GASTON LEROUX. The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907).

07 Oct

In the decades immediately following its release, this canonical work cast a mighty spell over the field of impossible-crime fiction. “The best detective tale ever written,” wrote John Dickson Carr, speaking through his protagonist, Dr. Gideon Fell, who issued that proclamation in the fabled “Locked Room Lecture,” published (as a chapter in The Three Coffins) in 1935. “It remains, after a generation of imitation, the most brilliant of all ‘locked room’ novels,” wrote Howard Haycraft a few years later in his magisterial genre history, Murder for Pleasure. Now, more than a century after the book’s publication, that worshipful attitude is hard to comprehend. The magic that Yellow Room was once able to work on acolytes and enthusiasts has vanished. What stands out today is the clumsy and sometimes comically antiquated way that Leroux handles a set of ingredients that are, in their own right, fairly appealing.

YellowRoomIn its setting and its setup, the novel presents a classic combination of easeful gentility and violent death. There is a garden: The action occurs chiefly at the Château du Glandier, a venerable and verdant estate on the outskirts of Paris, during the Belle Époque (in 1892, to be precise). Living there are Monsieur and Mademoiselle Stangerson, a father-daughter team of scientific geniuses who call to mind the husband-wife team of Pierre and Marie Curie. Surrounded by ostensibly loyal servants, the Stangersons devote their days to working in a laboratory located in a pavilion on the estate. (Their research involves a phenomenon that they call “the dissociation of matter.” In light of what follows, that concept will resonate in a provocative way.) And there is the introduction of a snake: One evening, after a long day of work in the lab, Mademoiselle Stangerson retires to an adjoining space called the Yellow Room. She locks the only door to that chamber. Soon afterward, gunshots ring out. Monsieur Stangerson, with three servants in tow, breaks the door open and discovers a scene of mayhem. His daughter is alive, but she has borne a wound to the head. A search of the premises shows that no one else is in the room—and that no one could have escaped after she sealed it shut.

From there, the book follows a now-standard model for structuring a locked-room novel. (Indeed, in these pages, Leroux is helping to establish that model.) An amateur sleuth, in the form of a boy-wonder journalist named Joseph Rouletabille, arrives on the scene. He reconnoiters the problem, both physically and intellectually: Footprints are located and examined. Theories of what happened in the Yellow Room are broached and critiqued. Then, just as readers’ attention might start to flag, Leroux compounds the original mystery by introducing new apparent impossibilities. One night at the château, for example, a figure disappears from a hallway—a space that Leroux (or his translator) amusingly calls the “inexplicable gallery”—even as witnesses guard every point of egress. Leroux builds further interest by setting rival sleuths in conflict with each other. Throughout the investigation, Rouletabille jousts with an array of officials, including Frederic Larsan, a detective from the Sûreté who functions as a half-serious, half-comic foil (somewhat in the tradition of Inspector Lestrade).

These features of the tale work well enough. Unfortunately, they tumble forth in a style that is lumbering yet frenetic. Leroux’s prose is a creaking mass of Edwardian-era tics and travesties—a bundle of melodramatic phrases and orotund flourishes. (Again, the translator may bear part of the blame; perhaps the style falls on the ear more softly in the original French.) At the same time, the storyline jumps about constantly; like Leroux’s juvenile protagonist, it displays more energy than intentionality. But the inelegant storytelling would be largely forgivable (at least to many impossible-crime mavens) if the story itself didn’t suffer from glaring flaws.

Leroux botches the main puzzle (the one that originates in the Yellow Room) by attaching too many extraneous elements to it. Deep within the puzzle, one can discern a key inspiration for the wondrous trickery—the quasi-magical use of narrative technique to bend time and space—that successors like Carr would exhibit with greater artistry. YellowRoom2Solving this conundrum requires both painstaking analysis and bold intuition. (“We have to take hold of our reason by the right end,” Rouletabille notes.) But Leroux, having contrived this feat of deception, proceeds to swaddle it in layers of over-embroidered, shoddily sewn story material. As a result, when the time comes to explain this sleight of hand, what should be an adroit revelation becomes a labored and almost impossible-to-follow disquisition.  

More egregiously, Leroux doesn’t play fair in the construction of his plot. Although he doles out clues that point toward some aspects of the solution, he also withholds several pieces of data that illuminate either the motive or the mechanics of the Yellow Room episode. Only when Rouletabille disgorges this information in a final, disordered rush of exposition do critical parts of the story come into view. And yet Haycraft, in his write-up on Leroux, claimed that the author “played religiously fair with his readers.” Arguably, Leroux’s neatest trick was his ability to beguile readers (some of them, anyway) on that front.


Posted by on October 7, 2020 in International, Novel, Puzzle


5 responses to “GASTON LEROUX. The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907).

  1. JJ

    October 8, 2020 at 1:28 AM

    Having reread this one in recent months, I have to agree with the flaws you identify above. It was an early title for me in both my reading of older detective fiction and impossible crimes (because, of course, it would be) and in my naivete I was blown away…but revisiting it uncovered a bunch of flaws that show how the genre developed so intelligently from here.

    It’s still no doubt a cornerstone work, but thankfully it doesn’t represent the pinnacle of the form that so many of us enthusiastically declared it to be on first experience. Mercifully, there was space to improve, and the ensuing puzzle novels certainly filled that.

    • Mike

      October 8, 2020 at 8:36 PM

      I appreciate the comment, JJ, particularly since my negative take on this novel appears to be a minority view. Apologies, by the way, for failing to turn up your review of the book when I did my quick Google-guided spin around the Web. It’s a wonderfully complete and well-balanced assessment of an important work. I’m glad that you noted the matter of translation. I read a free e-book version that I found via Apple Books, and it appears to be the original English-language translation from 1908. Reading a more modern translation might have affected how I experienced this tale.

      In any event, I was enjoying the novel—Edwardian tics and all—right up to the point when, in the trial sequence, Rouletabille begins presenting the solution. Then the whole thing fell apart for me. As you say, other writers would clear away some of Leroux’s narrative bric-a-brac and follow his puzzle template with the flair that it deserves.

      • JJ

        October 9, 2020 at 12:51 AM

        Mike, you do such a great job at including so many links on such a range of topics in your reviews, I’m not going to worry if you miss one of mine :) I thought another less-than-glowing perspective might be appreciated, was all. As you say, there’s so much favourable about this one — not enjoying it as fully as I expected to felt like apostasy in a way.

        The part that really struck me was how much less I enjoyed the impossible disappearance; in my memory it was a swift and fun piece of the narrative, but on rereading it the setup takes so long that you wonder how anyone could ever be fooled by it…

        Anyhow, always fun to revisit the classics, if only because they make us appreciate the developments in the genre so much more.

  2. dfordoom

    June 23, 2021 at 8:58 AM

    You have to remember that the rules were different in 1907. The idea that a writer had to play strictly fair with the reader wasn’t yet a established convention. But on the whole I agree with you and with JJ – I was a bit disappointed by the clunkiness of this one.

    • Mike

      June 23, 2021 at 3:05 PM

      Totally fair point. What struck me most about the book was how near—and yet so far—the quality of its puzzle plot was to that of works by successors (especially J.D. Carr) who came along a couple of decades later.


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