Monday, May 7, 2012

Review: Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston LeRoux

The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston LeRoux has been called one of the foundational works of French mystery fiction.  If that’s true, then French mystery fiction is founded on the shoulders of Arthur Conan Doyle, because The Mystery of the Yellow Room is almost a carbon copy of a Sherlock Holmes mystery.  You could change the character names around, plop it down in jolly old England, and no one would be the wiser.  Yet it’s been consistently upheld as one of the greatest locked room mysteries of all time.  Me, I’m not so sure. 

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 Paris.  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.

He and SainClair journey to the Glandier, where he manages to gain access to the crime scene and ingratiates himself upon Miss Stangerson’s fiancé, a Monsieur Robert Darzac, who reluctantly provides Rouletabille access to the family so that he can pursue his inquiries into the murder.  Rouletabille behaves like a presumptuous little twat, poking into their business, brushing off anyone who questions him, and generally acting like an arrogant asshole.  In short, a lot like Sherlock Holmes.  He also refuses to divulge any of his theories on the matter, saying (quite lamely) that he doesn’t want to impair anyone else’s judgment by predisposing them toward one theory or another.  LeRoux breaks with Holmesian tradition, however, in that he provides detailed diagrams and maps of the murder scene to give the reader a better picture of clues in the mystery.  My version of the book was in audio format, so I didn’t get the opportunity to review the diagrams as I read.  Not that it would have mattered, given the gaping plot holes left around to confound the reader.  More on that later.

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.


Note:  if you’d like to obtain your own copy of The Mystery in the Yellow Room, it is now in the public domain and can be had for free from sites such as booksshouldbefree.com and projectgutenberg.org.  And we all know free books are cool.

27 comments:

  1. Thanks for the Gutenberg site. It worked. It said "point" my Kindle browser. Cute. I am looking forward to finding the Yellow Room. I downloaded The Runaways just now.

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    1. No prob! Project Gutenberg is a phenomenal site. I had to use it a lot during my college days, and it's one of the few tools I still make use of pretty regularly. Thanks for stopping by.

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  2. You didn't miss much by not having the maps.
    I read this book some years ago and don't remember all the details, but I know I was confused. I never understood why they didn't figure out some things sooner, like some of the injuries.

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    1. I actually liked the book a lot though. I like crimes that look impossible.

      (It would be great if blogs had editing for comments)

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    2. Raymond Chandler said it best in his essay, "The Simple Art of Murder":

      "[Dashiell] Hammett gave murder back to the people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse."

      So many of the locked room, cozy mystery type books do just that. Someone gets murdered just to provide a corpse and kick off a mystery--not for any of the typical reasons that people kill. As for The Mystery of the Yellow Room, the murderer's motives are somewhat more plausible, even if the means of perpetrating the crime are a bit... unorthodox. But that's one of the reasons why I don't like the Agatha Christies as much as I like the Dashiell Hammetts of mystery fiction. Chandler just said it better than I ever could have.

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  3. Great review, and I completely understand your qualms about the plot inconsistencies and leaps in logic. Thanks for the Gutenberg link as well--although I may see if Librivox has it, too.

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    1. Thanks, Stephanie. As it so happens, the copy of The Mystery of the Yellow Room I had was a librivox recording. It's great stuff (especially for the budget conscious), and some of the narrators are actually very good. The only thing I didn't like about the recording I listened to was that there were multiple narrators (as many as 10, I think), and they constantly altered chapters. Not a big deal, but still a tad annoying.

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  4. Thanks Jonathan,

    It sounds like it could be a fun, quick yarn- something mindless to read on an airplane or something. But Rouletabille sounds insufferable.

    All in all, makes me glad Sherlock Holmes is back on PBS :)

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    1. Sherlock Holmes can be insufferable, too... but he's an endearing kind of insufferable. :)

      Thanks for stopping by, Erin. Enjoy some PBS for me!

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