The Three Jewish Horsemen (2005)
by Vivianne Etrivert
from Tales of the Shadowmen 1: The Modern Babylon, 2005
A stylistic change, a breath of fresh air, a nice little story!
The Tales of the Shadowmen collections, of which there are sixteen so far, are volumes of short stories and pastiches regarding the characters and stories of French pulp fiction. The Lofficiers, aficionados of the genre, include an entertaining little foreword in this volume regarding their interest in undertaking the project, primarily motivated by the fact that American pulp heroes tend to live on but that the French have been somewhat left by the wayside in recent decades.
The foreword was of particular interest to me because it kicked off with a discussion of J-M's childhood fascination with/terror of Belphégor, the Phantom of the Louvre, which is a character who I have often pondered including in this project. To date I haven't; it looks like the two stories very well could be related, what with the phantom in a mask and the haunting and the general themes, but then again there are many marked differences and they could also be unrelated stories that just happen to share a few key elements. I waffle on and on about possibly including the Belphegor films, to the point where no one wants to listen to me talk about it in my home anymore.
Etrivert's short story is not actually focused on the Phantom; rather, its main character is Arsène Lupin, a French character on par with Sherlock Holmes for enduring popularity and entertainment in French-speaking countries (though not on par with Holmes in terms of morals, since Sherlock is in the business of solving crimes and Lupin is in the business of committing them). He's an interesting choice to place in contrast to the Phantom, as they share a lot of similar elements - a "gentlemanly" comportment despite being born in disadvantaged circumstances, a habit of stealing from and confounding those in authority, and a desire to avenge themselves on a society that has treated them poorly. Lupin himself is almost always a delight to read about in the hands of a skilled author; who can resist his combination of wit, charm, and ridiculousness? I certainly can't, so even though the Phantom isn't the focal point of this story, I definitely wasn't bored.
In the story, the Countess of Cagliostro (a longtime old flame and nemesis of Lupin's) has teamed up with a few other unsavories in the pursuit of her latest treasure (which, naturally, Lupin himself is also interested in). One of said unsavories is a haughty figure in a black mask who spends most of his time hiding in the shadows and lurking in the catacombs beneath a destroyed cathedral; it is, in fact, Erik, and while why he’s helping the Countess out doesn't seem particularly clear, he is nevertheless faithfully and intriguingly drawn, as horrifying and piteous as Leroux's own original. There are hints and whispers of his reformation at the end of Leroux's novel, not least of which is the fact that he's playing somewhat nicely with others and even allows enemies in his power to live later on in the story. Again, what he's doing running around stealing artifacts is anyone's guess, but at least he's doing it with his usual gloomy panache.
Etrivert delights in playing with her readers a bit when Lupin himself arrives; Lupin's middle name is traditionally Raoul, and his current guise is as the Vicomte Raoul de Cherisy, a name which of course references Raoul de Chagny and the events of Leroux's novel. While this is quite definitely Lupin and no sweet, naive young nobleman, the veiled implication for the first half of the story that Leroux's Raoul and Lupin might be one and the same is a fun idea, even if it doesn't work in a lot of dimensions (which Etrivert herself recognizes, as after she's had her fun she reveals that Lupin has never seen anything like the Phantom before).
The plot is nothing new in the annals of Lupin pastiche (or even pastiche in general); Lupin and the Countess both find out about the Black Madonna and the treasure she guards and everyone runs off into the catacombs looking for it, evading one anothers' attacks and the cleverly hidden traps which abound as they do so. Unsurprisingly for those familiar with the Phantom's story, Lupin finds himself conked over the head within seconds of wandering into the dark catacombs and has the opportunity to escape daringly to achieve his goal.
There isn't a lot more to it than that, aside from a poignant and interesting scene at the end. Lupin sees a sudden vision of Erik playing his organ, sobbing as a beautiful blonde woman - Christine, naturally - sings enchantingly beside him. This vision proves to be only a mirage when he attempts to touch it, and Lupin realizes that Erik must have a version of Orfanik's machine (Orfanik being the mad scientist who invented holographic images in Jules Verne's Carpathian Castle) with which to preserve memories - or perhaps create scenes that never even happened. While we do not see Erik himself again, Lupin is profoundly touched by the realization that the Phantom carries the image of himself and Christine with him forever, a tragic reminder of what he has lost. It's interesting to ponder whether or not the Phantom feels the same way; he certainly might watch the image in morose sadness for what once was, as Lupin assumes, but after his final redemption and sublime happiness at Christine's acceptance at the end of Leroux's novel he might also use it as a source of comfort and a reminder of the person who saw good even in him.
Of course, Lupin completes his theft, everybody runs away, and things finish up in their usual quick and dirty pulp fiction way. Erik, it is implied, may remain forever to haunt the bone-filled catacombs beneath the ruined cathedral, a nicely poetic image though a bit of an odd one considering the end of Leroux's novel. The idea of him living in a different underground tomb is a little strange, as opposed to him remaining in the one that had been his home and was the site of his few moments of happiness, especially since he's supposed to turn up as a dead skeleton there by the end of Leroux's book. Then again, Leroux did like to imply that Erik actually had access to a wide range of places in and around Paris, so maybe these catacombs are simply connected to the opera’s sub-basements somehow.
In the end, there really isn't a lot going on here; it's rushed, simplistic, and general, which is absolutely fine. It's plain and simple pastiche, fun to read and light on the mind, and if it doesn't do anything particularly daring it also doesn't commit any sins and it keeps its characterizations faithful and even poignant at the end.