been out of print since.
One of the early tales is entitled “Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late”, or at least it’s called that now. At the time it was changed to “Herlock Sholmes” for legal reasons. Conan Doyle’s lawyers were not happy with the original version.
In it, Lupin of course manages to best the great British detective, and he even pickpockets Holmes for good measure.
Leblanc has a lot of fun with these kinds of run-ins, it’s certainly not meant to be taken too seriously, but for all those “Herlock” fans, the English detective is outwitted just a little too easily by the Frenchman. I haven’t read all of the Holmes crossover stories – there are quite a few – but they’re not generally regarded as the greatest of the Lupin tales.
Holmes also appears in a cameo role in what is the most well-known of the Lupin novels – The Hollow Needle, although in the U.S. translation his name is changed again – in the version I read anyway he was Holmlock Shears.
In the early tales Lupin outwits those he robs – and the French police – with ease. He also falls in love on a number of occasions, although he tends to be less masterful in his romantic pursuits, sometimes with tragic results.
Overall, though, these are great crime stories – like with Holmes, the short story format really works to frame Lupin’s exploits. The stories of the first collection are interconnected but stand perfectly on their own and, for me, they are far better than something like The Hollow Needle, generally considered his best novel-length tale. Trying to sustain the adventures over the course of a whole novel makes things overly complicated and in The Hollow Needle the main protagonist is a far less interesting schoolboy wunderkind who goes head to head with the great Lupin. The gentleman thief himself comes across as far less gentlemanly than usual, and the story just sprawls over far too many pages, with an overly fantastical tale of historical intrigue going back centuries.
In all the stories, and just like with Sherlock Holmes, Lupin stays outside the law. Holmes has no particular interest in bringing criminals to justice as such, he wants to solve the puzzle, find the solution no one else can. The subsequent arrest or prosecution of the criminal holds no importance. Lupin, too, has no particular interest in righting any wrongs or, in the later tales – when he’s hunting down criminals – of necessarily bringing anyone to justice.
He highlights the injustice of the world, where wealthy aristocrats are often far more corrupt and criminal than those in prison, but he doesn’t try to change anything as such. He simply steals what he can, because he can. He has his own code of ethics certainly – he’s a gentleman, he treats his victims in a civilized manner and he certainly won’t murder anyone to get what he wants. But he will do almost anything else: kidnapping, blackmail, threats, forgery, impersonation, or whatever is needed.
In one of the later stories, “On the Top of the Tower”, Lupin solves a particularly cold-hearted murder. But rather than out the murderer to the authorities, Lupin uses the power he holds over him to force him to sign over a fortune he owes, but hasn’t paid, to his niece. It just so happens that Lupin is madly in love with this very niece.
He’s a gentleman, but he has plenty of moral grey areas.
Which brings us to the newest incarnation of Lupin, with his own morals and gentlemanly code of conduct: Assane Diop, the protagonist of Netflix’s Lupin. Which I’ll get to after this very quick break.
So I wanted to very quickly tell you about a few things. First up is the sponsor of this episode, which is the podcast 180 Degrees, this is a show that shares the stories of people across Ireland, working towards a cleaner energy future.
There are episodes on electric cars, on working in sustainable energy, on how to make a house that is properly insulated and actually warm all year around, which I listened to in winter in my freezing, badly insulated attic, and was inspired and jealous.
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Speaking of which, have a listen to a quick trailer for another show on the network: Fascinated, with Gearoid Farrelly. This is a great show – if you like your narratives carefully scripted and closely crafted (and, well, I think it’s safe to say you do) and you like pop culture, well you will definitely enjoy this show. I would highly recommend a listen:
If Maurice Leblanc’s creation was an immediate success in the early 1900s, the recent release of Lupin, created by George Kay and starring Omar Sy, was no less successful. The show has been viewed over 70 million times, making it one of Netflix’s most successful shows, ever.
Given all those Holmes comparisons I’ve already mentioned, it’s no surprise that an obvious comparison is Sherlock, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s series with Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role. Both series draw heavily on their source material while completely updating and refreshing the main character for the 21st century.
In the case of Lupin, the character is not actually Lupin at all, but Assane Diop, a man whose biography somewhat mirrors the famous master criminal, and who looks to Lupin to provide the inspiration for his own career as a gentleman thief. Like his hero, he is suave, well-educated, cunning and resourceful. Unlike Lupin, however, Diop is the son of Senagalese immigrants to France.
The opening episode closely mirrors the well-known Lupin story, “The Queen’s Necklace”, a story which reveals Lupin’s humble origins and career as a thief. When Diop was a boy, his father was framed for the theft of a priceless necklace, later killing himself in prison. So, when the necklace re-emerges in Paris, for sale at an auction in the Louvre, Diop takes it upon himself to both steal it, and to solve the mystery of his father’s death. He is, like Lupin, both criminal and detective.
The key difference, made pointedly and repeatedly in the series, is that the colour of Diop’s skin gives an extra dimension to his abilities as a master of disguise. He can saunter into the Louvre as a James Bond figure dressed in a designer suit and ready to buy a diamond necklace. But he can simultaneously disappear into the background as a museum janitor – who will pay any attention to the immigrant cleaning the museum toilets?
Diop pulls the same trick again later, by dressing as a food delivery biker, and then ordering dozens of others to the same spot. They all look alike and he gets away – a bit like a Deliveroo version of the ending of the Pearse Brosnan Thomas Crown affair.
The show plays with the viewer’s expectations, and prejudices, about who Diop really is, slowly revealing new clues as the series progresses.
Like the original stories, Lupin steals from the rich, especially from those who deserve it. But Diop’s crimes also point to Europe’s history of colonialism – in another episode, he cons a wealthy white woman out of her most precious jewels, as she tells him how they were all looted from the Belgian Congo.
Omar Sy’s Diop is also, in another departure from the original tales, a father, He has a son from a relationship which has broken down – named Raoul in another nod to the original stories. While he is so in control of every other facet of his life, finding time for his son evades him, and introducing Raoul to his beloved Lupin books is seemingly the one connection he has managed to get right.
Diop, like Lupin, is always one step ahead of everyone else. Except, it turns out, when it comes to his family.
“When one knows how to use one’s eyes”, Lupin states at the end of one of the short stories, “Adventure exists everywhere, in the meanest hovel, under the mask of the wisest of men. Everywhere, if only you are willing, you will find an excuse for excitement, for doing good, for saving a victim, for ending an unjustice”.
Noble words from the master criminal, but you get the impression that the do-gooding and the ending of injustice, for Diop and certainly for Lupin, are at best useful side benefits. Really, for the gentleman thief, and his fans, it’s all about the adventure, about an excuse for excitement. And 116 years after Maurice Leblanc’s first Lupin story, his adventures still live on.
That’s it for another episode of Words To That Effect, thanks so much for listening. And a huge thanks, at episode 50, if you’ve been here since the beginning or if you’ve supported the show in any way, it really means so much.
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