In the course of delving into the Wold Newton Universe, I came across a curious crossover: Sherlock Holmes vs. Arsène Lupin. It didn’t register to me at the time why this was a big deal, but for some reason it stuck as something I should find. I’d never before heard of Arsène Lupin. This plays right in my interests, because I’m always eager to learn something new about the Great Detective, and I’m always eager to learn about another pulp great that’s flown under my radar for far too long. I went into this with the assumption that Lupin’s creator, Maurice Leblanc, felt that Holmes was a worthy adversary. Granted, that’s always going to be the case in a crossover situation. The real question to my mind was, would Lupin be worthy of Holmes?
I finally got my chance to find out, having discovered the first two volumes of Lupin’s adventures on Audible.
Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar, first appeared in July 1905. By this time, Holmes was not only more than well-established, he was well on his way to marking his reputation as one of the two most performed characters of all time, having appeared a number of times on stage as well as in early cinema. Right out of the gate, Lupin’s persistent adversary, detective Ganimard, is declared to be “almost as smart as Sherlock Holmes.” He’s certainly a few notches smarter than Inspector Lestrade, which is probably due to facing off against somebody of Lupin’s caliber by himself rather than having someone like Holmes to use as a crutch. Lupin is arrested in this first chapter. What follows from there is clever, funny, and no doubt thrilling to audiences in the closing years of France’s La Belle Époque before World War I.
A year after Lupin’s debut, featured at the very end of the first collection of semi-connected short stories (as well as the first volume of the audio production), is the short story “Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late.” For purposes of skirting copyright at the time due to Arthur Conan Doyle’s legal objections, the Great Detective was referred to in two different English translations as Herlock Sholmes and Holmlock Shears, though the Audible presentation has used his rightful name since the character now resides in the public domain. By this point, Arsène Lupin was popular indeed, having built his reputation. The story set up the adventures to come over the following year as France’s national thief would match wits with Britain’s national detective. Crossovers like this are commonplace in comics and such today, but at the time, this was an event not to be missed. How big? The movie was made in short order, in 1910.
And here I am, over a century late to the party, with a front row seat and a stupid grin plastered to my fanboy face as I surrendered my money and hit the play button.
I walked into this aware of two extremely important points that I knew would color my perceptions:
1. I am so close to toeing the Sherlockian line that most pastiches fail to impress me, and some I find outright insulting to both character and reader (looking at you, Laurie R. King); and…
2. Understanding that since Arsène Lupin’s creator is the one who wrote the encounters, Holmes has a decidedly unfair advantage.
The odds were stacked against this. Even so, so many in the Wold Newton community hailed it (with the caution that it’s really not Holmes), so I wanted to give it a fair shake if I could. Upon reaching the end of the first book, I was having too much fun to quit. There’s a lot of character here, and plenty of effortless backstory. You get to really know Arsène Lupin in short order as a fully-realized character with as much (and perhaps more) depth as Holmes or other pulp characters of that age. His methods and quirks are on full display. The stories are full of sly wit, smoothly delivered, worthy of the character’s reputation. With newfound appreciation of Arsène Lupin, and having now seen his first encounter with Sherlock Holmes, I proceeded directly to the second volume.
The advantage of this crossover, as I see it, is that it doesn’t take itself seriously. This is where most Holmes pastiches fall flat: they try so hard to be authentic that they feel pompous. In the effort to impress, most pastiche authors come across like they have a stick up their butt. They try too hard, assume too much, miss the obvious, and it typically comes across, as I said before, insulting. You don’t get that here. There’s a sense of pulpy fun that saturates everything, but at the same time Leblanc still plays it straight. You can feel the author smiling the whole time he’s writing it. That said, it still falls flat for reasons of characterization that will forever annoy me.
The purist in me can’t help but notice that Watson (Wilson in the original version) is treated in this to be something of a flunky to Holmes, which has never been the case. Again I’m reminded that the author of this work is French and has more respect for the reputation of the characters he’s borrowing rather than the characters themselves. The backhanded rivalry between the English and the French never ceases to amuse me. Ultimately, it’s so minor that it doesn’t really matter, yet I’m predisposed to notice these things. From there, Watson is played as a bit of a fool right out of the gate as Lupin marks him as a tool to be used against Holmes. It’s only natural, I suppose, but it seems like low-hanging fruit somehow, a cheap jab at Holmes. I also feel like that was the entire point. Credit where it’s due, Lupin did use Holmes’ own handwriting, and Watson is somewhat redeemed in short order when he applies the methods for which his partner is famous. An ever-popular sore spot for me due to the amateur hour nature of it that I must call out… Watson never refers to Holmes as “Sherlock,” especially to his face. Ever. This ranks right up there for me with Batman and firearms. No. It’s the character details that make or break a pastiche, and as we can see, this sort of crap has been going on for over a hundred years now. You’d think people would have learned by now, but perhaps I can’t get too uptight about it in this case given how long ago it was written.
Holmes himself is also written in less than top form. The approximation is mostly flattering to the idea of the original. For to make Lupin look good, Holmes must look good. For the most part, it’s serviceable, but just so. There are some extreme problems that stick out. For example, Holmes would never call Watson an idiot, nor would he lose his temper in the pursuit of his quarry. Leblanc actually hangs a lantern on this latter point, giving us the explanation that Lupin’s cheap jabs early on have made the Great Detective angry with flourishes that Holmes believes are mere children’s games. We’re expected to understand that Holmes’ verbal abuse of Watson is the result of Lupin getting under the detective’s skin. With the detective duly riled, the real game of cat and mouse can begin on Lupin’s own terms. There really is no wonder that Arthur Conan Doyle wanted the name of the character changed. I’m surprised that’s all he demanded. I suppose the old adage holds that any press is good press.
The result for me is a story that gave me some serious love / cringe. I absolutely love Lupin and his capers. Everything about him works for me. The character has entered my lexicon with top marks. The second volume of this was something of a beating for me. Plenty of fun to be had, but that little voice in the back of my head wouldn’t let go of the notion that this isn’t Sherlock Holmes. By the end of this, I was rooting for him to beat Holmes just because this version of Holmes needs to be defeated. I won’t spoil whether or not that happened here for those who want to find out for themselves. At the same time, it didn’t feel as though the writer cared to get that close to the mark in terms of Holmes’ characterization, so the perception issues are strictly my own. I readily acknowledge it. Leblanc just wanted to have fun with it, and the spirit of intent comes across. It makes me wonder how this might have played out had the two authors collaborated, or if both had been treated with equal respect by a third party with intimate understanding of both characters. Makes me also wonder if I might have enjoyed it better had the character names had been kept in their parody forms. As a parody of Holmes, I really think this whole thing works a lot better, hence the higher score I give the set. 5 stars for the first volume, a grudging 3 for the second, for an average of 4 stars.
Ultimately, the takeaway from this is that I want to read more of the exploits of Arsène Lupin and see how he translates out on screen. It really feels like when I first discovered Holmes and many other pulp greats. I want more, and there is definitely more of Lupin out there to find from the original author.
5 stars / 3 stars, respectively