Thursday, July 21, 2011

July in Paris - Gaston Leroux

Gaston Leroux's Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908) is considered one of the best locked room, impossible mysteries ever written. You know the story - a crime takes place in a locked room, in which it is appears certain that not a single soul has entered or left.

I've read the Yellow Room before and not enjoyed it but thought, in the spirit of my investigations into French detective fiction, that it deserved another go. Readers, I hated it. I must say that I'm not a fan of the genre. Locked room mysteries, by their very nature, require outlandish solutions, such that any criminal would be a nincompoop to attempt.

People are still not entirely convinced about the honesty of policeman so our detective is a journalist, Rouletabille. His approach is that of Holmesian deduction - reason above all! He also shares Holmes irritating trait of intellectual superiority and snobbery. And he withholds clues! Not playing the game at all! I'm also particularly unimpressed by the character of the noble, sensitive female who clearly knows who did it but refuses to speak (she crops up quite frequently in detective fiction of this era). Ladies, there is no reason for this! Speak up and we can all go home.

What this work does do is further the development of the detective novel. It combines the creepy otherworldliness of the gothic thriller with the clear logic of Sherlock Holmes. It also makes use of a journalistic style to continually challenge the reader - there is a rational explanation to this seemingly supernatural crime. This introduction of a journalistic style appears a number of times around detective fiction of the era and has a number of effects. It adds a level of veracity - for all that the style seems sensationalist. to the modern reader. It also adds pace and urgency to the story. You feel as though you are getting updates hot off the press. The challenge to the reader is a new feature - sure, some clues are withheld, but it's the seeds of the puzzle mystery, where the reader is invited to be the detective.

I've also been disappointed by my second Garboriau mystery, The Blackmailers (1907). It starts off as a locked room mystery but quickly becomes a tale of...well, it becomes a bit of a mess really. What I applauded earlier in Monsieur Lecoq as swift energy in the narrative here comes a cross as ill conceived and hasty. I feel that not a lot of care has been taken, I'd readily believe that this was scribbled on the back of an envelope! I confess, I didn't finish it. I simply didn't care about the story or the characters and the mystery wasn't really very mysterious. There is strong evidence again of the influence of earlier French fiction of the turn of the century - family scandals, illegitimate children, blackmail and people fleeing the country wrongly accused of crimes - the whole melodrama. There's a more marked enthusiasm for disguises - which is somewhat endearing but really, the detecting side of things is quite ludicrous. And the writing is just plain bad. Quite a disappointment. It was, however, a popular book in its time. Again we see the influence of Vidocq - readers are interested in the outlandish thrill of the trace, exciting disguises and all the crafty ruses of the cunning detective.

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Vagabonde said...

I just clicked on your blog from a list on another blog. I read your post on Gaston Leroux. You know I read Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune when I was a teenager in France. I really liked it then. I don’t know if I would like it now. It started me reading mysteries – I read tons of Agatha Christie. On my last trip back home to Paris last month I bought several more Simenon, in French – they are hard to find here in French (Atlanta area.) I will come back to your blog to read more of your book reports.

Curvy Kitty said...

I LOVE Agatha Christie so it's been interesting to delve into French mysteries. So many of the authors were incredibly influential in the development of the detective novel. I'm having so much fun!