The premise of the 57th entry upon my Classics Club list intrigued me immediately: ‘The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908) is Gaston Leroux’s masterpiece and during his lifetime his most successful book. It is one of the classics of early 20th-century detective fiction. At the heart of the novel is the enigma: how could a murder take place in a locked room, which shows no sign of being entered? The novel is also about the rivalry to solve the case between the detective Frederick Larson, and a young investigative journalist, Rouletabille. Larson finds a suspect who is put on trial, only to have him cleared by Rouletabille, who reveals in the most dramatic fashion the identity of the real murderer.’
Unsurprisingly, the only book of Leroux’s which I had read before picking up The Mystery of the Yellow Room was The Phantom of the Opera, which I enjoyed. I remember admiring his prose style, so I am unsure as to why it has taken me so long to get around to reading any of his other work. Despite this, I felt that slotting this novel in to a French holiday was a fitting idea, and so I therefore ensured that I got to it in August.
The novel begins in the following manner: ‘It is not without a certain emotion that I begin to recount here the extraordinary adventures of Joseph Rouletabille. Down to the present time he had so firmly opposed my doing it that I had come to despair of ever publishing the most curious of police stories of the past fifteen years’. Our narrator goes on to write, ‘The Yellow Room: who now remembers this affair which caused so much ink to flow fifteen years ago? Events are so quickly forgotten in Paris… In truth, I do not know that, in the domain of reality or imagination, one can discover or recall to mind anything comparable, in its mystery, with the natural mystery of The Yellow Room… You are going to know all; and, without further preamble, I am going to place before your eyes the problem of The Yellow Room as it was placed before the eyes of the entire world on the day following the enactment of the drama at the chateau du Glandier’.
The mystery is recounted as follows; in October 1892, Mathilde Stangerson, the daughter of a respected scientist, is attacked: ‘a desperate clamour broke out in The Yellow Room. It was the voice of Mademoiselle, crying “murder! -murder! – help!”‘. The woman is badly wounded, but no other body is found in the room with her: ‘For the problem is this: we know by what way the assassin gained admission, – he entered by the door and hid himself under the bed… But how did he leave? How did he escape? If no trap, no secret door, no hiding place, no opening of any sort is found… if the ceiling shows no crack, if the floor hides no underground passage, one must really believe in the Devil…’.
Rouletabille is a reporter, who engages our narrator, Sainclair, to help him solve the mystery. The ‘clues’ which are left behind are traces of large footprints and a bloodied handprint; these are quickly disregarded, ‘for murderers don’t leave traces behind them which tell the truth’.
The Mystery of the Yellow Room is one of the first original locked-room mysteries and, of course, has shades of Sherlock Holmes about it in places. The first person narrative perspective which Leroux has crafted is engaging from the very beginning, and his writing is often perfectly measured. Of the now thirty five-year-old Mathilde’s past, for example, he writes the following: ‘twenty years of age, a charming blonde, with blue eyes, milk-white complexion, and radiant with divine health… One of the most beautiful marriageable girls in either the old or the new world’.
The novel is relatively well plotted, and the story carries through the entirety well; nothing within it feels too drawn out. The Mystery of the Yellow Room is neither the best, nor the most clever mystery which I have read, but it did hold my interest for the most part. A few of the sections toward and after the midpoint did feel a little slow to me, and were partially superfluous; these instances did detract from the main intrigue of the tale. Still, The Mystery of the Yellow Room holds definite appeal for fans of Holmesian mysteries and the like, although it perhaps goes without saying that the protagonists of the novel are nowhere near as memorable, nor as well drawn, as those in the aforementioned.