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.
Slowly, slowly I work my way through the Otto Penzler-edited Woo Whatta Lotta Locked Room Mysteries (2014) — it’s not really a convenient size to dip into — and, since my chronological reading of Ellery Queen is going so well, it seemed time to take on this impossible disappearance story. Or so I thought…
I was recently reading a book on the promise of it providing a locked room murder, to which I am rather partial. When said murder arrived, it took on this approximate form: a large indoor hall with a free-standing stone chapel inside it which has one door and no windows or other points of ingress, a crowd witnesses a lady entering said chapel – which is deserted – alone and the doors are shut, only for them to be opened some time later and said lady found beaten, bruised and devoid of life. It’s moderately classic in its setup and should therefore provide some interest, but once I read the details of the crime I gave up on the book and will not return to it (in fact, it’s already down the charity shop).
This is not due to any squeamishness on my part, or a particular problem I had with the writing or the characters – both were fine, if unexceptional – but rather just because it just wasn’t interesting. It is hard to put this in words, which is why I imagine this post may run rather longer than usual, but there were simply no features of intrigue to me in that supposedly impossible murder. And so I got to thinking…forget plot or prose or atmosphere, take away all the context of an impossible crime, particularly forget about the solutions: what makes an interesting fictional impossibility? Continue reading →