Friday, November 16, 2012

Stanislas-André Steeman : L’Assassin habite au 21, 1939



L’Assassin habite au 21 is the best-known and most famous novel by Stanislas-André Steeman, from which was made into a famous film (albeit with several distortions of the original story).
Steeman instead of setting the story in France, inserted it in a typically London. Why? The change in perspective, it was necessary because he probably wanted to set the novel in foggy nights. A typically British, and English characters, would have been preferable. Here is the Superintendent Strickland, here is a series of Inspectors, here is a series of tenants, including the "big" small Crabtree and then the mysterious Mr. Smith , the murderer elusive. But when Henri Clouzot shot the film based on this novel, changed several details of the original story, adapting to the Parisian reality. The transformation was probably induced by the purposes for which those realized Clouzot film (produced by a company financed by German capital during the Petain government and then during the occupation of France in the Second World War): to create quality films that did not regret American productions (of enemies). The setting of the film in 1942, L’Assassin habite au 21, based on the novel of the same name in Paris instead of London, then had the function to deny validity to a setting in an enemy city, transforming other characters in french: for example, Superintendent Strickland was replaced by Mr. Wens, and the address was turned from "Russell Square 21" to "21 Avenue Junot" (in the 18th arrondissement of Paris).
Were also made other changes to the original plot: for example was created a love story that is not in the original novel, introducing Mila Malou, singer friend of Commissioner Wens, and the name of the murderer, curiously by Mr. Smith, was changed in Mr. Brown. For all these reasons, during the filming, the relationship between Steeman and Clouzot were not idyllic.
I believe that in the end, however, Steeman was "also" fascinated by the stories of Sherlock Holmes, and those of Jack the Ripper, and that he wanted to build a story, different from other originals that had already created: a story based on the serial killers.
In fact, a plot that reveals a similar psychopathological articulation, he had already been highlighted in his previous novel, one of the first of his production, Le demon de Saint-Croix, which Steeman had approached by Simenon, borrowing a more singular, getting a first shock from the audience, and focusing the actions of the police on the exploits of a serial killer. However, if by Le demon de Saint-Croix inaugurated the genre talking about a series of murders seemingly disconnected and then it turned out to be joined by a special truly amazing, but in which the search for the culprit was kind of already experienced in other novels, now Steeman spoke for the first time offenses (because also connected to a particular), in which not only the motives but also the alibi played a leading part, crossing and postulating a tripling of the murderer, one and three.
Mr. Smith is a killer who kills his victims, when the salt fog in London. Kills his victims by hitting them with a bag of sand, and fracturing their skulls. Kills three so. The police, then, is organized and takes a series of measures to replenish the ranks and patrol the streets better, even more so when the salt fog. So for 34 days, the killer does not show up. Until one day, in fact, one night, killing a woman. Close by is a police informer, Toby Marsh, who understand that it would be unwise to go to Scotland Yard and report the murderess because then, the newspapers reported the news, he would now "a walking corpse," is arrested by a policeman for insults and injuries to a public official, and so is free to be able to deal with a representative of Scotland Yard. What? Want some serious money in exchange for a story that addresses the investigation as promised by the police. Cornered, reveals that the killer has collected his keys from the floor, and headed to the # 21, in a boarding house in Russell Square: if the murderess has the key, it follows that he is one of several boarders.
Investigating officer is the Superintendent Strickland, a phlegmatic character, but so phlegmatic that even the birth of the twins triple of his wife, he did deviate from its very slow conduct of life. His coolness, which some might mistake for reflection very very thoughtful, not really will have effects worth mentioning. So that the solution will come not so much to the merits of the police and its officials most qualified, but by the insight of a modest, shy, little man, Ernest Crabtree, who like his wife, Enid, is one of the tenants of a pension family in Russell Square 21. He will discover that there is not a murderer, but several murderers who kill in the same manner, defending each other's backs, with cross alibi.
In essence, the unique solution Steeman is remade to that anticipated by Agatha Christie in her Murder on The Orient Express, 1934. As well as And Then There Were None by Christie, was rebuilt on the novel by Steeman, 1931, Six Hommes Morts.
However, while Agatha Christie, had created a plot in which the death of a certain person was the background to the story, and then the crime was premeditated extensively and in which the main part, the investigator, had been entrusted to the great Poirot , Steeman entrusted strangely not the main actor Inspector Wenceslas Vorobechik (called Wens, for short), his main character, who starred in many of his novels lucky, but apparently the Superintendent Strickland, while essentially elected hero and solver the mystery, Mr. Ernest Crabtree, a little man, shy, reserved, tenant of the same board with his wife.
Steeman he enjoyed a lot writing this novel: it is a creeping satirical anti-English, French chauvinism opposite British pride, for example when making fun of the British police, who, though not the best in the world, is nevertheless the most tenacious and yet fails to catch the murderess (assassins) until a very modest character, at the cost of his life, does not indicate who stop.
But mind you: it was not "just" a mockery of the British police, but it was a mockery of the Anglo-Saxon thriller.
First extolling the French language: Monsieur Julie, just come to the board, was killed, the police manning the board, because they are able, as a Frenchman, indicate the murderess with a message, consisting of a series of scratches. The message was apparently left by Monsieur Julie, the sacrificial victim, and then with the message history, Steeman teases Ellery Queen, which had led to the so-called formal perfection “Dying Message”, the clue key on which to direct the investigation, which leaves the victim before he died. In fact, the message is false: it was done on purpose to mislead the investigation.
And the joke of Ellery Queen does not end here. It continues with The Challenge to Reader,  which Ellery Queen had given in the novels of his first cycle, characterized by the formula “The + a national adjective + mystery + noun” (for example, The Greek Coffin Mystery).
" Ellery Queen, Hugh Austin and several other American crime writers used to engage the reader with a kind of intellectual duel ... inviting him to discover for himself the solution of the issues raised in the novel. Exceptionally, it seemed to me fun to use this idea in my own way, and that is why I open a brief parenthesis to tell you: You are now in possession of all the necessary elements for the discovery of truth ... "
The teasing turned to Ellery Queen, the prince of classic detection of the '30s, in the practice of what he considered his opponent overseas,  Steeman added those to Agatha Christie and Van Dine, condensed into a memorable (and very sharp) paragraph, the paragraph of the Bridge: Crabtree comes to the identification of Mr. Smith (as in The Canary Murder Case, Philo Vance had identified the killer after a poker game) through a bridge game. Yet the same bridge game, and the insistence on this game, it is an implicit taken for a ride by Agatha Christie, who had, at 1936, baked Cards on the Table,  a novel at which a game bridge is functional to the crime.
The acuteness of the assumption of Steeman, is introduced by a second "Challenge to the Reader", titled: THE READER THAT KNEW NOT GUILTY AGAIN, at which is summarized clearly thinking not only by  Steeman but by anyone including (then) and include (today) so much useless for a story was (then) and is (now) a paragraph that discusses the techniques of a game, which should not necessarily be known the bridge by the reader who is about to read the novel:
"It is not necessary to know the bridge to draw conclusions from the previous chapter".
The acuteness of the assumption of Steeman, which is mine and by anyone else who has ever read a novel, putting themselves in a position strictly impartial, lies in having in place a true accusation to the novel-style Anglo-Saxon that was too open to upper classes. Who ever in fact, extraction petty bourgeois or working would never know (and probably still do not know) to play Bridge?
The novel by Steeman, turned instead to a more diverse audience, using the game of bridge with a purpose that only appears to be functional to the story, but from which, however, keeps his distance.
An anecdote about to end.
The number 21 (assigned to the board in Russell Square), was also the authentic house number by Steeman.

Pietro De Palma

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