Monday, April 14, 2014

The Mystery Of The Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

The Mystery of the Yellow Room has been on my to-do list for a while. It was only after the recent Jonathan Creek s05e01 (which centres its plot around a theatre production of the book) that I was finally ready to take the plunge.

There were two things holding me back, which will also pop up in the review below.

  • It's French. Now I have nothing against the French (though being based in Ireland I contractually do have to hate Thierry Henry), but translation combined with over 100 years of language evolution can make for some tricky reading.
  • It's a book. A full book. I've always felt that locked room mysteries fit the short story format better than long form. However eye-opening or elegant the solution may be I feel it's rarely worth the commitment required to make it all the way through a feature length. This may also be why the genre has been translated to TV much more successfully than it has to cinema.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room

The book is available to read for free at Project Gutenberg. If you want to read on your Kindle you can download it here (send to Kindle instructions here).

Author: Gaston Leroux
Date: 1908
Word Count: 74,000 (about 300 pages)

Review (contains spoilers)

The mystery at the heart of the book involves an attempted murder within a locked room (which happens to be yellow). There are some other smaller puzzles, mainly involving disappearing assailants and over-complicated floor plans, however the crux of the story follows detective Rouletabille and his "Watson" Jean Sainclair as they compete with notorious detective Frederic Larsan to solve the crime.

One of The Mystery of the Yellow Room's floor plans.
As soon as I started reading I came across the first hurdle - the language. Whether it is the translation, the intervening years or the original text, I found it difficult to follow. The opening chapters aren't overly clear who is who and how the narrator fits in to proceedings. I was able to pick it up as it went on, but even in later chapters the intricacies of where detectives/suspects/victims were during key events (and the descriptions do get quite intricate) were a struggle to track.

The second of my concerns (my limited attention span) wasn't too much of an issue until the final few chapters. Many of the classic impossible crime short stories feature brilliantly cunning solutions, and as I was approaching the end of the book I was expecting something special. As mentioned above, I feel the time investment involved with reading a book warrants something above and beyond what a short story can provide. It's here that I came away somewhat disappointed. The Mystery of the Yellow Room does feature a few unexpected twists, however many rely on a thorough understanding of building layout and can easily lose their impact. It also commits what I consider to be a cardinal sin - the victim was in on it. A number of locked room mysteries feature suicides or assisted suicides, however here the victim continues to intentionally mislead the reader after the crime is committed. This leads the solution more towards a "whodunnit" rather than the genre staple of "howdunnit". In this regard the book does pull off a clever "who's the culprit?" twist before the credits roll.

I couldn't help feeling a little let down by The Mystery of the Yellow Room. While it is credited as being one of the first of its kind, the solution - the attack occurred prior to the room being locked - has been done better by more recent authors.

4/10 - Later works may have copied Leroux' ideas, but they did it well.

If you'd like to purchase a paperback copy or official Kindle edition of The Mystery of the Yellow Room, the book is available on Amazon (UK) and Amazon (US).

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