The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

The third best locked room mystery of all time – behind The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr and Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbotthat’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.

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21 comments

  1. I know Carr was a fan – didn’t he have Dr. Fell call it “the best detective tale ever written” in “The Hollow Man.” I agree with you (and Carr); it holds up amazingly well for a book written more than a century ago. Flaws and all.

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    • To be honest, I only read it because I felt that I ought to. I’ve probably never been as surprised as to the quality of a book.

      Out of curiousity, does anyone have anything good/bad to say about The Double Life or The Secret of the Night by the same author? They are the rest of the kindle collection (along with Phantom).

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  2. Great review – I remember reading it in the early 80s in an Italian translation, precisely because Carr rated it so highly and I remember really enjoying the bizarre quality and the general atmosphere – I think you could argue that it is also extremely contrived and fairly daft in spots but that is hardly unusual in impossible crime stories, let’s face – I still say you’re being way too hard on THE PEACOCK FEATHER MYSTERY though – it’s a classic mate! I haven’t read the two other Leroux titles, though I did read the sequel to ‘Yellow Room, ‘Le parfum de la dame en noir’, which I remember finding quite disappointing – but it’s been yonks!

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  3. Wow. “Bloody hell, it’s good. Really, really good” That’s the best recommendation I’ll ever read. You know I’ve never read it. I have so many Leroux books and I’ve read only one, but it’s not THE SECRET OF THE NIGHT sorry to say. They just sit on my shelf looking pretty next to my treasured Fantomas books and my handful of gorgeous Arsene Lupin books (two with dust covers). I intended to read/review THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK last year. This is definitely going to get me on a “French Grandfathers of Crime” kick and dig into Leroux, LeBlanc, Souvestre & Allain and also Emile Gaboriau – the last being a writer whose work I have never read.

    (P.S. PEACOCK FEATHER MURDERS is one of my least favorite Merrivale books. NIGHT AT THE MOCKING WIDOW gets the booby prize with PEACOCK in second place.)

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    • Wow. I’m rather stunned that one of Crimson Blind or Cavalier’s Cup isn’t at the bottom of anyone’s list.

      My personal dislike is the Curse of the Bronze Lamp. The ending really annoys me for massive spoilery reasons.

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  4. PD: Agree on Cavalier’s Cup being the worst, with Crimson Blind close. Agree with JFN that Mocking Widow and Peacock Feather are also among the poorer Merrivales — although still better than the vast majority of books by other writers.

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    • I have favourable feelings towards Mocking Widow – but as I read the Merrivales mostly in order, it stood out as being much better than those around them. Can’t remember much about it, to be honest.

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  5. Yet another title to add to my already bulging Kindle books folder. What I’ve been wondering as I keep grabbing all these old, mostly public domain works is how you can be sure if you’re getting a faithful edition? Seems that anyone can whip something together and put it out there.

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    • True – the few public domain titles that I’ve picked up are of dodgy quality but the layout implies, I think, scanning and text recognition, so, unless a page is missed out, I reckon it’s worth a punt. Having invested a princely sum of 77p in this one though, it certainly is of a good quality, apart from the maps.

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  6. The latest Jonathan Creek episode The Letters of Septimus Noone contains a major spoiler to this book.Hence any reader who wants to read this masterpiece should do so before seeing the episode.
    Regarding your question above, I have read Secret of the Night and though it is good, it is simply not in the same class as the Yellow Room.

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