As you might surmise, a Locked Room Mystery is a mystery novel centering around a seemingly impossible crime that occurs within a locked room. The puzzle is paramount, so it is critical that the reader be privy to all of the same facts a the protagonist. That way the reader can “play along” and attempt to ferret out the murderer, too. But in The Mystery of the Yellow Room, several key details are withheld, and there are some huge leaps in inductive logic (rather than deductive logic) necessary to accurately determine the culprit. That’s another reason I say the novel is so Holmesian (it seems I’m using that phrase a lot these days). But despite all that, the novel was still enjoyable. It just wasn’t “the best.”
The Holmes stand-in for this adventure is one Joseph Rouletabille, a young French reporter and a brilliant amateur detective. But while Rouletabille is certainly the protagonist of the tale, the story is told by his friend and lawyer, Monsieur SainClair. Sounding familiar yet? Anywho, a gruesome attack has been perpetrated at the Chateau du Glandier located in the French countryside just outside
. There, a Miss Stangerson—daughter and
scientific partner of Professor Stangerson, a world-celebrated chemist—has been
brutally attacked and nearly murdered in her chambers, the “yellow room” of the
novel’s title. At the time of the attack
her room was locked from the inside, and her father and his assistant had to
batter the door down to get inside.
There they found Miss Stangerson, bloody and lying on the floor, but no
assailant. There were several items also
found—a bloody mutton bone, a cap, some old boots, and a bloody handprint on
the wall. The police are called, at
which time the media gets hold of the story, Rouletabille reads about it, and fixates
upon this most-impenetrable mystery. Paris
The investigation stretches on for weeks, during which Rouletabille unravels the layers of the mystery, solving some other minor quandaries on his way to solving the big quandary of who tried to kill Miss Stangerson. There are a lot of other supporting characters thrown in the mix, most of which only serve as red herrings for the protagonist to chase down. He also matches wits with the famous detective Frederick Larson, who also happens to be investigating the murder at the Glandier.
All this makes for a grand little mystery, but there were some inconsistencies in the plot and in the resolution that left me shaking my head. It’s because of these inconsistencies that I simply can’t understand why The Mystery in the Yellow Room has been called “the best of the best.” Some of the plot holes are outlined in the “Remarks on the Plot” section of the book’s Wikipedia entry, but there’s another one that really irked me. That’s because the logical handling of it would have made unraveling part of the mystery so elementary.
What I say next could be construed as a spoiler, but I honestly don’t care—mostly because anyone who really wants to read the book has probably done so already, but also because the plot has been spoiled many times before me, and my tiny entry in the blogoverse ain’t gonna make a difference anyway. At any rate, Rouletabille eventually reveals that the attack on Miss Stangerson did not happen when everyone thought it did. It actually happened several hours earlier, and what occurred at midnight was due to Miss Stangerson awakening from a nightmare and thinking the would-be murderer had returned. All well and good, except for one detail. A bloody handprint and a bloody mutton bone were found on the premises—the first having been left by the perpetrator when Miss Stangerson shot him in the hand, the second having been used by the perpetrator to club Miss Stangerson upside the head. All well and good, except for one thing. If the real attack had happened hours earlier, the blood in both cases would have already dried. It should have been obvious to the men who initially surveyed the scene that the blood had not been shed recently. Therefore they should have easily come to the conclusion that the real attack had occurred hours earlier and thus solved the “impossibility” of the locked room component of the mystery.
Add all this up, and you are left with a plot that requires a lot of suspension of disbelief in order to buy into its plausibility. For a genre that depends so heavily upon a rational mystery, this is a deal killer. Well, for me at least. There are plenty of people who thought it was perfectly brilliant—people a lot smarter than me—so what do I know?
In the end, I give it three stars. I enjoy vintage mysteries—cozy mysteries not so much as hardboiled or noir fare, but I still enjoy them. There’s something quaint and comforting about these kinds of books, and anyone who likes Sherlock Holmes (as I do) will certainly enjoy The Mystery of the Yellow Room. Therefore, I’m not at all sad that I read the book. It was worth it to read such a seminal work in the locked room genre, but as far as that “best of the best” stuff? I’m just not seeing it.