Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room
If you are looking for a mystery novel with a truly remarkable plot, try Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room. The original French version (Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune) was first published serially in the newspaper L’Illustration in 1907, then in book form in 1908. More than a century later, it is still in print today. Leroux was a man of many talents. A famous novelist, a drama critic, and an investigative reporter, he covered stories from around the world and reported on such events as the 1905 Russian Revolution. He also studied law and was a court reporter for the newspaper, L’Echo de Paris. What he is most famous for is The Phantom of the Opera, a novel with many notable film and stage adaptations. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 award-winning adaptation of the novel became one of the most well-known musicals of the era.
Leroux also wrote a series of mystery novels starring the 18-year-old detective, Joseph Rouletabille. The most celebrated of these is The Mystery of the Yellow Room, a book that some consider “the finest work of crime fiction in the history of the genre” (Platten 2009, 22). The story begins with a newspaper account of an attempted murder of the daughter (Mlle. Stangerson) of a famous scientist. She is incapacitated for most of the novel and unable to provide information about her attack. Although she is heavily guarded, she is hunted down repeatedly by her would-be-murderer.
What immediately grips the reader is the utterly impossible nature of the crime. The narrator Sainclair calls it “the most monstrous and most mysterious crime” he had ever heard of in his career” (109). Leroux hoped to create an even cleverer locked-room mystery than the ones written by Poe and Doyle. In The Mystery of the Yellow Room, the attempted murder occurs in Mlle. Stangerson’s bedroom, a place securely locked from the inside, both window and door. When Rouletabille observes that “the yellow room was as tightly shut as an iron safe,” Sainclair replies, “That is why this murder is the most surprising that I know. Edgar Allan Poe, in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ invented nothing like it” (71). The ending of the novel will take readers by complete surprise with what Knight calls its “startlingly unpredictable revelations” (2004, 81).
Like John Dickson Carr (see my post on The Three Coffins), Gaston Leroux created a mystery that appears supernaturally executed. The narrator observes that the Gothic-like Chateau du Glandier (see my post on the Gothic), is “a place seemingly designed to be the theatre of mysteries, terror, and death” (36). The haunting atmosphere is perfectly suited to a ghostly crime in which the murderer seems to disappear into thin air.
When the attempted murder takes place, Mlle. Stangerson’s scientist father is working on a ground-breaking investigation on the dissociation of matter. This research, Schüett points out, “though never central to the narrative, nonetheless informs it” (2003, 69). The essential attribute of the attacker, the ability to disappear at will, “parodies the principles underpinning Monsieur Stangerson’s research” (Plattern 2009, 24).
One of the strongest appeals of the novel is the character of the detective. The brilliant young reporter, Rouletabille, is a “much younger, smarter, French brother of Sherlock Holmes,” a detective who “spots clues that everyone else has missed, makes deductive leaps no one else is imaginative enough to contemplate and throws out cryptic remarks to his Dr. Watson, the lawyer Sainclair, which goes to the heart of the puzzle” (Shephard and Rennison 2006, 96).
Agatha Christie was strongly influenced by Leroux’s mystery stories; she used the same country house settings and skillful clue-puzzle plots (Schüett 2003, 69). If you enjoy puzzling crimes, atmospheric settings, and intriguing plots, you will agree with Shephard and Rennison who claim that The Yellow Room Mystery is “one of the greatest of all ‘locked room’ mysteries” (2006, 96).
Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Leroux, Gaston. The Mystery of the Yellow Room. 1908. New York: Arno Press, 1976.
Platten, David. “Origins and Beginnings: The Emergence of Detective Fiction in France.” In French Crime Fiction, edited by Claire Gorrara, 14-35. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 2009.
Schüett, Sita A. “French Crime Fiction.” In The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, edited by Martin Priestman, 59-76. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Shephard, Richard and Nick Rennison. 100 Must-Read Crime Fiction Novels. London: A & C Black, 2006.