THE HOLLOW NEEDLE (1909) is the first novel I've read by Maurice LeBlanc, a Victorian era French writer who was a very early practitioner of the mystery/detective story. He created Arsene Lupin a conniving thief and clever gentleman turned detective who went on to star in 21 books and collections of short stories, though admittedly, with a broken heart. The broken heart part we learn about near the end of THE HOLLOW NEEDLE. In this book, the second in the series, Lupin is still very much a thief and criminal genius.
I understand that LeBlanc originally created these stories as a kind of French response to the popularity of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. In comparison of course, there is no comparison. Holmes rules. But I still find it interesting viewing the two different approaches to story-telling.
THE HOLLOW NEEDLE is written in the overwrought Victorian style with strict attention paid to manners and mannerisms. It was still possible in those days to tell a person's occupation by the clothing they wore and even by the accents of their speech. Class divisions were creaky but firmly entrenched in this long ago world before WWI. The mixture of view-points and even at one point suddenly jumping from third person to first and back again can get a bit confusing. But thankfully it doesn't happen often.
I suppose in comparison I might mention Wilkie Collins, but again, Collins is really the better writer. He's also more humorous than LeBlanc whose prose is probably dampened by the sort of French irony which is not as engaging to the English ear - probably loses something in translation.
The plot of THE HOLLOW NEEDLE is fairly convoluted - not surprising - but definitely intriguing, especially in the first half of the book. It features surprises around every corner and a wonderfully clever young high-schooler/amateur detective (it's not called high school in France, but that's the practical equivalent) who becomes a thorn in the side of the great Arsene Lupin. In my view, the young man, Isidore Beautrelet is the single most appealing character in the story even if the first time we meet him he is wearing false whiskers.
The story begins late one night at the chateau of the wealthy Comte de Gesvres. Loud noises in the night. A terrible commotion. Thuds. Grunts. Groans. The Comte's daughter Suzanne and her cousin Raymonde (an orphan whom the Comte has taken into his household) rush down from their rooms but not before they've spied (from a window) some men crossing the property carrying heavy bags and disappearing into the shadows. Robbery or worse!
When the young women reach the library, they find the Comte barely conscious and his private secretary, Jean Daval dead of a stab wound to the neck.
'Brave and plucky' Raymonde rushes to a window and spots a man running away. She raises the pistol she'd appropriated upstairs earlier and shoots the interloper. He falls, wounded, but crawls away into the bushes. Nearby, barely visible, are the crumbling walls of the old Cloister - an Abbey which sits on the grounds of the chateau.
The servants run out into the night convinced they'll find the fallen murderer within a few feet of the house. But the wounded man has disappeared - one of many inexplicable mysteries which will occur that night and into the next few days.
The local magistrate and his minions drive up in horse drawn traps and the story begins to make less sense when the Comte tells them that nothing is missing from the house. Nothing has been stolen, though Monsieur Daval is no less dead.
The Comte owns four Rubens paintings and a medieval tapestry, all worth a fortune, yet he appears to have had little if any security. Nevertheless, the paintings are still on the wall and nothing is missing. What were the 'robbers' carrying?
The magistrate orders his men and the servants to search the property - including the ruins of the Abbey - but they find no one. The search is temporarily called off after several hours and guards placed near the house.
In the morning, when a few members of the press find their way into the house, Monsieur le Juge d'Instrucion (the magistrate) confronts one of the reporters who is unable to produce identification or the proper papers. Once he removes his false whiskers, the erstwhile 'reporter' turns out to be a 17 year old school boy named Isidore Beautrelet, a particularly clever high-schooler traveling (for the Easter holiday) at the urging of his elderly father. Isidore is looking for adventure and finds it.
He proceeds to tell all the incredulous adults that he knows what's missing even if nothing is declared missing and what's more, he knows where the wounded man must be and who the murderer is. The murderer is not the wounded man? No, declares Isisdore Beautrelet with charming aplomb.
But of course, this being a mystery, he's not allowed to tell all he knows (and how he knows it) until later in the story. (Isn't that always the way?) Later he also announces that the wounded man (who, presumably is still hiding on the grounds of the chateau) is none other than Arsene Lupin, famed thief and adventurer - brilliant adversary of the French police. Said police are dumb-founded, though easily brought around to Beautrelet's way of thinking.
Now, obviously, Holmlock Shears has a rather obvious ring to it. A simple re-arranging of Sherlock Holmes' name - author Maurice LeBlanc's little bit of fun, I suppose, but very un-ironic, I'd have thought.
But wait there's more: A lost treasure, a document written by Louis XVI, a notation by Marie Antoinette, something called The Hollow Needle mentioned even by Voltaire....Phew! At this point I admit I was ready to throw in the towel, but I persevered.
Read a bit more about the problem of the Hollow Needle here. (the 'needle' is supposed to hold the legendary treasures of the Kings of France).
The second half of LeBlanc's book is basically a continuing battle of wits between the established genius of a master criminal and the untutored genius of a 17 year old boy. Near the end we also have the perspicacity of Holmlock Shears (who'd been released from captivity months before) thrown in for good measure, precipitating an event which will change Arsene Lupin forever. Or so we are led to believe.
I think I would like to read the next installment just to see what Arsene Lupin gets up to next, what Maurice LeBlanc has planned for him. I'm also hoping to meet up with Isidor Beautrelet once again. LeBlanc was prolific, so there's plenty to look forward to.
Going in, I knew nothing about these stories except the name, Arsene Lupin. But it's been fun to discover LeBlanc's creation and to learn more about the very early days of mystery fiction. (Even if I had to contend with reading on line off my computer screen.) I read this book at Project Guttenberg where it's available for free.
HOLMLOCK SHEARS?? What are you, kidding me? Apparently not.
This is my umpteenth entry in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2012 hosted by Bev at her blog, MY READER'S BLOCK.