REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


MAURICE LEBLANC – Countess Cagliosto. Arsène Lupin #12. First published in France as La Comtesse de Cagliostro (1924). First translated into English in 2010 and included in Arsene Lupin vs Countess Cagliostro, edited by Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier (Black Coast Press, trade paperback). Also included in this latter edition are the 1935 novel Countess Cagliostro’s Revenge, also never before translated. The book also includes the short story “The Queen’s Necklace,” and the all-new The Death of Countess Cagliostro, written by Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier. Film: Arsène Lupin (2004).

   Maurice Leblanc, a forty-one year old journalist, created the French rival to Sherlock Holmes in 1905 in the short “l’aresstation de Arsene Lupin”. It was a bright and clever tale (foreshadowing Agatha Christie’s Roger Ackroyd) introducing the world to the gentleman thief and romantic adventurer whose lust for life was almost as great as his lust for other people’s things.

   Not unnaturally over time Lupin evolved, showing as great a skill at solving crime as committing it, taking on Sherlock Holmes (Holmlock Shears) in two adventures, and appearing in classics of the genre like 813 and The Hollow Needle.

   And like Sherlock Holmes, Lupin’s creator grew tired of his hero, and with the end of the Great War increasingly sidelined Lupin under various guises, in short appearances, and as a deus ex machina when a complex plot needed one. Individual stories were worthwhile, but nothing as great as his heyday. Readers must have wondered if Lupin would ever see his great days again

   But again as with Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, Leblanc had one last trick up his sleeve — one last great adventure to recount. That adventure would be nothing less that the origin of Arsene Lupin, and of his greatest foe and implacable enemy, Josephine Balsamo, the possibly immortal daughter of Joseph Balsamo, Count Cagliostro, in the 1924 novel that bore her name.

   Lupin fans must have celebrated, Leblanc and his hero were back in fine form.

   After a brief forward explaining Lupin had forbid him to tell the story of the Countess for twenty-five years, Leblanc plunges right in as young Raoul d’Andrésy breaks into the home of the Baron d’Etigues, father of Clarisse, the young woman he loves, and finds among his papers an order to execute a mysterious unnamed woman.

   Being French, he of course wakes and seduces Clarisse and then reveals to her that her father and his cronies “…Marquis de Rolleville, Mathieu de la Vaupalière, Comte Oscar de Bennetot, Roux d’Estiers… All these noblemen from the beautiful Pays de Caux are involved in some kind of fantastic conspiracy!” D’Andrésy soon reveals he is really Arsene Lupin, the son of a footman and fencing and boxing instructor, something that her father would never accept as a son-in-law. But as he assures her with typical bravado, he has a bright future:

   “Every fortune-teller I’ve ever met has predicted I will have a great future and worldwide fame. Raoul d’Andrésy will become a General, a Minister, or an Ambassador… unless it’s Arsène Lupin! It’s a pact I’ve made with Destiny, agreed and signed by both parties. I’m ready! I’ve got muscles of steel and a sharp mind. Would you like to see me walk on my hands, or lift you at arms’ length? Or would you prefer that I remove your watch without you noticing? Or shall I recite Homer in Greek or Milton in English from memory? My God, how sweet life is! Raoul d’Andrésy… Arsène Lupin… A monument with two faces—which one will be illuminated by Glory, the brightest star in all the Heavens?”

   Fate has a different kind of fame in store for him though.

   Intercepting the would-be executioners, Lupin is present when they bring in their victim and reveal her face:

   … a voice rose above the murmurs of surprise. It was that of Prince d’Arcole, who had stepped forward to look at the prisoner.

   “It’s her! It’s her!” he stammered, his eyes wide in horror, his face twitching.

   “I recognize her! It’s terrifying!”

   “What’s terrifying?” asked the Baron. “Please, explain yourself.” And the Prince uttered this incredible statement:

   “She is no older than she was 24 years ago!”

   Of course Lupin will save her, become her lover and student, be drawn into and obsessed with the conspiracy surrounding the treasures of the Kings of France she and the conspirators all covet, he will learn her incredible claim to be the immortal daughter of the infamous Joseph Balsamo. Count Cagliostro.

   Lupin doesn’t buy that for a moment:

   “You’re your mother’s daughter,” repeated Raoul, “which means that there was a first Countess Cagliostro. At 25 or 30, she dazzled all of Paris in the last days of the Second Empire and piqued the curiosity of the Court of Emperor Napoleon III. With the help of her alleged brother—who may actually have been her lover — she laid out the tale of her connection to Cagliostro and Joséphine de Beauharnais and manufactured the forged documents which the Emperor’s secret police found later when they checked her background. Expelled from France, she fled to Italy, then Germany, then vanished without a trace… Except that she returned 24 years later in the person of an adorable daughter with virtually identical features, the second Countess Cagliostro, hereby present. Do we agree so far?”

   Lupin goes one for several paragraphs before recognizing he has overplayed his hand:

   “I’m right, aren’t I?” he said.

   “My past is my business,” she said, not answering him, “and so is my age. You can believe whatever you like about them.”

   He took her in his arms and kissed her passionately.

   “Then I will choose to believe that you’re 104-years-old, Joséphine, and that there is nothing more delicious.”

   Lupin will eventually become her rival (“…what is impossible is that I could continue to see you under that fog of mystery in which you’ve deliberately wrapped yourself; for now, I see you for what you truly are: a murderess and a criminal.”), learn secrets of his own family, marry Clarisse (like James Bond, Lupin’s lovers don’t last long) and have his son kidnapped by Josephine to take revenge on him twenty five years later (recounted in Countess Cagliostro’s Revenge published here for the first time in English).

   This particular Black Coat Press edition includes a short by editors Jean-Marc and Randy Loffcier recounting the final days of the Countess, and a short story, “The Queen’s Necklace” telling of Lupin’s first crime. It also comes with an informative introduction for anyone not already familiar with Lupin’s exploits.

   I grant I am a sucker for any tale in which the hero meets his Moriarty, his true nemesis, and this one lives up to both its hero and its epic theme, full of bravado, style, action, and lively twists as well as a fairly melancholy ending. It’s a good introduction to Lupin for those new to his adventures, and a grand addition to them for fans already familiar with him.

   American readers may find it hard to take the very French brio of Lupin at first, but staying with it will reveal some of the cleverest mysteries and adventures of any classic hero done in high style.