L’Ennemi sans visage, 1934


The novel by Steeman tells about automata. Why Steeman did think about this plot for a crime you didn’t know. But it is not so odd to remember that at that time abounded literary stimuli and films, concerning the animation of inanimate subjects, complex surgery, people who perhaps had more to do with the horror with yellow. But so much so that Steeman wanted to give his personal contribution: and what contribution!
So to animated automaton by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis due to an exchange of vital energy and transfer of the soul;  to the Golem, inanimate mud, which comes to life because of a sign that is placed on his forehead; to intervention on Siamese Twins that Ellery Queen ago groped to Dr. Xavier; to the creature that has life force again by Dr. Frankenstein, who in 1931 returned to be popular by virtue of a successful film adaptation, directed by James Whale, with Boris Karloff, still considered one of the most important films of the genre, it also added the contribution by Steeman.
Stanislas Ansré Steeman, when he wrote in 1934, L’ Ennemi sans visage (alsore-published as M. Wens et L’automate, in 1943), however, was already a name in the panorama of Polar.

Born in Liège in 1908, Belgian as Simenon, before turning to crime fiction, was essentially dedicated to comics, and as a journalist from 1928 to 1933 for La Nation Belge. It was his journalistic activity to promote his inclination definitive writer of detective novels: in fact, along with another journalist under the same head he worked for, Herman Santini (aka Sintair), he wrote his first five novels, then publish novels each their own. However, even he collaborated with his friend, in 1930 he began writing alone, publishing three novels: Peril, Le doigt volé, and reaching fame with Six hommes morts, who had won the “Grand Prix du Roman d’Aventures” , in 1931. In the novel, the character was introduced thicker, Vorobeitchik Wenceslas as Monsieur Wens.
Steeman was known for his loyalty to the styles and rules of the police. In fact most of his first production adheres faithfully to the canons of the orthodox crime literature. But his genius could not be stifled. And so the novels are each marked differently: there is a thriller, parody, the psychological novel, the mystery. The story, to see well, is not interesting, if you see it under the eye of originality.  The work by Steeman is more properly an experimentation, a fusion of genres: fantasy and crime fiction .
This can be seen as the very first attempt, even if not perfectly successful: instead we succeed with results imaginative Carr with The Bourning Court. But Carr is Carr, and Steeman is Steeman. Without detracting from the Belgian oestrus.
In appreciation of the past, Steeman intersects his action with that by Mary Shelley, with that by Gaston Leroux, and also with Fritz Lang
Jund is a man who expects nothing from life. He was sentenced to death and he waits for the dawn fatal, in a state of sheer terror.
The beginning of the novel gives us a picture of this man, this criminal, who is afraid that someone will look out the door of his cell because this could mean his death.

“La porte de la cellule s’ouvrit en grinéant et un trait de lumiére courut obliquement sur le sol jusqu’au mur du fond.

– Jund! 

Le condamné à mort, émergeant du sommeil, poussa un sourd gémissement. 

– Jund! redit Clark, le gardien-chef de l’aile ouest, se penchant et le secouant par l’épaule. 

A l’instant l’homme, comme touché par une décharge électrique, se réfugia dans l’angle de la muraille, les traits convulsés par la terreur. 

– Qu’est-ce que … ? Quel jour sommes-nous ? questionna-t-il d’une voix rauque. 

– Jeudi. 

Jeudi ! répéta le condamné”.

In a few lines, Steeman outlines the figure of a man sentenced to death, which is not to die: I emphasize the strength of the phrase with the analogy that contains. It well represents the incisiveness of psychological by Steeman: “A l’instant l’homme, comme touché par une décharge électrique, se réfugia dans l’angle de la muraille, les traits convulsés par la terreur” (translation: “At the moment the man as affected by electric shock, he tooks refuge in the corner of the wall, the features convulsed by terror”).

I thought a thing  while I was posting this article : Headed for a Hearse (1935) by Jonathan Latimer, begins with a man locked in a cell on death row. And Latimer’s novel was published a year later to Steeman. May have used the opening scene of the novel by Steeman reprocessing it for his part, Jonathan Latimer skillful re-user to the things of others? Tuesday is the day of the execution, but also the day of salvation for Clarence Jund. But at what price? To save his life, Jund must agree to undergo an experiment: his vital energy, his mind, his brain will be replanted in an automaton. An automaton, not a collage of pieces of bodies such as Shelley’s Frankenstein, but even here the electricity plays a fundamental role, and Fritz Lang, peeps, in an authoritarian manner. The transfer of life energy, soul, does not take place in Metropolis, his film of 1921? In some ways we Metropolis seems much closer to the novel by Steeman, that‘s Frankenstein by Whaley of 1931!

The fact is that the player for the first time perhaps in the literature of the genre, feels pity for a criminal like Jund, condemned to a cruel death: to live as a larva can do that, deprived of his vital energy, his passions and fears, of his mind.
Before he dies, however, another reference to the past will dawn: Jund tried to escape, a desperate escape, because his supervisor is  Ramshaw, who arrested him and to which was ordered to kill him if he tried to escape. And while they fight, break into a dark room. When the room lit, it reveals full of robots, including the famous Chess-Player, which also talks about Edgar Allan Poe, the automaton Maelzel.
Who are the main characters by this drama? Professor Arthus (a scientist a little crazy), his two sons (Max and Tiburzio), Michele Patiny visitor to the residence of Arthus, Clarence Jund (the prisoner) Ramshaw (the cop), Monsieur Wens (private investigator ). Why .. drama? Because soon, events start to dye red.
The night Arthus must perform the experiment of transfer of the brain, in his laboratory : you can hear noises of struggle, broken furniture and then a gunshot. The door is locked from the inside. When you break down the door, you found dead the professor, murdered with a gun, and only two bodies on the two operating tables: Jund and automaton, ready for the operation. In fact, to tell the truth, the operation must be started already when the murderer killed the scientist, since he has begun to affect the skin of the skull of Jund (who is asleep) and try a bowl full of blood. So none of the two (the inanimate automaton and Jund) may have taken part in the murder. Still .. can not find anyone in the lab. In fact, when they return to the lab, the automaton has gone. On the other hand, by the time he shows up several times in various places of the house, in spite of stalking. Does he use inputs secrets?
Here is another presence of the illuminated literature at french novel by Steeman: Gaston Leroux. Not one of his novels with Rouletabille, but the universally known, Le Fantôme de l’Opéra. Who has read it, he knows as the Phantom will be able to appear and disappear within the Paris Opera House. Well, the black man by Steeman, appears and disappears in the same way, and as the Phantom, he is masked.
I will not say more. Who had the good fortune to read this Steeman vintage, so could groped to enjoy them.
However, I want to make a consideration on the Locked Room, considered by Roland Lacourbe as one of the top 99 locked rooms in all: in my opinion, Steeman tried a fusion of two of the three temporal ways of implementing a Locked Room, then expressed by Carr: “before”, “during” and “after”. In practice, he tried the fusion between “before” and “during”. Into which manner? That is the point.
If the death of the professor had been implemented prior to the noise coming from inside the room, you would have to force to find something that had produced those ruins. But do not find anything, or anyone, outside of two bodies: one waiting to be animated and equipped with a human brain, and the other waiting to provide the brain, but completely under narcosis and in such a state ( also determined by Wens) of prostration, as to be close to death, which would have been impossible to kill the professor. And if the death of the professor had been implemented after the noise, one should consider the possibility that the same teacher had committed suicide. But why he would do all that mess inside his lab? Just as he was about to complete his business?
No. The professor was killed. But by whom? The automaton, a being hidden?
The solution is as simple at the same time mesmerizing.
In my opinion, Edward D. Hoch could have read the novel Steeman, before writing his The Frankenstein Factory (1975). I wrote on Mondadori blog:
.. Even Hoch have known Steeman: here the creature has a perfect body, even out here, here is attributed to the atmosphere of blood, even here at the end will be unrelated to crime.”
I now add one more thing that I had not thought of, and that is substantial: in both cases, the automaton would have to have the mind of a criminal. But that has nothing to do.
Clarence Jund will not live as larvae for the rest of his days, but will return to prison in Louisville, and here will be led to the electric chair. But he will die?
Steeman stores for us in the last lines, a promise of salvation, by the only person who Jund would never have thought he was her savior. As if to say that “hope is the last to die.”

Pietro De Palma

Un pensiero su “L’Ennemi sans visage, 1934

  1. Pingback: Nautical naughtiness – Classic crime in the blogosphere, January 2014 | Past Offences


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