“What a case gentlemen, what a case! You`ll see, we shall never know how the murderer was able to get out of this room!”
~~ The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1908 ~~
The French novel by Gaston Leroux, is considered one of the finest specimens of the locked room mystery as you are ever likely to pluck out of your trouser pockets, and call yourself Napoleon Bonaparte`s drink dispenser for special occasions with. It contains a crime within the ubiquitous locked room from which the sneaky perpetrator of the dastardly deed escapes, as if through thin air. Mademoiselle Strangerson is attacked one fine evening ( retiring to bed on a fine evening is a stipulation in any classic, locked room crime novel), firmly locking and bolting the door behind her ( maybe she suffers from some kind of paranoid sexual fear). There shortly follows a loud scream and cries of “Murder!” gunshots and energetic scuffling noises. Rescuers come pounding to her aid, but finding the lady`s bedroom portcullis and drawbridge locked and raised, are unable to gain access. What a to-do!
When the father and a servant finally, manfully batter down the door`s defences, they find her badly hurt and bleeding, but, “Shock Horror!” can find no one else in the room! They quickly realize that the only logical means of access or egress are through the door and a firmly closed and barred window.
Enter Joseph Rouletabille, Parisian wunderkind journalist and intellectual hot shot, and his rival for the honours of solving the case, Inspector Frederick Larsan, who jostle and shoulder charge each other from page to page in their attempts to strut like a bantam cock in a triumphal fashion, through the finishing tape first. The whole spectacle is narrated by Rouletabille`s trusty barrister side-kick, Sinclair. Larsan nails down Mlle. Strangerson`s fiance as the culprit, but Rouletabille and Sinclair beg to differ, as they ferret out evidence to clear his name as he stands in the dock, ready to be pronounced guilty!
The Mystery of the Yellow Room has been hailed as an inspiration to the Queen of crime herself, Agatha Christie, but I have to say that it does tend to disappear up it`s own rear orifice when Leroux abandons Sinclair`s narration in favour of pushing the story on with Routebille`s journal jottings instead. It has echoes of many other crime novel heroes; a Holmesian dissection of the crime scene; a plucky amateur detective locking horns with an established plod; the Wimsey ( and Holmes) like, last second court room saving of the seemingly, stitched up like a kipper, main suspect: although I will grant that Rouletibille pre-dates Lord Peter Wimsey by a couple of decades.
The final solution may come as a trifle contrived for modern readers fed on a superior diet of locked room mysteries from some truly great exponents of the genre, but for it`s day, it probably more than adequately cut the mustard. At least I`m not too grumpy about the novel not being quite the barn stormer I hoped it might be, because I acquired it with the aid of a book gift coupon. The novel could have benefited by having more sympathetic and well rounded characters, that appeared more like cyphers than as flesh and blood individuals; but then again, not every crime writer possesses the genius of a Dorothy L. Sayers for such humanizing, and well rounded story telling which does tend to set her apart from most of her peers.