Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Book Review: The Mystery of the Yellow Room

A couple weeks ago I asked for recommendations of books written and set in continental Europe shortly before (or during) the Great War. I added a number of recommendations to my reading list, and just finished off the first of these: The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux. I went into it knowing nothing other than that it was written by the author of Phantom of the Opera (which I haven't read) and that it was a mystery published in 1908 and set in the 1890s. I'm no the hugest mystery reader, but I enjoy them, and this was certainly an interesting specimen. (I "read" it as an audiobook from Audible read by Simon Vance, a recording I would definitely recommend.)

The mystery is of the locked room variety. The basic set up is as follows: A scientist and his attractive 35-year-old daughter live in an isolated chateau where they devote themselves to studying physics and chemistry. During the warm months the daughter sleeps in a small room off the laboratory. One night she goes to bed at midnight while her father is still working. Half an hour later, there is a thud, a shot, and cries of "Murderer!" from inside the room. The scientist and his servant rush to the door, but it is locked. All the windows are locked. At last, they break down the door and find all the signs of a struggle and the daughter badly hurt from a blow to the head, but no murderer.

The young reporter/detective Joseph Rouletabille investigates and eventually comes to the highly complex and unexpected solution. Honestly, I would have marked it down for the solution being so intricate as to be unbelievable, but the author ups the ante with the last few sentences with some additional personal drama such that I ended fascinated rather than distanced. There were, apparently, a number of Rouletabille mysteries, though so far as I can tell only the next two have been translated into English. (These two are The Perfume of the Lady in Black which is apparently a direct continuation of The Mystery of the Yellow Room and reveals more about the characters, and The Secret of the Night in which Rouletabille is called upon by the Tsar to prevent a murder.) This is too bad, because some of the later Rouletabille mysteries sound fascinating, at least from a historical perspective. I wish I could read Rouletabille à la Guerre from 1914 and Rouletabille chez Krupp from 1917, since those apparently deal with the war.

The narrative style of Mystery of the Yellow Room is surprisingly complex. The story is narrated by a lawyer who is a minor character, but he repeatedly breaks off to includes sources written by various other characters from their points of view. The result is complex and entertaining, and, for my purposes, not a bad window into the period either.

There was a recent French movie adaptation, in which the story is set in the 1920s and the mystery itself is simplified somewhat. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a subtitled version available. However, its antic charms can be seen from this clip:

The whole movie (in French) is available on YouTube, though the inexplicably inappropriate preview image is one that does not actually appear in the movie.


MrsDarwin said...

In researching the movie to see if it was appropriate to watch with the kids (it was), we ran across an article in French in which the director said that one of the reasons he chose to set the film in the 20s was to highlight the similarities of Routabille with Tintin. The kids were absolutely ecstatic.

It helps a lot to know the plot if you're going to watch the movie -- I had a hard time following the spoken French. However, the kids watched like champs, having heard Darwin narrate the plot of the book every night at dinner.

MrsDarwin said...

*Rouletabille*, I mean.

Brandon said...

I've sometimes thought that mysteries might be the best way to get a sense of a period (if they're contemporary) -- they often hinge on the plausibility of their mundane details, even if they exaggerate or modify other things for the sake of story.

I've just gone through a re-read of the book myself (I'm very sure I've read it before, but I couldn't remember much of it). You're definitely right that the personal drama at the end makes the book; I think it's a better twist than the actual mystery.

I'll have to look at the movie sometime.