Mystery of the Yellow Room
First published in France, 1907
This edition: Project Gutenberg
You are going to know all; and, without further preamble, I am going to place before your eyes the problem of The Yellow Room as it was placed before the eyes of the entire world on the day following the enactment of the drama at the Chateau du Glandier.
Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux (probably better known generally as the creator of The Phantom of the Opera), was one of the first novel-length locked-room mysteries. It first appeared in the French periodical L’Illustration in 1907, before being published in book form in 1908.
Mademoiselle Stangerson, daughter of a pioneering scientist in the field of ‘matter dissociation’, has been attacked in her room at the Chateau du Glandier near Paris. Her assailant vanishes without trace, leaving only a bloody handprint on her wall and a cap which belongs to the Stangerson’s servant Daddy Jacques (who has an alibi). And what was she attacked with?
It was an enormous mutton-bone, the top of which, or rather the joint, was still red with the blood of the frightful wound. It was an old bone, which may, according to appearances, have served in other crimes.
This seems to be an unremarkable murder weapon (at least nobody remarks on it particularly).
Anyway, when she wakes up, Mlle Stangerson can give no useful evidence. Soon, every newspaper in Paris is speculating about the bizarre crime, and the authorities, of course, are baffled.
As with The Big Bow Mystery, there are two sleuths competing to solve this insoluble crime. Our guy is Joseph ‘Rouletabille’ Josephine, a genius teenage crime reporter for L’Epoque (the narrator, Sainclair, is a young lawyer who often helps him out with legal advice). Rouletabille’s opposition is Frederic Larsan of the Sûreté – ‘the great Fred’.
At that time, before Rouletabille had given proof of his unique talent, Larsan was reputed as the most skilful unraveller of the most mysterious and complicated crimes. His reputation was world-wide, and the police of London, and even of America, often called him in to their aid when their own national inspectors and detectives found themselves at the end of their wits and resources.
Larsan soon picks on Mlle Stangerson’s fiancé Darzac as prime suspect; Rouletabille is unconvinced and determines to prove him wrong.
I didn’t much like Rouletabille, who keeps his cards annoyingly close to his chest. On the face of the evidence Darzac is the most obvious suspect, but Rouletabille never condescends to explain why he disagrees with the Great Fred. On top of that, Sainclair is a terribly sycophantic narrator, which made me warm to his hero even less.
There are more attacks on Mademoiselle Stangerson, but each time the would-be murderer manages to escape without trace in all the confused running around the corridors of the house – the second time from a carefully laid trap. These are the best scenes in the book, even if they are a little bit Scooby Doo.
To be honest, I felt I was wading through Mystery of the Yellow Room. An extremely clunky translation didn’t help matters. Here is how Rouletabille got his nickname:
He had, as they say, “a good nut.” He seemed to have taken his head—round as a bullet—out of a box of marbles, and it is from that, I think, that his comrades of the press—all determined billiard-players—had given him that nickname, which was to stick to him and be made illustrious by him.
Final verdict: Probably one best left to genre-historians.
I Read a Book Once: 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.