Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

Gets bogged down in its own intricacy
The Mystery of the Yellow Room is a novel by Gaston Leroux, best known as the author of The Phantom of the Opera. Originally published in 1907, it is the debut adventure of Joseph Rouletabille, a newspaper reporter with an uncanny knack for solving puzzling crimes. The character is clearly influenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allen Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. One unique twist is that Rouletabille, at only 18, is closer in age to Encyclopedia Brown. Nevertheless, don’t make the mistake of underestimating this amateur sleuth. His reasoning powers are advanced for a man so young, and the book is clearly intended for an adult audience. This novel is highly regarded as one of the first and best examples of the genre of the “locked room mystery.” The story and the character both have great potential, but overall I was disappointed by the novel’s slow pace, tedious details, and convoluted plot.

Professor and Mademoiselle Stangerson, father and daughter, reside in a chateau in the region of Seine-et-Oise, outside Paris. Both scientists, they conduct experiments in their laboratory, which is located in a pavilion on the grounds of their estate. Adjacent to the lab is a bedroom—the so-called yellow room—where the mademoiselle sometimes spends the night. Late one night, after she has gone to bed, her father is still working in the lab. He suddenly hears the sound of screams and gunshots coming from his daughter’s room. He rushes to her aid and, with the help of some servants, breaks down the locked door. Inside, he finds his daughter alive but half-strangled and beaten. Someone has attempted to murder her, but the assailant is nowhere to be found, and there is no visible means of exit from the locked room. The next day, news of the attack has spread, and reporter Rouletabille wants details. With the help of a friend who is acquainted with someone in the household, he gains entrance to the chateau and is allowed to examine the crime scene.

Through the first several chapters of The Mystery of the Yellow Room, I was enthralled. After a while, however, it started to remind me of the television series Lost: it kept raising more and more questions without ever offering any answers. Obviously, all these strange occurrences and confusing twists were intended to set up a big reveal in the book’s final chapters. Leroux doesn’t realize, however, that to keep your audience interested you have to throw them a bone once in a while. It felt like a cheat when, in the middle of the book, it is revealed that Rouletabille had prior interaction with some of the principles in the case before the crime was committed. The mystery hinges on a complex series of entrances, exits, and escapes, so the reader must wade through far too many chapters that minutely describe the arrangement of hallways, doors, and windows. When the solution to the case is finally revealed, it ends up being a letdown, because many of the revelations aren’t really all that surprising.

Like I said, it had me from the start, so it’s a shame this mystery couldn’t live up to its promise. Rouletabille is an interesting character, but hardly a match for Holmes, at least not in this book. If you’re looking for a French counterpart to Conan Doyle, I would recommend Maurice Leblanc’s stories featuring Arsène Lupin. They are at least as intellectually challenging as The Mystery of the Yellow Room, and a lot more fun. 
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