Before Arsène Lupin was the inspiration for an out-of-nowhere Netflix smash hit, projected to be watched by 70 million subscribers, the character was a French literary legend, a gentleman thief with the moral code of Robin Hood, the wits of Sherlock Holmes, and the anti-aristocratic instincts of Robespierre. In the 1906 story “The Queen’s Necklace,” one of Maurice Leblanc’s first outings for the character, his origins are explained: Lupin’s first robbery was staged when he was 6 years old, after witnessing his mother, an impoverished gentlewoman, being ill-treated by her monied employer. The necklace the child managed to pinch also features in the first episode of Lupin, in which a janitor working at the Louvre stages a dazzling heist inspired by his fictional hero. Both crimes are audacious, seemingly impossible, and conducted with a strong amount of swagger: Lupin might be a master of disguise, but he’s also a peacock who learns to play on his notoriety as often as he makes himself invisible.
As adaptations go, Lupin is close to perfect. Rather than directly translate the character to television, the writer George Kay imagines Lupin as the inspiration for a 21st-century con artist named Assane (played by Omar Sy), whose history mirrors Lupin’s and whose balancing act as a moralistic thief is given extra depth by his race. At the Louvre, dressed in a formless jumpsuit and clutching a box of cleaning products, Assane blends in among the other janitors—people of color like himself—vacuuming carpets and taking out the trash. But in the same scene, when he shifts into his next character, an entrepreneur attending an auction, Assane saunters into the museum resplendent in a purple suit, smiling broadly and nodding hello to all the wealthy white patrons around him. The con relies on his conspicuousness in some circles as much as it does on his ability to be unseen.