Books

The Curious Case of “Herlock Sholmès”

When the creators of Lupin and Sherlock got into a copyright dispute, the solution was as inelegant as it was hilarious.

Omar Sy looking snazzy as Lupin besides an old-timey-looking cover for a book by Maurice Leblanc whose title reads "Arsene Lupin vs. Herlock Sholmes."
That book in Lupin Part 2? It’s real, and it’s spectacular. Photos by Netflix and Amazon

The second season of Lupin hit Netflix on Friday, and as audiences take a second whirlwind tour of Paris in the company of the celebrated gentleman burglar, one question is on everyone’s lips: “Who the hell is Herlock Sholmès?” Among the many capers and cons this season, the most touching is a sort of reverse heist, in which Omar Sy’s character smuggles a book into his son’s bedroom as a gift. (He’s mostly there to steal a bracelet from his son’s mom, which is less touching, but still.) There’s a close-up of the spine of the book in question, revealing it to be Arsène Lupin Contre Herlock Sholmès. So, uh, what’s up with that?

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The short answer is copyright law, but the long answer is much funnier. Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced the character of Sherlock Holmes in his 1887 novel A Study in Scarlet, but it was the short stories he published in the Strand Magazine that made Doyle’s eccentric detective famous, starting with “A Scandal in Bohemia” in 1891. That story, along with 11 more, were translated into French in 1902 as Les Aventures de Sherlock Holmes, and Holmes quickly became popular on both sides of the English Channel.

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Doyle’s stories—or more accurately, the windfall they’d brought the publishers of the Strand—caught the attention of journalist Pierre Lafitte, who was launching a new magazine, Je Sais Tout (“I Know Everything”). Lafitte reached out through a friend to writer Maurice Leblanc and asked him if he’d be interested in developing a similar character for his new venture. Leblanc agreed, and in July of 1905, Arsène Lupin, gentleman burglar, made his debut in “L’Arrestation d’Arsène Lupin.” (The preceding issue of Je Sais Tout had featured the first French translation of Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.”) In his second outing, Leblanc has Lupin give a left-handed compliment to Ganimard, the detective who captured him in the first story, remarking that he is “almost as clever as Sherlock Holmes.”

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Once Leblanc had established that Lupin’s nemesis was the second-best detective in the world, however, it was inevitable that he’d eventually give his burglar a tougher opponent. So in June of 1906, he staged the most ambitious crossover event in history, publishing “Sherlock Holmes Arrive Trop Tard” (“Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late”) in Je Sais Tout. In the story, a man who believes Arsène Lupin is planning to rob him asks Holmes to investigate. Holmes meets Lupin by chance and successfully identifies him but doesn’t arrest him, because, as he explains, “when I encounter an adversary like Arsène Lupin, I do not take advantage of chance opportunities, I create them.” Lupin doesn’t have quite the same sense of fair play: He steals (and returns) Holmes’ watch, just to prove he can. The story ends with Holmes vowing that “Arsène Lupin and Sherlock Holmes will meet again some day,” setting up what could have been an MCU-sized shared universe. Unfortunately for the franchise, however, Maurice Leblanc never got around to asking Arthur Conan Doyle for permission.

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Still, dubious legality didn’t stop Leblanc or his publisher from continuing the duel between consulting detective and gentleman burglar. In November, Leblanc published the first chapter of “La Dame Blonde” (“The Blonde Lady”) in Je Sais Tout, which the narrator claims had been written with help from “Arsène Lupin himself, and also the ineffable Watson, friend and confidant of Sherlock Holmes.” Holmes didn’t show up as a character in the second chapter, published that December, although Leblanc once again pointed out that Ganimard wasn’t quite as smart as Doyle’s detective. By January 1907, however, Doyle or his lawyers got in touch with Je Sais Tout and told them to knock it off. That presented a bit of a problem for the magazine, which had published two of the six chapters they’d promised readers. Their solution was as inelegant as it was hilarious: The third chapter, published in the January issue, was titled “Herlock Sholmès Ouvre Les Hostilités,” and Holmes’ name was changed to “Herlock Sholmès” throughout. (Watson was similarly renamed, as “Wilson.”) Leblanc was actually participating in a well-established tradition: “Herlock Sholmes” had been showing up in jokes and parodies of Doyle’s work as early as 1894. When Leblanc’s first nine Lupin stories were collected in the summer of 1907 as Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Cambrioleur, Homes’ name was again changed to Herlock Sholmès. The second volume of Lupin stories, Arsène Lupin Contre Herlock Sholmès, is the book Omar Sy’s character Assane Diop gives his son in Netflix’s Lupin.

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For English readers, the unauthorized Holmes-Lupin crossover was even more chaotic. The first American edition of Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar, translated by George Morehead and published by M.A. Donohue & Co. in 1910, restored Sherlock’s name, while the second Lupin book, also translated by George Morehead, also published by M.A. Donohue & Co. in 1910, was titled Arsène Lupin Versus Herlock Sholmes. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Alexander Teixeira de Mattos published his own translation the same year, Arsène Lupin Versus Holmlock Shears, which got an American edition from Doubleday, still featuring “Holmlock Shears,” under the title The Blonde Lady. These days, you can buy a modern translation by David Carter called Arsène Lupin vs. Sherlock Holmes, although Holmes’ name is still “Herlock Sholmes” within the text. It’s a mess!

So will Lupin’s next season see the gentleman burglar cross paths with Sherlock Holmes? There’s no reason he couldn’t: Both characters are now firmly in the public domain. If Netflix wants to stay close to the source material, however, there’s only one thing to do: Cast a cut-rate Benedict Cumberbatch imitator, and finally update the beloved character of Herlock Sholmès for the 21st century.

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