The dark young of Arsene Lupin

A weekend of helping H move into her new place, previewing Zali’s new album (which is fantastic), and grooving to Maurice Leblanc’s ace crime novel ‘The Hollow Needle’. La! North London life, but as this is a blog about writing I’m going to focus on Leblanc (tho’ there’ll be more on Z’s new album when it’s out and about – back catalogue downloadable here).

As I’m sure you know, Maurice Leblanc was the creator of fictional French master criminal, Arsene Lupin. In his day, Lupin rivalled pulp heroes such as Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake or Raffles (the notorious Gentleman Thief, and come to think of it his closest British equivalent) for popularity; but there’s a Gallic sophistication to Lupin’s adventures that’s absolutely lacking in those of his cross-Channel competitors.

Lupin’s at once profoundly urbane and wildly manipulative, a fascinating cross between an Oscar Wilde protagonist and modern uber-mythmaker Kayser Soze. Like Wilde’s heroes, his very real charm is offset by a sense of amoral recklessness; like Kayser Soze, he understands the value of enmeshing his opponents in a narrative over which he has complete control. Lupin achieves his ends through a kind of personalised propaganda, which Leblanc describes thus:

‘the very mechanism of his way of setting to work, his special tactics, his letters to the press, his threats, the announcement of his thefts, in short the whole bag of tricks which he employed to bamboozle his selected victim and throw him into such a state of mind that the victim almost offered himself to the plot contrived against him and that everything took place, as it were, with his own consent.’

In fact, the whole plot of the novel is one, gigantic con-trick, revealed at its climax to be nothing more than a series of convenient fictions created to support the book’s real hero – Lupin himself – as he moves towards the achievement of his final, and in fact rather admirable, goal. And it’s not giving anything away to say that; key to the joy of reading Leblanc’s stories is the way in which the reader, too, expects to be and is enmeshed in the partial, controlling narratives that Lupin creates.

Fundamental to the creation of those narratives is Lupin’s masterly management of the media of his day. Whether manipulating journalists, publishing in the letters pages, placing just the right adverts, or taking a controlling interest in useful publications, Lupin is always in control of the story. That control is part of what makes him such a fascinating figure for a modern audience; taken historically, it shows Leblanc as a remarkably astute social and even political thinker.

Writing in the opening decades of the century, Leblanc both demonstrated an in-depth understanding, and developed a fascinating critique, of the ways in which an ostensibly disinterested mass media (‘we don’t make the news, we only report it’) can be subverted to serve the interests of a particular controlling elite.

Lupin’s fundamental decency prevents him from excessive abuse of such media; those who came after him would have no such qualms. Twentieth century history is jam-packed with figures of various different kinds – dictators, deciders, chief executives, celebrities – who built power on highly sophisticated perception management.

Lupin was a criminal because he was a thief; these people are thieves too, stealing choice from those they rule and replacing it with a carefully managed, entirely manufactured consent for plots contrived against some or all of those that fall within their sphere of influence.

So Leblanc’s light hearted style, and Lupin’s urbane gaiety, hide a dark, prophetic secret. Theft is a crime against property; but, rather than an end in itself, it’s really only a satisfyingly profitable by-product of perception management, a crime against choice that will as the century progresses come to be one of its unique and defining characteristics.

Oh, and if you want to check out some Lupin, I’d recommend starting with the new Penguin Classics translation of some of Leblanc’s short stories, available here…

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