The first chapter of this novel is headed ‘In which we begin not to understand’, and that’s a pretty good indication of what the reader is in for. For The mystery of the yellow room is a locked-room mystery so fiendishly difficult to solve that it regularly features on best crime fiction lists, despite being over a century old.
First published in France in 1907, it was the debut crime novel from the pen of Gaston Leroux, better known as the author of Phantom of the opera. The central puzzle is this: the daughter of a famous scientist is brutally attacked whilst in the ‘yellow room’ next to her father’s laboratory. Hearing gunshots and her screams, her father and his servants rush to her aid. The door of the yellow room is locked from the inside, and when they finally break it down, they find her collapsed in a pool of blood, with no one else in the room. The room has no other door, and no windows. How did her attacker escape unseen?
The ambitious young reporter Joseph Rouletabille is determined to solve the mystery, pitting his wits against the Secret Police’s top detective Frederic Larsan. His efforts are narrated by Sainclair, his lawyer friend. This is a classic Holmes and Watson/Poirot and Hastings pairing. The pipe-smoking Rouletabille, like Holmes, has a phenomenal brain – and the ego to match. He reaches the solution to the mystery by an unerringly logical process of deduction (with a few flights of imagination) and, like Poirot, is contemptuous of detectives who spend their time looking for physical clues such as footprints and dropped handkerchiefs. Sainclair is the sidekick of average intelligence who is in awe of his brainy friend. His function is to try to elicit information from Rouletabille, who is prone to making teasingly cryptic remarks that leave Sainclair, and the reader, even more baffled.
Leroux makes his characters remark on how tricky his puzzle is several times. He boldly claims at the very beginning of the book:
I do not think that you could find anything to compare with the mystery of the Yellow Room in the domain of fact or fantasy, not even amongst the inventions of Edgar Allen Poe and his imitators.
Leroux later refers explicitly to Poe’s 1841 short story The murders of the Rue Morgue, generally considered to be the first locked room mystery. He was well aware that this was what his readers would be measuring him against, and he takes great pains to point out that the solution to Poe’s mystery cannot be the solution to his own – and that his own is better.
It’s difficult to review a book like this without giving away any clues to its solution. I don’t intend to give any plot spoilers, as I know how annoying that can be. I myself had a major part of the ‘howdunnit’ twist for this book revealed to me by an episode of Jonathan Creek, of all things. The solution to how the attacker escaped unseen is pretty ingenious, if slightly far-fetched. For me, the ‘whodunnit’ was a more surprising revelation. All credit to Leroux: he plays fair by the reader, and leaves plenty of clues as to who committed the crime, but is such a master of misdirection that I didn’t realise their significance at the time.
This book is a puzzle rather than a novel – there’s no character development, no emotional tugs or philosophical insight, and no beautiful prose (although I read it in English translation, so it may be that the original French is better). This doesn’t bother me: I’m a massive fan of Agatha Christie, and when I’m reading this type of book I value plot twistiness above all else. Now I’m inspired to read other classic locked-room mysteries: John Dickson Carr’s The hollow man, for example, or perhaps the original of them all, The murders of the Rue Morgue.