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l'assassin habite au 21

22 february 2021

French-language murder mysteries tend not to be "cozies." They can be psychologically elaborate, they can defy police procedure, they can be floridly intense, they can be volcanic, sardonic, or laconic, but they rarely assemble a group of stock characters in one place and challenge the reader to guess who's the fiend.

So when Belgian writer S.A. Steeman wanted to write a cozy that (being Francophone) wraps self-consciously back onto its own cozy conventions, he naturally set L'assassin habite au 21 in London. As you read this novel, with its echoes of Jekyll & Hyde, "Jack l'Éventreur," and The Lodger, where the characters themselves know that the prime suspect is "rarement le coupable" (80), you walk through the foggy streets alone, and the British Museum has definitely lost its charm – especially after a visiting French scholar leaves the reading room, returns to his lodging house, and is swiftly stabbed to death.

The serial killer, Mr. Smith as the calling cards he leaves under corpses proclaim him, lives at 21, Russell Square, and despite knowing his address – despite Mr. Smith calling the newspapers and informing them that he lives there – Scotland Yard is helpless to ascertain his identity. No. 21 is a boarding house, run by the kindly, lovelorn Mrs. Hobson, and no fewer than six men live in the building, not counting the stabbee. (Some women live there too, but they are never suspected, partly because it's 1939 but partly because Mr. Smith does phone up and speak for himself in a male voice).

One of the novel's few flaws is that there is no central detective to follow. Though maybe that flaw is necessary to keep the suspense going. If Hercule Poirot were to show up at No. 21, he would provide the solution within minutes; in part the failures by the many inspectors of Scotland Yard are an example of the "none of us is as dumb as all of us" principle. The hive mind makes assumptions that seem to rule out any progress on the case; none of the residents fits the profile. This is not highly realistic, but of course you don't expect it to be; in a figurative way the workings of L'assassin habite au 21 show insight into institutional thinking, or the lack thereof.

Steeman, invoking Ellery Queen and Hugh Austin, includes an explicit challenge to the reader once all the facts are assembled. I am delighted to say that I met the challenge (something I never remember doing with Ellery Queen) and solved the mystery before the cops did. In fact the cops don't solve the case (naturally): a potential victim does, in the nick of time. But you will get no spoiler from me as to who or how.

Steeman, S.A. L'assassin habite au 21. 1939. Paris: Éditions du Masque [Lattès], 2006.