One of the most spectacular changes of minds I have experienced of late is about my fellow-compatriot Maurice Leblanc and his hero Arsène Lupin. For years I had nothing but contempt for them and their enduring popularity here in France left me puzzled: how in the world could grown-up people read and enjoy such infantile fluff? I had read, and immensely hated, The Hollow Needle and The Crystal Stopper when I was fifteen-sixteen. A strongly classic-minded reader with youthful enthusiasm and corrolary intolerance, I was not in the right mood to appreciate those wild, definetely non-holmesian stories and stuck to my initial reject for the next decade and a half.
Then, two years ago, I found at a yard sale a Lupin I didn't know, La Barre-Y-Va, which attracted my attention: it was about an impossible crime, one of my péchés mignons. I had to read it, no matter Leblanc and Lupin and even though I didn't expect anything carrian in terms of cleverness and innovation. The solution to the problem was unsurprisingly a let-down, though it may be have groundbreaking back then, but then it didn't really matter, for the book was loads of fun. I went on to read another Lupin, La Demeure Mystérieuse, and enjoyed it even more. I had to confront the awful truth: I was hooked. A Lupinian I had become.
Slowly, very slowly so as not to run out of books too soon, I made my way through the Geste of the unique son of Théophraste Lupin and Henriette d'Andrézy and the more I progressed the more I realized what a dogmatic fool I had been. Since then I feel a little - but only a little - more understanding for the late Julian Symons. I had been wrong on all counts and for no reason other than my adolescent refusal and condemnation of anything not in the Christie/Doyle/Carr tradition.
The stories are no infantile fluff. They are fresh, youthful, and fun, which doesn't preclude some gravity on occasion. Above all, they're extremely varied in tone and style. While most focus on Lupin's schemes, many of them have puzzles and the gentleman-thief often acts as a detective. Leblanc's plotting, though definetely not orthodox and some crude
at times, is usually very good and sometimes even brilliant (Victor de la Brigade Mondaine in particular is a masterpiece of bamboozlement)
Lupin is not the arrogant schmuck I remembered, but one of the few characters in mystery fiction that can genuinely be called a hero - someone you can root for and whose every appearance (or non-appearance, since he is most often in disguise, unknown to everyone but the reader) is an event in itself. He is also a real three-dimensional character with a distinctive presence and "voice", both magnificent and vulnerable, genius and fallible, outlandish and sentimental. Most of the time he wins, but sometimes he loses. Hard.
813 is his greatest recorded fiasco, his own Scandal in Bohemia - and Leblanc's probable masterpiece as well as one of the few undisputable summits of the genre. Apparently bored with "just" being a thief, Lupin dabbles into geopolitics, which gets him into serious trouble. To give a full summary of this long, apparently rambling yet fully controled book would take as many pages as it takes Leblanc to tell his story. Let us just say that Lupin meets one of his most dangerous enemies, finds love once again, gets charged for a murder he didn't commit and goes to jail, owing his final release only to the personal intervention of the Kaiser, and loses everything in the end. Quite modern for a book written in 1910 - but then, as I said in a previous post, our favorite genre has changed very little ever since.
I still have some Lupins left on my shelves, including the weirdest of them all, L'Ile aux Trente Cercueils, and when done with them I'll re-read Needle and Stopper. As the old French proverb has it, only the fools never change their minds.
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