Book Review: Arséne Lupin, Gentleman Burglar

Arséne Lupin, Gentleman Burglar has been well known throughout Europe for quite some time. It was a big hit when it arrived in print in the early twentieth century and has since inspired multiple spinoffs in the form of comics, television shows, and movies across the world. Still, Lupin didn’t enter the main stage here in the USA until the eponymous Netflix show began making waves.

–Lukas Harnisch-Weidauer

The main character of the show, Assane Diop, carries a heavily stickied copy of Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Burglar. Diop models himself off the book’s protagonist, an incredibly talented burglar with the sensible charm and elegance of a French aristocrat. But Diop is the son of a Senegalese immigrant falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Diop uses the tactics of disguise and thievery displayed by Lupin to gather evidence through blackmail, espionage, and negotiation in an effort to exonerate his father. I enjoyed the show thoroughly. It’s a perfect foil to the detective thrillers that crowd TV, displaying an overtly criminal character on a quest for good. While waiting for Part II of the series to be released, I decided to dig into the stories that the show pays homage to.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsène Lupin is a collection of stories that Maurice Leblanc published between 1905 and 1906 in the French magazine Je Sais Tout. As the title suggests, every chapter covers a new Lupin exploit. The stories are haphazardly plopped into the collection in the order that they were originally published—we are taken from a ship on the Atlantic, to a prison in Paris, to the city Rouen, and back to Paris. 

The result isn’t exactly cohesive since the stories—especially those seen later in the book—are chronologically jumbled. It’s often difficult to tell what is happening when, unless Leblanc makes it explicit. He does so in “The Safe of Madam Imbert,” revealing that the events from that story happen before Lupin comes to fame. Paradoxically, the book actually kicks off as Lupin is at the height of his notoriety, escaping France on the aforementioned ship across the Atlantic.

The lack of chronology is a minor gripe, even if the actual stories themselves entertain, and I’m pleased to say that most of them do. Almost all of them see Lupin duping some ultra-rich aristocrat, and who doesn’t like to see that? It’s interesting to note that when these stories were published there was quite a bit of social upheaval in France as the industrial revolution created a massive wealth divide in tandem with a rapid development of communication and transportation technologies. (Sounds familiar doesn’t it?) 

“Every rich person that Lupin burgles is either stupid, corrupt, evil, or all three…”

The book isn’t as explicit about its anarchistic and anti-aristocratic leanings as the Netflix show, but the underlying message is clear: Every rich person that Lupin burgles is either stupid, corrupt, evil, or all three, and the resulting depiction is often humorously overplayed. In one instance the aristocrat being robbed is dubbed Baron Satan. The Comtesse de Dreux-Soubise is depicted as the last of a dying class of nobility forced to sell off much of her assets, but desperately clinging to a necklace that once belonged to Queen Marie Antoinette as some delusional attempt at maintaining relevancy. One couple of aristocrats unwittingly invite Lupin straight into their home and tell him exactly where they keep all their valuables.

I was, however, disappointed in the immersiveness of the world. I had expected to be enveloped in early twentieth-century Paris, similar to Dickens’ London, but Leblanc often puts descriptions of scene and environment secondary to a clever story or surprising twist. Likewise, Lupin is a descriptionless man. This could be purposeful; he’s meant to be a master of disguise. The twists abound though, and the feeling of having guessed the outcome—coupled with parsing through the tantalizing crumbs of Lupin’s character that Leblanc sprinkles in—is utterly satisfying.

It’s easy to see why so much media has been inspired by these stories and this character. Netflix’s show is a really wonderful homage to Lupin and does a great job of modernizing his conflicts. Diop and his father are failed by a state and justice system that is all too quick to criminalize migrants, especially those that aren’t white-passing. As a result, Diop is forced to work outside of that system in his mission to prove his father’s innocence. Much like Lupin, Diop faces a corrupt upper class, but he has a clear impetus for doing so, and the added racialized discrimination brings that struggle into the present. 

Here is where you should start your Lupin journey:

The Mysterious Railway Passenger: Easily the most mind-bending of the collection, this story packs everything from train car intrigue to an exhilarating car chase into a blindingly quick thirty pages.

Madame Imbert’s Safe: A great glimpse into Lupin’s origins and some good context for what motivates him in his adventures.

Holmlock Shears Arrives Too Late: If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it’s actually Sherlock Holmes. For copyright reasons, Leblanc had to change his name in the story, but it’s great to read Lupin dupe the famous English detective.

Order it today from Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon. You can also check out the first season of the limited series on Netflix. Season two is scheduled to premiere in mid-2021.