Arsène Lupin versus Sherlock Holmes

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Cover of Lupin’s complete adventures (C201.d.5905-5907).

Who doesn’t like Sherlock Holmes? The whole world has embraced Sherlock Holmes, from the United States to Soviet Russia; he is the most portrayed character in the history of cinema, and every year brings its share of new adaptations including the latest on BBC1 starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Who could possibly hate Sherlock Holmes?

The answer is, of course: a Frenchman.

In 1905, the French writer Maurice Leblanc wrote the first adventure of Arsène Lupin, a dashing gentleman-thief for whom burglary is one of the fine arts. Several short stories and novels would follow and in 1908, Leblanc introduced two new characters in Arsène Lupin contre Herlock Sholmes: an English detective and his sidekick Dr Wilson. A barely disguised pastiche of Sherlock Holmes, Sholmes was also intended as a caricature of the typical Englishman as seen by the French at the time: red in the face, impassive to the point of apathy and slow of understanding. Lupin of course, was his exact opposite, having every quality of a not-so-respectable Frenchman: chivalrous, terribly charming, and just a little bit cocky.

At a time when the genre of the detective novel was as its very beginnings however, there weren’t many models to choose from. Despite his apparent dislike of Sherlock Holmes, Leblanc was certainly inspired by Conan Doyle’s stories, perhaps even a secret admirer of them: Lupin appears very similar to Holmes and often acts as a detective more than a thief.

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Lupin is usually depicted wearing a top hat and monocle, attributes of the aristocrats he often cons (2007.7.1414).

The biggest difference might be in the tone of the novels. Holmes and Lupin are both men of their time, and their personalities reflect the era and the settings in which their adventures unfold. Sherlock Holmes’ Victorian London is a dark, violent and slightly eerie place. In contrast, Lupin lives in the elegant, vibrant and thriving Paris of la Belle Époque et les Années Folles, where all women are cabaret dancers and have deliciously old-fashioned names like Arlette, Olga or Joséphine. Whereas Holmes is asexual, Lupin has one or two affairs in each novel, marries three times and gets the queen of a fictional country in the family way practically under her husband’s nose. Ah, the French!

Historical events also shape some of Lupin’s adventures, even if none of the two World Wars feature directly in the novels. Almost every enemy Lupin has to face has a German name, and one of his adversaries is even referred to as “worse than a Boche, a super Boche”. As the First World War approaches, Lupin becomes less and less the gentleman-thief he started out as and evolves into more of a proto-superhero, trying to right wrongs, save women and also take Alsace and Lorraine back from Kaiser Wilhelm.

Although Lupin is the closest equivalent to Sherlock Holmes in France, he does not enjoy the same fan base today as the English detective does, perhaps because his adventures are so dated. But they are still interesting examples of early 20th century French popular literature and bear witness to how the French viewed the world at the time. The University Library holds copies of individual Arsène Lupin adventures, as well as the complete works of Maurice Leblanc in the detective novel genre (C201.d.5905-5907).

Anne-Laure Lacour

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