Countdown to New Year’s Eve 4- The Murderer Lives at Number 21

With 10 days to go until the release of New Year’s Eve, I decided to post every day about an influence on the novel.

Belgium culture is not something that gets a lot of exposure in England. Tintin, and the odd exhibition on the surrealists, is perhaps still appreciated. But apart from that, the work of Belgians is mostly overlooked.

Not that it’s personal; Britain isn’t particularly good at appreciating and marketing translated work. But as a Belgian, I find the lack of engagement with some of my favourite writers from the country– particularly graphic novel artists, which we excel in– a particular shame. 

And it’s even more egregious given that it doesn’t work both ways. Belgians have always been enthusiastic about British culture; indeed, there have always been many anglophiles there.

And on the basis of L’Assassin Habite au 21 (The Murderer Lives at Number 21), I can confidently state that author Stanislas-Andre Steeman was one of them.

Published in 1939, Steeman was inspired by both the story of Jack the Ripper and the greats of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction to set his whodunnit in pea-soup london. And, for his take on the genre on the murder-mystery, he came up with an absolute doozy.

L'Assassin Habite Au 21 - Fac-Similé Édition Prestige (Masque Christie)  (Masque Poche): Steeman, Stanislas-André: 9782702449110: Books

A murderer is plaguing the city of London; an indiscriminate serial killer who leaves a calling card beside every victim. Luckily, Inspector Wens is able to track the killer to a particular location. The only problem is that the location is a boarding house- the titular Number 21.

And he has no idea which tenant is guilty.

This is the kind of ludic, playful murder mystery which can be read on one (preferably rainy) afternoon. There’s a gallery of colourful characters who serve as the suspects, and most of the novel takes place within the confines of the seedy boarding house. The solution is, delightfully, as ingenious as the set-up, avoiding the disappointment of many a murder mystery.

I took delight in inspiring myself from the novel. As with L’assassin, there is a limited set of suspects, all of whom live in one building. With those similar ingredients, I tried to plot a narrative that was just as fun and readable, with enough twists and turns to constantly shift the suspicions of the reader. In the classic age of murder mysteries, the reader is invited to be a detective as much as the main character– and I wanted to extend the same invitation in my book too.

Unfortunately, there is nothing that matches the charm of a section of L’Assassin Habite au 21 where Steeman breaks the fourth wall in order to assure the reader that all the clues are there for them to guess the solution if they’ve been ‘good detectives.’

Modern publishing tastes dictate that I couldn’t get away with a section like that in New Year’s Eve.

But I hope that the intention remains.

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