The fine art of burglary

The fine art of burglary

A gentleman burglar and his many capers in France together make for a racy read.

This collection of nine stories revolves around the capers of Arsene Lupin, who is introduced as a gentleman burglar and is the brainchild of Maurice Leblanc (1864-1941). The author and its main protagonist, Lupin, owe their resurrection to a blockbuster series on a popular streaming service, whose lead character, Assane Diop, employs Lupin’s tactics to achieve his ends.

Though no mention has been made of the English translator of these stories, a search credits Edgar Alfred Jepson (1863-1938) to be the one. Jepson himself wrote adventure and detective fiction under a pseudonym and this probably explains his deft handling of the translations. 

The stories in the collection are haphazardly arranged, so editorial explanations have been employed, to make sense of the chronology of events. The comparison to Sherlock Holmes in the blurb may appear a little unfair to the fans of the English detective who solves crimes, vis-à-vis a burglar, who gets to the heart of them, after ferreting out information from his victims. 

Robin Hood complex

But strangely, as the narrative moves from one incident to another, the reader might reach a point where she starts to sympathise with Lupin, in the same way that one might feel warmly towards Robin Hood, who robbed the rich and helped the poor. This could also be because one starts to figure out that quite often the victims of Lupin were themselves perpetrators of some kind of injustice on the less privileged. Also, Lupin never commits a murder and is always decent in his behaviour whilst managing to outwit his betters, including the celebrated detective, Ganimard, who has sworn to capture him. As a master of disguise and the many names that the famous thief adopts in each story, one is hard-pressed to guess who Lupin is until he reveals himself, in his own inimitable way.

Interestingly, the first story in the book is about the arrest of Arsene Lupin, who is said to be travelling in disguise on the transatlantic steamship, ‘La Provence’. If the first chapter is to start with the arrest of the protagonist, one may wonder what is left to tell. But this story, leading up to the arrest, sets so many others into motion as what follows is the clever escape of the burglar, who by then has started winning over your grudging admiration. As the narrations proceed, one understands that these are being documented by someone whom Lupin trusts as his chronicler. The many twists and turns keep the reader curious and eager to learn more.

Since each chapter is a complete story, some of them seem to carry more suspense in the way that they unfold. “The Mysterious Traveller,” is unique in Lupin’s ability to turn a fellow traveller, a complete stranger, into an accomplice for providing him with an alibi. “The Seven of Hearts” is so full of intrigue that one is kept guessing till the very end of the story. 

The last story in the collection actually does bring in the famous British detective, but as the title reveals, “Sherlock Holmes arrives too late.” Could this be a letdown for those who are hoping that Conan Doyle’s creation might actually be able to get the better of Leblanc’s hero?  Or perhaps, this is for the best, as both are masters in their own right and this could be a kind of a truce attempted by the author, to keep them on an even keel.

The one critique, if any, could be the cursory treatment of the exotic places in France that keep popping up in the book, including Paris, with nary a description of the beauty around. 

The author’s sympathetic handling of Arsene Lupin might explain why the character grows on the reader. Now, all that is left to do is to watch the series.

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