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Locked Room Reviews:
Gaston Leroux: The Mystery of The Yellow Room
A foundation of the locked room genre!
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Where does one begin when reviewing one of the first locked room novels to be written in any language? ‘The Mystery of The Yellow Room’ is an amazingly complex tale that is bound and driven by all those old Victorian social conventions we now find so strange. It has a wonderfully crafted intricate and dynamic plot by one of the great masters of late Victorian and Edwardian fiction, coming from the same pen as Phantom of The Opera! Like so many other novels of that era, it also stretches the reader’s credulity in parts of the solution, yet without ever actually crossing the line into absurdity. It is not a ‘fair play’ mystery, as part of the background is withheld from the reader, yet enough clues are provided to allow the reader to work out most aspects of the complicated denouement – including the identity of the culprit. Yet, perhaps the best way to sum it up is by noting that John Dickson Carr, the undisputed master of the locked room, simply noted that it is the “best detective tale ever written” and in Edward Hoch’s famous 1981 poll of 17 famous mystery writers, it was voted third best locked room mystery of all time, right behind Carr’s Hollow Man (see review) and Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit (see review).
As this novel was originally entitled ‘Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune’ (only subtitled ‘Rouletabille and The Mystery of the Yellow Room’ in English) it is necessary to take a brief detour into the subject of translation, and how this effects this classic locked room novel. My ebook actually claims to be “an exact transcript of the original text” which is, of course, absurd – as the original was written in French! Actually, all we know is that this work was translated in 1908 by ‘anonymous’ – who seems to have made a few basic mistakes. Throughout the book, Rouletabille, Leroux’s young detective, is hunting the “murderer”, despite the fact that no one gets killed until near the end. This is not the only point of contention, there are several passages that are a bit confusing, and a few others where the reference or subject is too vague due to the choice of language. Unfortunately, my basic French isn’t quite up to reading this long novel, and I have yet to read “a new, unabridged and uncut translation by J.M. & Randy Lofficier, with 30 pages of original material translated for the first time” which is titled “Rouletabille and The Mystery of the Yellow Room”. It may be worth the price! (See New Translation above) However, for the purposes of this review we will still be quoting Old Anonymous, who informs us in the first chapter, “Although the original English translation often uses the words “murder” and “murderer,” the reader may substitute “attack” and “attacker” since no murder is actually committed.” Hardly a great approach to translation – in fact, in some parts, the text seems to be more of a literal translation, than a proper attempt to convey the author’s intent!
It is also necessary to say a word about Leroux’s indomitable master detective, Rouletabille, who in this novel is supposedly a very wise 18 year old! The name comes from the French for ‘to roll a ball’, and quite ironically is a direct reference to ‘Un Roule ta bille’, a term used to refer to a casual globe trotter with a great deal of accumulated experience. According to Wikipedia, “In the first novel, The Mystery of the Yellow Room, he solves an attempted murder in a locked room mystery. The book reveals that Rouletabille is the nickname of 18-year-old journalist Joseph Josephine, who was raised in a religious orphanage in Eu, a small town near Fécamp.” (Wikipedia: Rouletabille ) The name is briefly mentioned in the second chapter, and the rest is all over the Internet, likely copied from Wiki, but my memory and any text search for ‘orphanage’ or ‘Eu’ or ‘Fécamp’ turns up nothing in this novel, or in any of the later Rouletabille adventures in my collection.
What the book does say about Rouletabille, is that “He had, as they say, “a good nut.” He seemed to have taken his head—round as a bullet—out of a box of marbles, and it is from that, I think, that his comrades of the press—all determined billiard-players—had given him that nickname, which was to stick to him and be made illustrious by him. He was always as red as a tomato, now gay as a lark, now grave as a judge. How, while still so young—he was only sixteen and a half years old when I saw him for the first time—had he already won his way on the press? That was what everybody who came into contact with him might have asked, if they had not known his history.” (Chapter 2) He certainly proves to be a master detective and a very sound logician, perhaps best compared to Poe’s famous C. Auguste Dupin, and all at this so tender age! The ending of this novel clearly hints at another, more intriguing, solution to Rouletabille’s origins, which is connected with the unexplained theme of ‘Le Parfum de la Dame en Noir’ (The Perfume of the Lady in Black), a teaser for the second novel in this series, which stands between this first introduction to Rouletabille and his later globe trotting adventures.
It would be quite easy to write an entire essay on the historical importance of this book. It is a critical early detective novel, in any context, and one of the first locked room novels in any language. It is also one of the key foundations of French mystery literature, a novel that provided inspiration for so many great classic French locked room authors. It also clearly demonstrates where the locked room sub genre began, right at this intersection of the Victorian ‘sensation’ novel, perhaps best typified by Wilkie Collins, the early detective works of Poe, Dickens and Conan Doyle, and the haunting tone of gothic fiction. In fact, if I had to pick a novel with the closest match in atmosphere, I would have to go with Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897), complete with all those eerie diary entries, yet it is saved from being pure gothic horror by the Poe locked room formula – where logic and science must always find a way to overcome superstition! Leroux is playing the reader quite expertly, with village witches, the monstrous bête de bon Dieu, black phantoms, ancient towered castles, and numerous other dark images, as a gothic trap to lure us in, to make us suspend belief and put the noose of superstition around our neck, before he finally kicks the stool out from beneath our legs. This is why so many horror fans cross over into the locked room sub-genre at the corner of weird and spooky.
Though not a terribly long novel, ‘The Mystery of The Yellow Room’ has a very complex plot that does not easily lend itself to being summarized. The action begins when reporter and aspiring detective, Joseph Rouletabille, along with his friend the lawyer Sainclair, the narrator of this tale, sets off to investigate a disturbing case at the Château du Glandier, near Epinay Sur Orge. (Just south of Orly airport today) Mathilde Stangerson, the 35 year old daughter of the castle’s owner, Professor Joseph Stangerson, has been found critically injured in a pavilion room, adjacent to the laboratory, where she works with her father, on the grounds of the estate. She had loudly cried “Murder!” and two shots had sounded, shortly after she went to bed, while she was securely locked inside a small yellow room with a single bolted door, only one inaccessible barred and locked window, and two witnesses standing just outside. By the time her father and family retainer, Daddy Jacques, with the assistance of the concierges, finally break down the door, she is unconscious on the floor – and impossibly quite alone! Inside, the room shows signs of a struggle, there is a bloody handprint on the wall, a pair of old boots, a Basque cap, and a bloody handkerchief, but no clue which explains the attacker’s disappearance! She gradually recovers, but can only supply the vaguest description of an attacker that tried to strangle her, leaving dark bruises on her neck, and a nasty wound on the side of her head, apparently caused by a vicious blow from that proverbial blunt instrument, in this case believed to be one of the feared ‘mutton bones’ used by street thugs of that era!
Rouletabille gets access to the investigation through an acquaintance of Sainclair’s, Mathilde’s fiancé, Robert Darzac. At first Darzac wants nothing to do with the young reporter-detective until he mutters the phrase. “The presbytery has lost nothing of its charm, or the garden of its brightness.”, which immediately induces fear and full compliance, which gains Rouletabille an inside view denied to all the other members of the press. First he surveys the scene, then interviews the principal witnesses, including the husband and wife concierges; the trusted servant, Daddy Jacques; an unfriendly landlord at The Donjon Inn; and his beautiful wife, whose not so secret lover is the handsome gamekeeper, known locally as The Green Man. He also encounters the village witch, Mother Angenoux, and her Bête du Bon Dieu, a massive cat familiar that makes eerie, nerve rattling, meows in the middle of the night. Rouletabille soon begins to see a little light, which he largely keeps to himself, as he enters into a not so friendly rivalry with the top detective of the Sûreté, Frédéric Larsan, AKA “The Great Fred”. Larsan clearly suspects Mlle Stangerson’s fiancé, Robert Darzac, but Rouletabille remains certain that the attacker was shot in the hand by Mademoiselle – and Darzac’s hands are uninjured!
As the story progresses, more attempts are made on the life of Mlle Mathilde, despite the efforts of Rouletabille and Larsan. Twice the elusive phantom appears to vanish into thin air just as he is about to fall into one of Rouletabille’s traps, and he eventually almost succeeds in murdering Mlle Stangerson, after temporarily knocking Rouletabille out of the hunt. Professor’s Stangerson’s important scientific research into radiation and “matter dissociation”, is also badly compromised by this elusive demon. This threatens everything the father and daughter have worked to discover for almost two decades, since they moved to France from Stangerson’s native Philadelphia – which is also the home of a frequent guest to Château du Glandier, the red-nosed alcoholic, Arthur William Rance.
The first suspects arrested by the authorities are the concierges, the Berniers, but Rouletabille soon proves their innocence. After this, the attention of Larsan and the magistrate, Monsieur de Marquet, is focused on Darzac, who is never present at the time of the attacks and refuses to provide any alibi. Only Rouletabille believes him to be innocent, and it soon becomes his mission, not only to solve the case, but to help keep the secret that Darzac is prepared to die for, which clearly involves Mlle Mathilde, who equally refuses to assist the investigation, even though she clearly knows far more than she is willing to reveal. In the end, she even helps to pave the way for the near fatal final attack!
This is about as far as we can go without a major spoiler alert. The investigation goes on for several weeks, and then ends up in a trial some two months later, but it must suffice to note that there are more serpentine plot twists and turns than one will find on San Francisco’s famous Lombard Street.
The primary theme of this novel is clearly found in the epic battle between Rouletabille and The Great Fred. This is a direct collision between youth and age, genius and experience, deductive and inductive reasoning, and the essential difference between facts and truth. This struggle constantly challenges the relative roles that perception and reason play in defining the nature of truth. Does truth lie in the sensory data that Fred collects to investigate the crime, or in the realm of pure cerebral reason where Rouletabille claims to dwell? They even question the seemingly basic assumption that facts are equivalent to truth, instead suggesting that real truth must also include our emotional history and psychological motivation. It is not sufficient to simply identify the attacker, the truth must also explain, and honour, the secret reality of Darzac and Mathilde.
Rouletabille notes: “I came to the conclusion that I was a fool, lower in the scale of intelligence than even the police of the modern romancer. Novelists build mountains of stupidity out of a footprint on the sand, or from an impression of a hand on the wall. That’s the way innocent men are brought to prison. It might convince an examining magistrate or the head of a detective department, but it’s not proof. You writers forget that what the senses furnish is not proof. If I am taking cognisance of what is offered me by my senses I do so but to bring the results within the circle of my reason. That circle may be the most circumscribed, but if it is, it has this advantage—it holds nothing but the truth! Yes, I swear that I have never used the evidence of the senses but as servants to my reason. I have never permitted them to become my master. They have not made of me that monstrous thing,—worse than a blind man,—a man who sees falsely. And that is why I can triumph over your error and your merely animal intelligence, Frederic Larsan.”
While Sainclair is our first person narrator for the initial part of the investigation, after he returns to Paris, the book takes on a slightly different tone. Leroux has effectively taken a step back from the action, to abbreviate this long stretch of investigation and the time leading up to the trial. It is a slightly jarring note, but the author’s decision to expand the time frame, to over three months in all, makes this an absolute necessity. I have already noted the similarity to ‘Dracula’, which also uses epistolary devices to put the horror at a distance, thereby making it seem even more opaque and oppressive. Leroux is doing something quite similar here, as he gradually builds the tension in our absence.
Where do we place this novel? Some reviews claim it is even better than Carr’s best, while others view it as a bad Sherlock rip-off! Another even sees a likeness to Wimsey! And then there is one who thinks locked room should be exclusively a short story genre! Yet, this book really shows little evidence of any of any of these conclusions. Leroux had certainly read Conan Doyle, and vice versa, but this book has a very distinct voice of its own. It is a critical milestone in the history of the mystery genre, and right up there with “The Big Bow Mystery’ and ‘The Murders in The Rue Morgue’, which were likely primary inspirations for this work, in the history of the locked room genre. From our modern perspective, it certainly has its flaws. This book has some really bad CSI, but the FBI wasn’t even born when this was written, and criminology was still fascinated by the pseudo science of phrenology, which analyzed bumps on the head to define ‘the true criminal nature’. This practice is actually referenced at several points in this novel, and the visitor at the castle, Arthur Rance, is reported to be an American phrenologist! It is true that these two great sleuths do miss some fairly obvious clues about blood and bruises – but we must remember the year is 1907! On the plus side, the plot is purely diabolical, with plenty of red herrings, and full of all great floor plans, that have unfortunately disappeared in modern times, allowing authors to throw sand in our eyes!
The most serious flaw with ‘The Mystery of The Yellow Room’ is the lack of fair play in the withheld details, but this was written long before all these ‘rules’ were created during the Golden Age, and Conan Doyle is just as guilty of breaking that part of the contract with the reader! This great locked room tale must, quite simply, be considered one of the great mysteries of all time – as both Carr and Christie clearly recognized – so let’s just ignore these tiny imperfections and give the book it’s due – a full five stars!
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