RogerBW's Blog

The Mystery of the Yellow Room, Gaston Leroux 27 October 2016

1907 mystery. Mlle Stangerson, daughter of the famous scientist, locked herself into her bedroom… then came the sound of a struggle, shouts of "Murder", and gunfire. When her father broke down the door, she was seriously injured and the only person there – and the window-bars had not been moved.

One does have to work past the style to enjoy the book. I read and enjoy a fair bit of English literature of this era and earlier, but this reminds me of Jules Verne at his most florid, and includes patently self-serving paragraphs such as

Indeed, in all this matter, my first care will be to be as simple as is possible. I have no ambition to be an author. An author is always something of a romancer, and God knows, the mystery of The Yellow Room is quite full enough of real tragic horror to require no aid from literary effects. I am, and only desire to be, a faithful "reporter."

Our Watson, the lawyer Sainclaire, accompanies our Holmes, the young and bumptious reporter Rouletabille, who inserts himself into the investigation with chutzpah rather than élan. Frédéric Larsan is the police detective, and the character least clearly derived from the works of Sherlock Holmes: his primary job is to be wrong in the investigation and show off how brilliant Rouletabille is, of course, but they fence rather more actively than Holmes and Lestrade ever did, to the extent of Larsan bringing a man to trial for the murder even though Rouletabille is convinced he's innocent.

That man is Robert Darzac, fiancé of the victim; but even Larsan doesn't come up with much of an explanation of how, or indeed why, it was done. A great part of the book is taken up with debunking possible explanations – not through the ceiling, not hiding under the bed until everyone had gone, not through the floor – mostly with evidence, but occasionally (particularly as the murderous attacks continue) with blatant narrator's fiat:

When this mystery, thanks to Rouletabille, was naturally explained, by the help alone of his masterful mind, we were able to realise that the murderer had got away neither by a door, a window, nor the stairs—a fact which the judges would not admit.

I'm used to detective stories in which the evidence is made available to the reader and he's challenged to understand it as well as the detective did. That's not the case here: much of the evidence is not mentioned at all, or mentioned without the detail that makes it evidence, and I think the reader will not be able to solve the details of the crime before it's explained. On two separate occasions, Rouletabille mentions a particular phrase to someone in order to get them to cooperate, but the reader has no idea of where he might have got it from. It's less a game of "see how well you can do" and more "see how clever I am". The most we get of Rouletabille's actual investigative philosphy is:

"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."

which sounds terribly impressive but seems to have little bearing on his actions.

At the same time, the broad outline of the crime is simple enough: if not this, then that, and anyone familiar with the principles of stage magic will have no trouble working out the basic outline of what must have happened. Meanwhile the characters move about like the puppets they are, with Dark Secrets taking the place of actual personalities.

As for the actual revelation of who and how, naturally performed during the trial, Rouletabille deliberately warns the criminal and allows him time to escape, giving as his excuse:

"I am not a policeman, I am a journalist; and my business is not to arrest people. My business is in the service of truth, and is not that of an executioner."

Well, that's nice. And what's to stop him from killing again? In fact, the fundamental situation that led to the murderous attacks has not been solved in any way except that it's now known who was responsible.

This is interesting to me mostly as a period piece: not the first locked-room mystery (if we stay post-Biblical, that's probably Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue), but one that shows many of the techniques which would become commonplace later. I don't plan to dig further into Leroux, but it's fascinating to see how quickly the art of the mystery advanced from here, transformed perhaps by the Great War, to the golden age of Christie, Sayers and others.

Read for Past Offences' 1907 month. Freely available (unknown translator) from Project Gutenberg and as an audiobook from Librivox.

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