Sunday, August 5, 2012


"'Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good. No unreasonable offer refused.' How would that strike you if you read it?"
"The Secret Adversary"

To be expected of the Kyoto University Mystery Club: people who arrive early for the end-of-semester party all head straight for the Book Off to browse/read until meeting time, discussions at the izakaya include topics like secret hallways and how the stairs are probably only able to hold a certain amount of weight so we can create an elimination-style detective story and the karaoke list being dominated by theme songs of Conan and Kindaichi Shounen.

L'Agence Barnett et Cie is a small private detective agency in Paris run by Jim Barnett. What makes this agency unique? It's free. No fees are charged for services rendered. At all. And that's not because Barnett is a bad detective: to the contrary, he is a very gifted private detective who seems almost able to perform miracles for his clients. His gift for detection is even recognized by inspector Béchoux, disciple of Ganimard, the legendary police detective of the Paris police force. Oh, and yes, Jim Barnett is nothing more than an alias of the famous thief Arsene Lupin. And you can bet that even though he doesn't charge anybody for his services, Lupin is sure to arrange things so he profits in one way or another...

L'Agence Barnett et Cie is a short story collection and readers familiar with Arsene Lupin will know what to expect: whereas the novel-length stories of Lupin tend to be swashbuckling adventures, the short stories tend to very entertaining orthodox detective stories. This collection is no exception and I had great fun reading the stories. In fact, I wasn't even planning to read any Japanese translated novels this week, but I had been wanting to read this collection for years and when I discovered this book among the shelves of the Mystery Club, I just had to read it immediately.

In Les gouttes qui tombent ("The Falling Drops"), Barnett is asked to help baroness Asserman in the matters of an inheritance. Her husband, the baron, had been ill and confined to his bed for a long time and with time, love between the two had disappeared. Wanting to punish the baroness for her lack of loyalty to him, the baron then made a curious will. His wife was to inherit an insanely expensive necklace when he were to die, while his other relatives were to inherit the rest of his possessions (the mansion, the rest of his fortune). The catch? The baroness discovers, after her husband's death, that the necklace is replaced for a fake and that she thus inherits nothing at all. But who could have made the switch of her necklace (which she had always hidden in her safe)?  The solution is a very obvious one because of the length of the story though: I love short stories, but if written badly, the right solution might be too easy to see because there are just too few story elements. Which doesn't mean the solution was disappointing though, as this was a truly cruel and horrifying trick to steal and get rid of the necklace! More easy on the heart is seeing how Barnett/Lupin arranges things so he benefits too!

Inspector Béchoux hopes Barnett will be able to solve a curious murder in La lettre d'amour du roi George ("The Love Letters of King George"). The murder on an old man seems to be commited by his three nephews, as they are the only ones to profit of his death and they were all on the scene of the crime, but they swear that they saw their uncle's friend at the house that day. However, the villagers all swear that they saw this friend at his own house, sitting in the living room smoking like he always does at the time of the murder. How could he have been in two places at the same time? The solution is one of those that seem a bit unrealistic, which can be attacked with a lot of 'but what if...''s, but it might actually work. In those times, in little villages.

La partie de baccara ("A Game of Baccara") is very easy to see through. I mean, there is not even something to see through. The murder of a man after a game of baccara really doesn't need the likes of Lupin to solve. The only fun part of the story? Barnett once again making a profit in a slightly illegal way.

L'homme aux dents d'or ("The Man With the Golden Teeth") is the one stole the religious treasures, the monk said to inspector Béchoux. So he found a suspicous man with golden teeth in the neighborhood. So everything is over? No. For the monk swears that the golden teeth were on the left side of his mouth, while the man arrested has them on the right side. Once again not that complex, while it does features a double-layered solution.

An investor is robbed of a bag full of stock certifcates in Les douze africaines de Béchoux ("The Twelve African Stock Certificates of Béchoux"). And yes, like the title suggest, the loot includes an investment of Béchoux himself (so now it's personal!). Thanks to the quick recovery of the robbery, the investor manages to arrange that nobody is able to leave the building until the arrival of the police. But even an extensive search of the police across all floors doesn't produce the documents, nor the thief. Where did they disappear to? Another impossible diappearance/extensive search story, but with a slightly disappointing solution because this is one of those times where I feel that that place was a place that should have been searched. On the other hand, Leblanc does make some truly hilarious (and probably true) observations about the habits of a particular professional occupation.

Le hasard fait des miracles ("Chance creates miracles") feels a bit like Au sommet de la tour from the Les Huit Coups de l'horloge Lupin collection, both about families of nobility with a muddy past and a mysterious death. Here the death of an impoverished young baron, who seems to have fallen to his death forms to be a problem. Was it just an accident? Like Au sommet de la tour, Barnett uncovers a very old plot and the truth behind the current death (which unfornately also depends on a very unbelievable bit of luck), but the best part is seeing Barnett being his old Lupin-y old self and dominating the last scene.

Gants blancs... guêtres blanches... ("White gloves, white spats") opens with the revelation that Béchoux was actually married. He divorced because his wife wanted to become a star, which she did. Now she wants Béchoux to find out who robbed of her apartment, attacked her mother and to recover the loot. Still in love with his wife, Béchoux is unable to refuse this request and even though he knows that Barnett is not to be trusted (as he always ends up profiting one way or another), he also knows that only Barnett is able to solve the problem of how the robbers were able to get into the building unobserved. A variation on a classic trick, which sadly enough becomes clear immediately the moment the hints to it are introduced in the story.

After the events of the last story, Béchoux hopes to finally arrest Barnett for his unortodox way of running a detective agency that 'doesn't charge a fee' in Béchoux arrête Jim Barnett (Béchoux arrests Jim Barnett"). Barnett seems to be connected with the case of the murder on a housewife and the consequent disappearance of a photo that could make or break the case against the main suspect. Not a very interesting story actually, as the solution to where the photos are hidden is almost too absurd.

There is quite an emphasis on the great search trope / hidden objects trope in the stories collected here, which has always been a big Lupin thing, I guess. Most of the solutions aren't that surprising though and I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed here.You'd think with all these comments that I didn't like this collection, but that's not true actually. I had quite some fun with the book and that was really because these stories are two-layered. At one hand, we have the main story of seeing how Barnett solves the cases. But on the other hand, we also have to consider how Lupin is going to make a profit out of this case. And that is really the main attraction for me of L'Agence Barnett et Cie: seeing how Lupin acts as a great detective and all, while still being his sly thief-self and arranging everything that he profits one way or another.

Reading this in Japanese was interesting though. I had only read Minami Youichirou's adaptations of Lupin until now, which were highly re-written and simplified (in fact, La Demeure mystérieuse is a sort-a sequel to L'Agence Barnett et Cie also featuring Béchoux). This was an actual translation, which gave another flavor to the text. The Minami 'translations' can definitely be critized for being very disloyal to the original text (in terms of word-to-word translations), but they read more easily as actual Japanese text. I've been reading quite some Japanese translations lately (why?!!!) and I do find the difference in ways of expression across the languages very remarkable. It is instantly clear whether you are reading an actual Japanese text or a translation. Which makes sense, I guess, but I do see why one would like to read Minami's translations.

Next up: a non-translation. I hope.

Japanese title(s): 『バーネット探偵社』 「したたる水滴」 「ジョージ王の恋文」 「バカラの勝負」 「金歯の男」 「べシューの十二枚のアフリカ株券」 「白手袋・・・白いゲートル」 「べシュー、バーネットを逮捕す」

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