Friday, April 24, 2015

Adventure classics -- The case of the brainy beauty

The Mystery of the Yellow Room
by Gaston Leroux

Quick -- what woman scientist of the early twentieth century devoted her life to unravelling the secrets of atomic structure? Like any detectives, we’ll need a few clues: she was lovely, blonde and French, but with foreign antecedents. She became famous in middle age, after working closely with an almost equally-famous male family member. And of course, there was a tragedy in her life. You’re smiling. Marie Curie, of course, you say smugly.

And so Gaston Leroux knew his readers would say also. With an ex-journalist’s eye for stories ripped from the headlines, he cribbed facts from Curie’s life for what is possibly the most baffling “locked room mystery” of all time, 1908’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room.

Polish-born Curie and her husband Pierre had shared the Nobel Prize in 1903. Three years later, Pierre died in a bizarre traffic accident, leaving Marie to carry on their work on radiation, or in the parlance of the time, the dissociation of matter. The ink was hardly dry on the newspaper headlines when Leroux composed his paean to women in science. This time around, though, the heroine, Mathilde Stangerson, has a scandalous secret in her past.

Leroux had been both a newspaper reporter and a lawyer (a profession initially forced on him by his father). Given his experience as both, he cannily sets his story more than a decade before Curie’s greatest fame. He knew too much about libel to risk incurring a law suit by a too-close parallel to Curie’s life.

Leroux uses the story to introduce his investigative reporter/detective, young Joseph Rouletabille, and his slightly older lawyer friend Sainclair, the Watson to Rouletabille’s Holmes, who narrates the tale.

Beautiful Mathilde Stangerson, thirty-something daughter and co-worker of her scientist father, hovers near death following a brutal attack. After a late night of experiments, Mathilde retired to her room next to the isolated laboratory she shares with her father. But why did she lock herself in, taking a revolver with her? And why and how did an assailant slip past her half-American father to attack her? Still more bizarre, when her father and a trusted old servant managed to break down the door to Mathilde’s room, why wasn’t there anyone there except the unconscious woman herself?

So puzzling is the case that the police have called in the country’s greatest detective, Frederick Larsan, to solve the case. But Larsan reckons without the aid of indomitable journalist Rouletabille. And without the resolve of Mathilde herself, who refuses to speak even after recovering her senses.

Can there be a link between the attack and Mathilde’s refusal to marry, despite many offers? Twenty-first century readers may suspect Mathilde simply doesn’t want to play second fiddle to still another man, but Leroux was determined to find other reasons for her self-enforced celibacy. The “how” of the vanishing attacker eluded me until the end. And although I was sure I knew the name of the assailant and the motive halfway through the book, Leroux (and Rouletabille) managed a twist that turned “locked room” stories into the mystery writers’ Holy Grail.

American author S.S. Van Dine’s 20 laws of writing detective stories, discussed last Friday, had not yet been published, but Leroux would probably have had a good laugh over how many of them, less immutable than the laws of physics, he managed to flout. I won’t spoil readers’ pleasure by pointing out those rule breakers. Read The Mystery of the Yellow Room yourselves. It’s still readily available, including free downloads from Google’s Project Gutenberg,

(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins a May of historical adventures with Lilian Lee’s tale of opera and passion, Farewell to My Concubine.)

No comments:

Post a Comment