It's hard not to think of his fellow-compatriot Georges Simenon when considering Steeman's trajectory. Both were French-speaking Belgians ("Wallons") hailing from Liège, stopped their studies early and dabbled into journalism. Both were precocious writers and gained celebrity thanks to their mystery novels. What sets them apart, however, is that Simenon mostly saw the mystery genre as a vehicle - and a convenient, if sometimes boring, way to make a living - whereas Steeman always regarded himself as a mystery writer first and foremost, one fully at home in the genre and its conventions - while never afraid to subvert them. Most of all, Steeman had an almost carrian devotion to fair-play which he always kept even though he distanced himself from the formal detective story in his later years.
Steeman, as said above, was a precocious fellow - he created his first comics (Steeman was as gifted with a pencil as he was with a pen) at age six. He later branched into poetry and wrote several "histoires légères" for Parisian specialized magazines whose editors were unaware of their prolific collaborator's tender age. Then he joined the staff of the "Nation Belge" where he befriended journalist Herman Sartini, a.k.a. Sintair. Together they wrote what they intended to be a parody of the roman-problème so popular back then, and sent it to the French publisher Le Masque as a joke. To their great bewilderment, it was accepted and Le mystère du zoo d'Anvers (The Anvers Zoo Mystery) was published in 1928. It was followed by Le treizième coup de Minuit (The Thirteenth of Midnight), Le maître de trois vies (The Master of Three Lives), Le diable au collège (Devil at High School) and Le guet-apens (The Trap). Sintair, however, never intended to become a full-time writer and their collaboration ended; Steeman was now on his own.
His first three solo detective novels were experimental works at the fringe of the genre as commonly known then: one of these, Zero, introduced Inspector Aimé Malaise who can be described as Steeman's own Maigret. He struck gold with the comparatively more orthodox Six Dead Men, which earned him the Grand Prix du Roman d'Aventures in 1931, and definetely established him as a major mystery writer at only 23. The book marks the first appearance of Steeman's favorite detective, urban and witty Wenceslas Vorobeitchik, and sets the tone of his later production: extremely clever, ironic, respectful of the rules while at the same time gently poking fun at them.
Steeman followed with another Wens mystery, La Nuit du 12 au 13 then surprised everyone with an atmospheric novel in the Simenon vein, Le démon de Sainte-Croix, manifesting that he was not one to be bound by categorizations. Steeman's output in the thirties, while not as prolific as his fellow-compatriot's, is extremely varied in tone, genre and style. "Traditional" mysteries featuring Mr. Wens alternate with thrillers (Le lévrier bleu*), fantasies (Feu Lady Anne**) parodies (L'Infaillible Silas Lord***) and more psychological works like Le mannequin assassiné**** (Malaise again) or La maison des veilles *****. Even in his comparatively more orthodox work, Steeman finds room for experiment: L'ennemi sans visage, which borders on weird fiction, is a good example. His works are very representative of the French Golden Age of mystery fiction with its emphasis on originality and inventivity, while rivalling at the same time with the Anglo-Saxon masters in terms of rigour, fair-play and cleverness. The points culminants of this period are Le trajet de la foudre (The Course of Lightning) and L'Assassin habite au 21 (The Murderer Lives At Number Twenty-One) a London-set story of a serial killer going by the name of Mr. Smith, arguably his masterpiece in the whodunit genre. This book provided Henri-Georges Clouzot with his first shot behind the camera, and the result was a film that is as brilliant as its source, with Pierre Fresnay starring as Mr. Wens.
As the war broke, Steeman slowed down. He started an imprint in Belgium, Le Jury, which revealed promising writers like Thomas Owen, Paul Kinnet or André-Paul Duchâteau. The experiment was short-lived as the German occupation forces because of the imprint's (and its creator's) alleged "anglophilia". Steeman published only one novel during the war years, Légitime Défense, a brief yet seminal work as Steeman went further in "pushing the envelope" than ever before - the result is a psychological crime novel to please Julian Symons - except that Steeman even there didn't abdicate his fondness for clever plots with surprise endings. Henri-Georges Clouzot made a remarkable film out of it, arguably the best adaptation of Steeman's work and one of the summits of French cinema - Steeman, while recognizing the film's qualities, resented that it changed the guilty party; Steeman's relationship with the big screen was always a sour one.
The post-war period brought some radical changes to the genre, and Steeman's work experienced some as well. After a final traditional mystery, Crimes à vendre (Crimes for Sale) Steeman engaged in increasingly experimental work. First he dabbled into soft-boiled fiction with three novels starring private investigator Désiré Marco: Madame La Mort (Madam Death) Dix-huit fantômes (Eigtheen Ghosts) and Faisons les fous (Let's Go Crazy). Then he brought Mr. Wens back, but a Mr. Wens nothing like the old one. The Wenceslas Vorobeitchik of Poker d'Enfer (Hell's Poker) and Six hommes à tuer (Six Men To Kill) is a fregolian, desincarnate character who can and does assume any appearance and identity; who he is, where he is and what he does replaces the standard "who's done it" as the books' big questions. Naturalism in these stories is completely abdicated but not Steeman's usual outstanding cleverness, and the plots, wild and hard to follow as they are, remain scrupulously fair.
The last decade of his life saw Steeman turning to suspense fiction, and his work getting increasingly bitter and darker. Impasse des Boiteux, Le condamné meurt à cinq heures (The Convict Dies At Five) Une veuve dort seule (A Widow Sleeps Alone, much admired by Boileau-Narcejac) and his final novel, Autopsie d'un viol (Autopsy of a Rape) a courtroom mystery set in the United States, display a grim worldview with none of the author's previous flippantness. Not gone, however, was his mastery of plotting and misdirection which remained firm and strong to the end. When Steeman died in 1970, he still had a lot of projects (including a promising Crime On Orbit) which never came to fruition - and this world is a poorer place for that. He was only 62.
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.
Let's end with an anecdote typical of Steeman's sharp wit. Having stayed in a hotel whose service he found mediocre, Steeman as he left was asked by the manager to write some words in the hotel's golden book. He complied and wrote: "Souvenir of an unique stay at the X hotel". The manager gushed with pride and asked: "Unique? Why?" To which Steeman dryly replied: "Because it is the only one I'll ever have!".
* The Blue Greyhound.
** The Late Lady Anne
*** The Unfallible Silas Lord
**** The Murdered Dummy
***** The Waking House