The story in question is "Le coffre-fort de madame Imbert" or in English "Madame Imbert's Safe". The passage reads, in the translation I've got:

For six months, I have worked on this affair, investigated it, studied it, questioned the servants, the money-lenders and men of straw; for six months, I have shadowed the husband and wife.

the original sentence in French:

Il y a six mois que je poursuis l'affaire, six mois que je me renseigne, que j'étudie, que je tends mes filets, que j'interroge les domestiques, les prêteurs et les hommes de paille, six mois que je vis dans l'ombre du mari et de la femme.

  • 3
    Is "men of straw" (instead of "straw men") an automatic translation?
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 31, 2022 at 12:33
  • 1
    It's from the translation that's on Project Gutenberg, so I don't think so.
    – pathOS
    Dec 31, 2022 at 20:27

2 Answers 2


It is worth looking at the context: Arsène Lupin's accomplice has just mentioned the rumours about Imbert's fortune, which Lupin countered by saying that that fortune is very real ("Que la fortune provienne du vieux Brawford, comme ils le prétendent, ou d’une autre source, j’affirme qu’elle existe.": "Whether it comes from the old Brawford, as some claim, or from another source, it definitely exists").

In addition, Lupin talks of "les prêteurs et les hommes de paille", i.e. the money lenders and the straw men. This suggests that hommes de paille refers to persons that Imbert uses to sign documents on his behalf (see also straw man on Wikipedia), so outsiders don't know he is behind certain transactions.

The accusations of swindling or fraud published in certain newspapers (and the end of the story) confirm the impression that the Imberts were involved in obscure dealings.

  • 1
    The phrase "straw purchase" refers to the same sort of dealings, and it may be more familiar to an English-speaking reader. Jan 2, 2023 at 13:34

Googling, it looked to me like the current usage in French of homme de paille is essentially the same as the English straw men. So I used Google books to search for 19th century uses. It turns out that homme de paille has two definitions in Le Grand Dictionnaire Universel:

Homme de paille:

  • Homme sans valeur ou sans caractère : Ne compte pas sur lui, c'est un homme de paille.
  • Prète-nom: homme que l'on met en avant, bien que l'affaire mise sous son nom se fasse en réalité pour le compte d'autrui. Le gérant du journal est un homme de paille, surtout quand les articles ne sont pas signés.

Translated to English:

  • Man without worth or without character: Don't count on him, he's just a straw man.

  • Lend-name: man whom one puts at the front, even though the affairs put under his name are actually done on the behalf of somebody else. The manager of the newspaper is a straw man, especially when the articles are not signed.

It seems clear that the second definition is the relevant one; in English, the term might be front man, and not straw man.

ADDED: It turns out I didn't have to look in 19th century dictionaries; this meaning is still current, and I could have found it if I'd just looked in the correct current dictionary.

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