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.
In 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. Solving 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.