Maurice LeBlanc, The Blonde Lady (Arsène Lupin Contre Herlock Sholmès)

And the water was rising. It reached the soles of their boots. It covered their feet; they did not move.

It came above their ankles: the Englishman took his tobacco-pouch, rolled a cigarette and lit it.

Lupin continued:

“And, in all this, my dear maître, you must not see anything more than the humble confession of my powerlessness in face of you. It is tantamount to yielding to you, when I accept only those contests in which my victory is assured, in order to avoid those of which I shall not have selected the field. It is tantamount to recognizing that Holmlock Shears is the only enemy whom I fear and proclaiming my anxiety as long as Shears is not removed from my path. This, my dear maître, is what I wished to tell you, on this one occasion when fate has allowed me the honour of a conversation with you. I regret only one thing, which is that this conversation should take place while we are having a foot-bath … a position lacking in dignity, I must confess…. And what was I saying?… A foot-bath!… A hip-bath rather!”

The water, in fact, had reached the seat on which they were sitting and the boat sank lower and lower in the water.

Shears sat imperturbable, his cigarette at his lips, apparently wrapped in contemplation of the sky. For nothing in the world, in the face of that man surrounded by dangers, hemmed in by the crowd, hunted down by a posse of police and yet always retaining his good humour, for nothing in the world would he have consented to display the least sign of agitation.

“What!” they both seemed to be saying. “Do people get excited about such trifles? Is it not a daily occurrence to get drowned in a river? Is this the sort of event that deserves to be noticed?”

And the one chattered and the other mused, while both concealed under the same mask of indifference the formidable clash of their respective prides.

Another minute and they would sink.

 

 

My Kindle column for this month is about Maurice LeBlanc writing what amounts to fanfiction using his own characters and other people’s. I suspect if he’d lived in the age of the internet he’d be writing slash. The H. Richard Boehm translation is available here. A version of my review is below.

 

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As writers of fanfiction in particular know, there’s a certain joy in bringing together iconic characters from different series/movies/authors and imagining their interactions. Perhaps the published author most famous for doing this is Alan Moore, whose League of Extraordinary Gentleman series of comics picks up a bunch of classic figures from Victorian literature and gives them new adventures.

The classic Victorian icon is of course Sherlock Holmes. Moore may have chosen not to use him in the series (though at least one other important Conan Doyle character appears), but more than a century ago another major writer did. Maurice LeBlanc, creator of the French gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, had the two face off in Arsène Lupin Contre Herlock Sholmès – the detective’s name slightly changed because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had objected. This collection of two related short stories was published in America under the title The Blonde Lady, and Herlock Sholmès was further changed to Holmlock Shears.

Chief-Inspector Ganimard invites Shears and his colleague, “the unspeakable Wilson” to Paris to solve the theft of a diamond ring in which Lupin and a mysterious blonde woman seem to be involved. Lupin is thrilled; Shears is a worthy adversary. This leads to a prolonged cat-and-mouse game, with the two men working to outwit each other and occasionally (though briefly) succeeding.

Traditionally, if  Holmes has a nemesis it is Professor Moriarty. Yet for me perhaps the most engaging villain in Conan Doyle’s stories was Irene Adler – not because she was a woman (though beautiful adventuresses are always welcome in Victorian fiction) but because the two of them seemed to enjoy the game so much. Holmes presumably respects Moriarty as an adversary, but there’s an underlying grimness- when it comes to it, these men are willing to kill each other. Whereas Holmes may be angry at being bested by Adler, but there’s always the sense that it’s all an elegant bit of play and they’d get along quite well under different circumstances. It makes a difference, of course, that Adler’s crime in the one story in which she appears is not particularly serious. Lupin is more of an Adler than a Moriarty.

LeBlanc’s hero is always amazing – rakish, charming and forever one step ahead of everyone else. Every encounter between him and Shears is a delight in this book. On the occasion of their first confrontation the two sit down to whiskeys-and-sodas. They often compliment each other, and in the second story, “The Jewish Lamp”, engage in a showdown that is quite a spectacular mutual admiration society. Of course there’s a bit of France vs England going on, and Lupin leaves Shears furious and humiliated more than once. But there is still the feeling that they could have been friends (or even lovers, though I highly doubt LeBlanc meant us to read it this way). Of course it helps that (as with Adler) Lupin isn’t totally morally repugnant – he tends to steal only from the rich and does not commit murder (as well as being witty and attractive). It’s much easier to like him than it would be with a more hardened criminal.

If there’s one thing over which this odd crossover book can be faulted it is its treatment of poor Wilson. Conan Doyle’s Watson is a perfectly ordinary, intelligent man; LeBlanc’s Wilson is an idiot. In a way it foreshadows the idiot sidekick trope in fiction – Wilson is closer to Agatha Christie’s Captain Hastings than to our favourite army doctor – but it seems unfair to a character who really doesn’t get enough love. Perhaps if LeBlanc had been allowed to use the original Conan Doyle characters this would have been different – and what a great novel that would have been.

 

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