Stanislas-André Steeman (1908 – 1970)

steeman_bioStanislas-André Steeman, who was born in Liège on 23 January 1908, was a French-speaking Belgian writer and illustrator. Few crime novel authors can pride themselves on seeing a dozen of their books turned into films. Henri-Georges Clouzot was the person who most successfully adapted his books, with “Le dernier des six (The Last One of the Six)” (adapted from Six hommes morts, (Six Dead Men) (1931), L’assassin habite au 21, (The Murderer Lives at Number 21) (1939) and Quai des orfèvres (Quay of the Goldsmiths) (based on the book Légitime défense, (Legitimate Defense) (1942).

Between 1928 and 1933, Steeman worked as a journalist for the daily newspaper La Nation Belge. Together with Sintair, a pseudonym for Herman Sartini, a colleague from the newspaper, he wrote a pastiche of a crime novel, Le Mystère du zoo d’Anvers (The Antwerp Zoo Mystery) (1928). They went on to write four more novels together, after which Sintair stopped writing while Steeman continued writing alone. In 1931, he was awarded the Prix du Roman d’Aventures (Adventure Novel Award) for Six Dead Men. This was the first novel to feature his hero, Wenceslas Vorobeïtchik, alias Monsieur Wens. The height of his career came in 1939 with the publication of The Murderer Lives at Number 21. It tells the story of a London serial killer whom the police cannot identify, although they suspect he is one of the lodgers at a family boarding house located at 21 Russell Square; unfortunately, each time a suspect is arrested a new crime is committed, sending the investigators back to square one. In the cinematic adaptation, the intrigue takes place in Paris, the boarding house is called Les Mimosas and located at 21 Avenue Junot in Montmartre and the protagonists have French names. In 1994, this novel was also turned into a cartoon, with a script by André-Paul Duchâteau and drawings by Xavier Musquera.

Adaptations of other works were released at the cinema in the 1950s and early 1960s, including Brelan d’as (Full House) by Henri Verneuil in 1952, which adapts part of the novel Six Dead Men, Dortoir des grandes (Inside a Girls’ Dormitory) by Henri Decoin, adapted from Dix-huit fantômes (Eighteen Ghosts) in 1953 and Que personne ne sorte (Nobody Leave) by Yvan Govar, adapted from Six Hommes à tuer (Six Men to Kill) in 1962. Three of the Liège novelist’s works have also been adapted for television: L’Ennemi sans Visage (The Faceless Enemy) by Teff Erhat, adapted from the novel of the same name, in 1970, Les Grands Détectives (The Great Detectives) by Jacques Nahum, adapted from Six Men to Kill, in 1975 and Le Charme brumeux du Crime (The Hazy Charm of the Crime) by Jacques Bourton, adapted from Le Trajet de la foudre (The Path of the Lightning), in 1994.

Incidentally, we should mention the fact that French critics nicknamed him the “Belgian Simenon”, forgetting that both authors came from the Fervent City – Liège.

Stanislas-André Steeman, who died in Menton on 15 December 1970 at the age of 62, was chosen as one of the One Hundred Walloons of the century by the Institut Jules Destrée in 1995. Furthermore, a centre in Chaudfontaine specialising in paraliterature has been named after him. (Source: Focus on Belgium)

Selected bibliography: Six hommes morts (1931), La Nuit du 12 au 13 (1931), Le Mannequin assassiné (1932), Les Atouts de Monsieur Wens (1932), L’Ennemi sans visage (1934), L’assassin habite au 21 (1939), Légitime Défense (1942), Crimes à vendre (1951), 18 Fantômes (1952), Six hommes à tuer (1956).

Stanislas-André Steeman was like Georges Simenon a French speaking Belgian born in Liège, who left school young and displayed a precocious talent for writing, working as a journalist before becoming renowned as a crime writer. However the similarities end there. Steeman’s novels place less emphasis on character and setting, and are more notable for their ingenuity. The puzzles are cleaver, and Steeman’s work displays a commitment to fair play, plotting in the Golden Age manner, and a willingness to experiment mirroring that of his contemporaries in the Detection Club. (Source: Martin Edwards, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, 2017).

Steeman, while not a household name like Simenon and often berated by fans of the latter, is a capital name in the history of French-speaking mystery fiction. He was one of the earliest writers to take the form seriously, both formally (he was a notorious perfectionist, and entirely re-wrote some of his early books as they didn’t please him anymore) and conceptually. He was also one of the few pre-war mystery writers to try and come to terms with the new paradigms that emerged after WWII, and managed to stay relevant without abdicating any of its individuality and principles. Finally, he was one of the greatest and most inventive plotters of all times, ranking with Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr for the period before the war and Margaret Millar or Fredric Brown for the period that followed. It is a shame that he remains so little-known in English-speaking countries where only two of his books were translated. (Xavier Lechard, At The Villa Rose)

Further reading:

Regrettably, the oeuvre of Stanislas-André Steeman is almost unknown to English speaking readers. Only a couple of his books had been translated into English, if my information is correct, and both are hard to find. I was fortunate to get hold today at a pretty decent price of the Spanish translation of one of his best books,  L’assassin habite au 21 (1939) translated by Susana Prieto Mori and published by Siruela, 2019 under the title El asesino vive en el 21.

9782253011026-001-TFrom Wikipedia: L’assassin habite au 21 (The Murderer Lives at Number 21) is a detective story by Stanislas-André Steeman, published in 1939. Three years after its publication it was turned into a film under the same title directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. The novel evokes a mysterious serial killer who terrorizes London and signs his crimes leaving a business card in the name of “Mr. Smith”. Commissioner Strickland, in charge of the case, conducts the investigation that quickly leads him to a boarding house at 21 Russell Square, where the culprit is believed to be hiding. He will not cease to unmask him among the residents, but each time one of the residents is arrested, a new murder is committed, thus returning the investigation back to square one.

Seven victims in two and a half months, seven shattered skulls. And the assassin signed all of his murders by leaving a card on the spot: his name is Smith … Smith … The London police are on the teeth, and the thousands of Smiths in the capital are going through difficult times. Until the day when a fortuitous track leads the Yard near Russel Square. This is where the assassin would live, on the 21st. But which of all the weirdos – stranger and more picturesque than each other – who populate the Victoria pension could well be Mr. Smith? A true police masterpiece, The assassin lives at 21 will inspire Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose film remains in all memories. (Source: Livre de Poche)

The Murderer Lives at Number 21 has been reviewed by Pietro De Palma at Death Can Read. El-asesino-vive-en-el-21-i1n18009346

Sinopsis: En el neblinoso Londres de los años treinta, un asesino en serie tiene aterrorizada a la capital. Tras matar a sus víctimas de un golpe en la cabeza, les roba y deja junto a ellas una nota con la más anodina de las firmas: «Mr. Smith». Cuando, tras el último ataque, un testigo ve al criminal entrar en una pensión del número 21 de Russel Square, Scotland Yard ;con el superintendente Strickland al frente del caso; pondrá bajo vigilancia a sus huéspedes: la viuda Hobson, dueña del establecimiento; el señor Collins, vendedor a domicilio de radios; el mayor Fairchild, retirado tras haber servido en las Colonias; la señorita Holland, amante de los gatos… Pero pese a haber estrechado tanto el cerco, descubrir entre todos la verdadera identidad de Mr. Smith no resultará sencillo en absoluto… El asesino vive en el 21; publicada originalmente en 1939 y llevada al cine tres años después por Henri-Georges Clouzot; es la obra maestra de su autor y una de las más brillantes aportaciones continentales a la novela detectivesca clásica.

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