Can a book still be a masterpiece if it’s not brilliant? In the case of Gaston Leroux’s debut The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) — which plays up to and anticipates so many of the established and forthcoming trappings of detective fiction — I’d say yes. The focus on propelling the plot at a time when even those who were focussed on plot weren’t exactly propulsive is both admirable and impressive, and the creativity Leroux brings to a subgenre that would utilise the secret passage for another 60+ years is staggering. But it would be folly to claim that age has not caught up with it and that this was in the same class as the genre’s genuine masterpieces of the 1930s.
I’ve previously called this one of my fifteen favourite impossible crime novels, and in rereading it I think I’d now revise that opinion, but in a way that doesn’t alter my respect for it. The murderous attack on Mathilde Stangerson in her yellow-wallpapered bedroom while her father and trusted factotum are outside, the windows being barred and the door locked and yet no sign of her assailant save a bloody handprint when the door is broken in, unfolds at a rapid pace and has intrigues aplenty at its filigree’d edges. Why do the concierge and his wife insist they were woken by the shots when it’s established that no shots could be heard from their quarters? Why does Rouletabille saying to the innkeeper Daddy Mathieu “We shall have to eat read meat — for now” have such a profound effect on that man? In an era when multiple plot strands would infest mystery stories to the dilution of their supposed core, Leroux has a firm had on his characters and their role in the action — pretty much everything plays a direct part in explaining the crimes.
And the crimes themselves — the vanishing of the attacker from Mlle. Stangerson’s room, then again from a corridor when hemmed in on all sides, and finally the death by stabbing of a man undoubtedly shot and bearing not a single bullet wound on his corpse — are baffling, intelligently presented, and clearly labyrinthine enough to drive even seasoned investigator and pride of the Sûreté Frederic Larsan somewhat batty. A sense of genuine hair-pulling bedevilment permeates every corner, in spite of Leroux’s avowed intention to provide you with every piece of information at Rouletabille’s fingertips: two maps of buildings are provided, reporter (and so outsider) Rouletabille is given unfettered access to crime scenes and congresses of the legal minds involved (“In our profession and for the general welfare, we have to put up with such mortifications and bury selfish feelings,” our narrator Jean Sainclair wryly informs us, setting the pattern for every amateur sleuth yet to come), interviews with the police are relayed with word-perfect recall. Leroux wants to play fair before ‘playing fair’ was really a thing, and deserves credit for that.
And yet for every moment that contributes to laying a pattern that a great many others would follow — the warring sleuths and their contrary interpretations, the obscure declarations later shown to have great meaning, the servants being nameless until about the 60% mark, the subtle misdirections plied by the criminal and the equally subtle ways they give themself away — there’s much here that innovates because of how it infuriates. Freeman Wills Crofts doubtless showed us a drawing of the footprint that proves so crucial in the first section of his own debut The Cask (1920) because of the infuriatingly late new interpretation put on the oft-discussed footprints herein, the “second half” of the guilty party comes out of nowhere, and goddamn isn’t Rouletabille the luckiest man alive to just happen to be in place to overhear the two key obscure phrases that enable him to unlock the whole thing (sure, Agatha Christie did this with Appointment with Death (1938), but that was one phrase, and at least she had the insight to make it the opening line of the book).
For every delight — lines which could be interpreted as direct influences on works by G.K. Chesterton and Edogawa Rampo, the Holmes-esque casual references to earlier cases in Rouletabille and Larsan’s pasts — there’s an infuriating influx of vagueries: it’s never addressed how a man can be shot at three times from close range and yet not have a single bullet-wound on him, the attack on Mlle. Stangerson is made ‘possible’ by an assumption that requires an oversight we’re assured can’t have happened, and that corridor-based vanishing is decidedly less well written on the page than in my memory: I can believe early 20th century readers falling for it, but not the men on the scene at the time. Knowing the guilty party going in this time around — and, like The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1945) by Carter Dickson, there’s a weird insistence on calling them a “murderer” despite no actual, y’know, murder having taken place — I really appreciated how gosh-darned lucky they got at times, too: not that luck in impossible crimes bothers me unduly, but good heavens there’s someone who better have an altar to Serendipity in their family room.
No doubt authors read this and learned a huge amount from it (though I wish a few more of them had followed Sainclair’s lead when he writes that “I shall not here report the long examination to which Monsieur Darzac was subjected”, as it would have saved a great many readers a great many tedious inquests) and it contains — in observations about the press and its desire to print the most salacious news stories, and in Larsan’s wry reflection about the police inventing accomplices when the real criminal cannot be found — points of view that feel several decades ahead of their time. But the purpose of a stepping-stone is for people to rest on it a while and then move on, and the novel of detection, and the impossible crime, most certainly did both. Its focus and innovation, its layering of strands and insistence on the rational, its wild playfulness and brilliant creativity in exploring multiple false solutions commend it and make this novel worthy of the utmost respect. But also, don’t be afraid to read it and find it wanting. The genre probably wouldn’t have emerged and improved as it did without this, but it did emerge and it did improve.
Fiction Fan @ Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews: The plotting is great, enhanced by a couple of detailed floor plans allowing the reader to try to get to the solution before Rouletabille. (I failed miserably!) The initial mystery of the locked room is only one of the “impossible crime” features – there is another halfway through which is not only baffling but quite spooky, and there are other sections where Leroux creates a beautifully tense atmosphere. But overall the book leans more towards entertainment with lots of humour, especially in the rivalry between Rouletabille and Larsan.
Wyatt James @ GADetection wiki: Reread this a week or so ago. I have no idea why it is ranked so highly as a detective story (by Carr and the like). Even the ‘impossible crime’ solutions are ludicrous… Worse are the contradictions and improbabilities – the ultimate villain had an iron-clad alibi (he was in London at the time), so how could that have been faked? How come footprints are found on hallway rugs in the house even when no mud was tracked in and whoever laid them did not have cleats on his shoes? How can you take seriously Roulettabile’s superimposing a piece of paper over a footprint in the mud and cutting out an outline of it with scissors, then identifying another footprint as being by the same person by superimposing his cutout? The melodramatic plot itself is both improbable and doesn’t really apply to any of the characters who did what they supposedly did. The butler did it (not in this case) because he was secretly in love with Mlle. and therefore had to kill her! Leroux was a very sloppy writer. This book is absolutely absurd.
Xavier @ At the Villa Rose: French scholars’ lack of interest in the traditional detective novel may explain why so few of them ever cared about the book’s role in the shaping and development of the genre. Most regard it as a trophy to be paraded every time the need arises to remind the world that French crime writers can do it just as well as their Anglo-Saxon colleagues when they consent to.
Having this time read the 2018 HarperCollins Detective Club reprint shown above, The Mystery of the Yellow Room becomes the first novel I’ve read in two different translations. My previous encounter was via the Wordsworth edition shown left, which is copyrighted 2010 but does not name its translator (the reprint doesn’t either, frustratingly, but since it’s the 1909 first English translation I can well believe that such details may well have not seemed important to History). The differences aren’t huge, but a few stand out — such as the use of ‘Daddy Jacques’ and ‘Daddy Mathieu’ in the 1909 text where the Wordsworth called them ‘Old Jacques’ and ‘Mathieu’ respectively, or the anglicising of Bête du bon Dieu in the later version. A fuller comparison of the two texts might be interesting if done by someone with a talent of that sort of thing, but I wanted to pull out a few instances where the phrasing — and in some cases even the contents of the novel — vary to an interesting degree.
The end of chapter 6 was the first instance that struck me: Rouletabille outside the door of the Yellow Room for the first time declaring in the 1909 translation “There is the door behind which some terrible scene took place” is a suitably dramatic note on which to end a chapter, and stood out because the first time I’d read that sentence in the Wordsworth edition it was the far more prosaic “Here’s the door behind which something happened!”, which is a startlingly bland sentiment at such a dramatic moment and shows no improved appreciation for the text after a century of reading.
Elsewhere, the Wordsworth edition includes entire lines of prose and dialogue that the HarperCollins doesn’t. For instance, the scene in which Rouletabille, M. Stangerson, Larsan, and Old Jacques aim to capture the villain before their miraculous vanishing in the corridor reads as follows just as Rouletabille is about to clamber through the window and force the mysterious personage out into the hallway and the waiting arms of his confrères:
Ah! Now for rapid action! I had to be the wind, the hurricane, lightning itself! But, alas! there were some necessary movements to be made and, while I was making them — my knees on the windowsill, my feet on the floor — the man, who had seen me at the window had bounded to his feet…
Where the HarperCollins version has the following:
Now for quick action! it was indeed time for that, for as I was about to place my legs through the window, the man had seen me, had bounded to his feet…
…with the 1909 editors perhaps feeling that Rouletabille going on about how quick he intended to be had the ironic effect of slowing down the narrative. Who knows? And then later in that same chapter, as the villain runs into the corridor and vanishes, Wordsworth would have it play out like this:
“He could not have escaped!” I cried in a fit of temper, for my anger was greater than my terror.
“I actually touched him!” Frederic Larsan exclaimed.
“He was there! I felt his breath on my face!” cried Old Jacques.
“We were touching him!” M. Stangerson and I repeated.
And once more we all said, like maniacs, “Where is he? Where is he? Where is he?”
Where the 1909 version pares this back a little:
“It is impossible he can have escaped!” I cried, my terror mastered by my anger.
“I touched him!” exclaimed Frederic Larsan.
“I felt his breath on my face!” cried Daddy Jacques.
“Where is he — where is he?” we all cried.