Published 1908, The Mystery of the Yellow Room is one of the earliest “locked-room” mysteries, and a precursor to the era of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. This classic was brought to my attention a while back by a review by The Literary Sisters. I have, as an aside, never gotten around to reading Leroux’s most famous work, The Phantom of the Opera, so this is my only experience with his writing to date.
The story centers around Mademoiselle Stangerson, the daughter of a famous scientist. She and her father have worked together for many years, and reside in a chateau in France. When Mlle Stangerson is attacked in her room, her father and their faithful servant rush to rescue her. Mlle Stangerson had locked the door from the inside and it had to be broken down before she could be rescued. But when they finally break in, Mlle Stangerson is all alone, close to death – and there is no way out of the room other than the locked door her father has just broken down. How could the attacker of gotten in or out of the locked room?
The detective in the story is not actually a detective at all, but a reporter named Joseph Rouletabille, who, at this time, is only 18 years of age. Rouletabille is clever and logical and is determined to find out what happened in Mlle Stangerson’s room – the Yellow Room. The narrator, Sainclair, is a friend of Rouletabille who spends, in my opinion, far too much time singing Rouletabille’s praises. Rouletabille finds himself butting heads with the lead detective on the case, Larsan, a Rouletabille believes the man Larsan is pursuing is actually innocent.
So I didn’t really get into this story, but I think that the main reason is because I was reading it as a Kindle edition, and it was honestly rather terrible. While the words themselves were there, no effort had been made to really correct any of the formatting. Sainclair frequently inserts other sources into his narrative – newspaper articles, journal entries, written reports, etc. – and the Kindle edition did a dreadful job of setting these apart or making sure that the quotes of when they began and ended were clearly marked. Because Sainclair’s narrative is first person, and may of the things he quotes are a first-person narrative, it really did make the whole thing feel muddled, because I wasn’t always completely sure when I had switched between the narrator and one of his sources.
The Kindle edition also lacks any of the diagrams or floor plans, which, I have discovered, were quite critical to my understanding of the story. Consequently we get references to locations in the chateau or the Yellow Room for which I had no real basis for understanding.
I read this on my Kindle because I got the book for free, but I really wish that I had gone through the effort of locating a hard copy at the library instead, as the terrible formatting really detracted from my enjoyment of the story.
The mystery itself is clever, but the writing is rather long-winded (although typical of its time). There are a few chapters that are from Rouletabille’s perspective and they were rather confusing because he would switch at random from present tense to past tense. For instance, at one point, he is speaking with Larsan, and the section is in present tense. He and Larsan run down the stairs and knock on the door of another character, but as soon as the door is opened, Rouletabille’s narrative starts using the past tense instead. It was rather confusing and made his sections feel very disjointed to me. There are also many dramatic references to random things, like Rouletabille’s repeated cry of, “Ah! The perfume of the Lady in Black!” which has absolutely nothing to do with this story, but apparently does have a great deal to do with the second story starring Rouletabille, aptly titled, The Perfume of the Lady in Black.
I found it virtually impossible to believe that Rouletabille was only 18, and when I was able to believe it, it made his character that much more obnoxious. Arrogance is acceptable in a character like Hercule Poirot because he has spent many years building his reputation and being brilliant. From a teenager, it just felt quite annoying.
All in all, while I found The Mystery of the Yellow Room to be fairly interesting as a piece of historical crime fiction, I wasn’t particularly enamored with it, and it was definitely not a story that made me yearn to read other adventures of Rouletabille. I think I probably would have liked it more if I had had a hard copy with proper formatting, but I’m also sure that I wouldn’t have liked Rouletabille any more on physical pages than I liked him in the ebook. 3/5.