In the first decade of the twentieth century, the French writer Maurice Leblanc published The Blonde Lady, a mystery novel that featured his popular gentleman thief, Arsene Lupin. In all, Leblanc would pen twenty-one novels and short story collections about the ingenious Lupin, who came to be thought of as the larcenous French answer to Conan Doyle’s upstanding Sherlock Holmes. What distinguishes The Blonde Lady from Leblanc’s other Lupin novels is its subtitle: “Being a Record of the Duel of Wits Between Arsene Lupin and the English Detective.” Indeed, a later English-language edition was re-titled Arsene Lupin vs. Herlock Sholmes (the name of Lupin’s adversary being no typo, but a half-hearted caution against copyright infringement, circa 1910).
The Blonde Lady is imaginative and clever, though it is dated and best enjoyed today as an adventure in literary archeology. Nonetheless, the notion of the master thief as heroic protagonist in opposition to the archetypal consulting detective gained new resonance for me upon the recent completion of my novel, Hammett Unwritten. The product of more drafts than I care to count, Hammett Unwritten owes little stylistically to the gas-lit work of either Leblanc or Conan Doyle (it is more the product of Hammett’s “hardboiled” school with a playful, modern sensibility); nonetheless, I’ve come to regard the process of its writing as an interaction between my initial “ingeniously laid plans”—akin to those of a master thief—and the subsequent consulting detective work necessary to discern and embellish the unconscious subtleties embedded in the original plot. In short, writing a complex book requires the creativity of the cat burglar and the analytical sensibilities of the consulting detective.
Arsene Lupin & Herlock Sholmes.
Let’s consider the work of the gentleman thief. If you are unfamiliar with Lupin, imagine Cary Grant in “To Catch a Thief” or George Clooney in the “Oceans” movies. He is no mere stick-up man. His work is neither impulsive nor reactive, but relies on complex groundwork laid long before any actual crime commences. Sparked by a moment of poetic inspiration or a unique opportunity for vast wealth, the master thief embarks upon his endeavor with enthusiasm and confidence in his ability to manipulate the expectations, perceptions, and reality of those he is attempting to fool (his “readers”). While his initial concept must be strong, he knows it is his ability to employ various ruses and identities that will determine his success. This is his plot. Also, this is plot, literally. And sometimes, that is enough. Heads are turned, eyes are widened, and folks are fooled. Presto!
But sometimes it’s not enough.
Sometimes, a writer has to change out of his gentleman’s coat and tails and into his deerstalker cap. Sometimes, after completing a draft or two (or ten), a writer must ask of his own work: What’s actually happening here on the page? What have I created? What is beneath all this? What does it mean to me? Why have I told this story and not another? What is hidden that I might yet expose? In short, his job becomes to detect. In this, the detective’s primary concern is not to discern the motivations of victims or witnesses, but the motivations of the master thief himself. Of course, this is possible to do only after the plot has been carried through; that is, the detective cannot contribute until the master thief has made his mark and departed the scene. Only then is the game afoot.
A first draft is a crime scene.
So, the detective asks what details lie unrecognized that may become central to the eventual outcome. What is buried within the mess?
And yet when the detective unearths hidden verities, what is he to do with them? How does he incorporate them into a new, improved version of the tale? After all, his is the analytical mind. He looks backward. He is not the progenitor of deceits and delights. So who will formulate his newly discovered insights into revised pages of surpassing depth and surprise?
The thief, of course, unable to resist returning to recklessly re-conceptualize the work.
In this way, the thief and detective collaborate, alternately viewing the crime scene, the pages. Time and again, the master thief re-conceives and the detective re-analyzes until the work finally becomes sufficiently crafted that it gains a sense of inevitability. Only then, at last moved by the recognition of hard-won completion, can the thief and the detective walk together into the foggy night, the start of a beautiful friendship.
And maybe a good book too.
What would Dashiell Hammett, the protagonist of my new novel, say of all this?
Likely he’d say nothing, but would just bust me in the choppers.