Who is Arsene Lupin? Why we are in the grip of the French Sherlock Holmes

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Who is Arsene Lupin? This has been a question on the minds of many Netflix viewers lately. He is a great icon of French literature and popular culture, the Gallic equivalent of Sherlock Holmes, but he is little known abroad.

Not that you need to know anything about Arsene to enjoy it. Lupine, the 10-episode French mystery thriller starring Omar Sy that has become the most watched non-English speaking series on Netflix. Sy plays Assane Diop, a charming and brilliant thief and con artist determined to avenge his father’s disgrace and death. Although he is a decidedly modern criminal, his adventures, inspiration and methods are drawn from a fictional gentleman thief created over a century ago.

Omar Sy plays a gentleman thief, Assane Diop, who is inspired by the character of Arsène Lupin, created by Maurice Leblanc.Credit:netflix

Novelist Maurice Leblanc envisioned Arsene Lupin in 1907 for a series of magazine short stories that proved so popular that over the next 34 years he followed it up with more than 20 novels and collections of stories featuring his heroes, with tantalizing titles such as The hollow needle and The blonde lady.

The gentleman thief, trickster and master of disguise was not a new character in fiction: he had existed in one version or another since Robin Hood. But the debonair Lupin, with top hat and monocle, charmed his French readers.

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Although he was on the wrong side of the law, Lupine had his own moral code. He was not a ruthless James Bond. He’s outmaneuvered powerful people far nastier than him, and although he’s a martial arts expert who’s fought in many fights, he’s never killed anyone. Time and time again, when all seemed lost, he made a miraculous escape.

Naturally, he entered into competition with a mastermind from across the Channel, Sherlock Holmes. But Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t appreciate an upstart Frenchman stealing his character, let alone outmaneuvering him. After a threat of legal action, Leblanc changed the character’s name to Herlock Sholmes.

Like Conan Doyle, Leblanc came to resent his hero for distracting audiences from his other works. He wrote a few sci-fi novels and dreamed up more heroes, but Lupine topped them all.

Even after Leblanc’s death in 1941, Lupin’s adventures continued. Five authorized sequels were written in the 1970s by a team of prolific screenwriters, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. There were numerous film and television adaptations, video games, comic books, and a manga featuring Lupin’s grandson.

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