The third best locked room mystery of all time – behind The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr and Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot – that’s what the professionals thought – in 1981. A while ago, I got hold of a copy of Rim of the Pit and found it a fascinating read and I’ve always had it in the back of my mind to get hold of a copy of The Mystery of the Yellow Room. Despite being the author of The Phantom of the Opera, Leroux, due to writing at the turn of the century – 1907 in this case – is very much out of print. How to get hold of a copy…
Well, the other day, I bought a Kindle – and what should I find for 77p but four books by Gaston Leroux, The Mystery of the Yellow Room being one of them. I figured I could spare the pennies. I admit, I was wary though, as I’m not particularly good with Victorian/Edwardian style prose – still scarred by O-level English Lit and Hard Times by Dickens.
So, is it the third best locked room mystery of all time?
Well, first of all, I think the list is a bit off. It is skewed towards the ludicrous explanation for simple events – none more so that The Peacock Feather Murders aka The Ten Teacups… I’ll rant about the solution to that when I get round to reviewing it in my Merrivale bibliography. So I dived into this one with bated breath…
Bloody hell, it’s good. Really, really good. If you add the weight of it clearly being the inspiration for John Dickson Carr et al, I would dispute anyone who says there is anything better in the locked room genre.
Oh, I haven’t mentioned the content – right. Mademoiselle Stangerson locks herself in her room, with only one door, clearly locked, bolted and monitored by apparently reliable witnesses. A loud scuffle is heard, including a gunshot. The door is broken down and Mademoiselle Stangerson (do we hear her forename at any point?) is dying on the floor, bashed in the head by a mutton bone. How could the assailant have entered and escaped undetected? There is another impossibility later on as well, involving a disappearing assailant, but the nub of everything is around the Yellow Room. Luckily, an internationally famous detective of the Surete involves himself. Even more fortunately, due to the typical abilities of the professional in books from this era, so does the young journalist Joseph Rouletabille.
First of all, this is a proper mystery story – the clues, and there are many, are there to be spotted. The solution is clever, although there are a couple of points that are rather iffy. No-one with any sense would mistake a CENSORED for a CENSORED but maybe in 1907… probably not, though.
I’m wary of discussing the plot for fear of spoiling it, but I was surprised at the freshness of the text, given its age. There are sections that. despite it being written in the first person, give another character’s point of view, either from journals or transcripts. I was also impressed by the quality of the translation – if I didn’t know it was translated, I probably wouldn’t have spotted it.
Yes, there are issues – notably the persistent use of the word murderer when no-one initially is killed, but, oddly, the book apologises for that. Kindle readers may be a bit put out when the diagrams of the building don’t appear effectively – a rubbish mis-aligned ASCII picture – but rest assured, it’s not remotely relevant.
So despite its flaws – and there are a couple of others, but they veer into the spoiler category – personally, as a classic, I’d put this above The Hollow Man and Rim of the Pit. How’s that for a recommendation?
NOTE: I’m including this as part of the Global Reading Challenge.