Maurice Leblanc Essay - Critical Essays


The English author E. W. Hornung, Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, anticipated Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin by creating his criminal-hero Raffles, the “Gentleman Cracksman,” in his The Amateur Cracksman (1899). Doyle himself was opposed to Hornung’s idea and admonished him, saying, “You must not make the criminal a hero.” Julian Symons has stated that the Raffles tales of Hornung and the Lupin tales of Leblanc “represent the last flicker for a long time of the criminal hero tradition.”

France in the belle époque was undergoing a time of change and flux by virtue of increasing industrialization, improved communications, and new technology. Because the haute bourgeoisie of France were unwilling to make the concessions necessary to ease the hardships of displaced artisans and exploited workers, new political and economic theories supportive of political and social reforms were bandied about by conflicting interests. The frustration of some also brought about new, antitheological moralities that negated the moralities of church and state. Some of the new moralities were individualistic, others were cooperative and collective; but principally they were anti-God, antichurch, antistate, and antibourgeois. They issued from such thinkers as William Godwin, Max Stirner, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Alexander Herzen, Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, Pyotr Kropotkin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Sorel, Emma Goldman, and Émile Armand.

In his treatise Qu’est-ce que la propriété? (1840; What Is Property?, 1876), French socialist Proudhon answered: “La propriété, c’est la vol” (property is theft). The anarchists of the so-called Bonnot Gang (c. 1911) defined theft as “individual reprisals against the bourgeoisie.” The French word bourgeois (or bourgeoisie) has no English equivalent. Rather than meaning simply “a member of the middle class” or “any person owning property,” it implies a certain attitude assumed by a property owner or by one ambitious to own property—namely, that material possessions and money are to that person the most important thing in life. To socialists and anarchists, all bourgeois were criminals. Nevertheless, in France not all men of property were regarded as necessarily bourgeois; those who carried their wealth lightly and were not cesspools of cupidity were not bourgeois. The view that all bourgeois were by definition criminals was not confined to any particular social class. Although laborers and artisans were most likely to hold such a view, it ran the gamut of the social hierarchy.

During the belle époque and later, thousands of Frenchmen could respond favorably to the sort of criminal-hero represented by Lebanc’s creation, Arsène Lupin. Lupin, born Raoul d’Andrésy, never knew his father, who died in prison in the United States before Lupin was born. Lupin’s mother, Henriette, supported herself and Lupin as maid to a countess. When the precocious Lupin, at the age of six, stole the famous “queen’s necklace” from the countess’s husband to arrange lifetime financial stability for Henriette, the countess accused Henriette of the robbery and dismissed her. Henriette died six years later, leaving her twelve-year-old son to fend for himself. Lupin prepared himself for a career as a professional burglar, eventually becoming known as “the man of a thousand disguises,” operating in châteaux, grands salons, and transatlantic liners.

Lupin’s motivation, aside from the delight he takes in baffling the police and executing complex robberies, is to avenge himself on the money-grubbing bourgeoisie. Lupin eschews violence and murder, but he considers all bourgeois thieves. His aplomb, debonairness, snobbery, dandyism, and finesse are designed to demonstrate to the bourgeois that he is inherently an aristocrat. In L’Aiguille creuse (1909; The Hollow Needle, 1910), it is hinted that he is descended from royalty. From the standpoint of the philosophy of morals, however, Lupin is a casuist, a François Villon, who seeks to convince the noble old warrior, the seigneur of Brisetout, that he is no better than the poet-thief. Lupin, too, is an artist who practices robbery as a fine art.

Arsène in Prison

Tourteau has pointed out that the Lupinian stories and novels are not constructed around a murder but around an “enigma” of the planning and execution of a crime. From Lupin’s point of view, the enigma consists of a problem that he must solve: how to execute a seemingly impossible robbery. To solve this problem, Lupin must devise a plan, adopt the role of detective to test it, and perform as an artist in its execution. Part of the execution will involve the manipulation of the victim. Such a manipulation occurs in “Arsène in Prison” in The Exploits of Arsène Lupin. To rob the wealthy retired financier and art collector Baron “Satan” Cahorn, Lupin must manipulate his victim if he is ever to gain admittance to the baron’s impenetrable stronghold, located in the middle of the Lower Seine. Knowing well the cupidity of the baron, Lupin devises a plan that will play on this weakness.

With the strategy of gaining entrance to the fort, Lupin plots a sequence of tactical moves, each of which will advance the progress toward this end by a predictable action on the part of the baron according to Lupin’s own calculus of probabilities. It is all very much like...

(The entire section is 2250 words.)