It all began one Sunday afternoon around three years ago. At home by myself, I was lounging on the couch and zapping idly across TV, young and carefree and looking for my kicks.
Suddenly, I fell onto the start of an episode of Columbo. It drew me in and I watched it to the end, and after that I’d try and catch another episode whenever I could. Hi-tech procedural cop shows like CSI Wherever never appealed to me, but Columbo’s top-drawer plots, writing and characters, plus a dazzling first episode directed by a certain young S. Spielberg, got me hooked. Betweentimes, lesser but no less entertaining detective shows like The Mentalist and Castle scratched the itch.
Habit started, I needed to kick on to harder stuff, and that’s how I got into reading old-school detective thrillers. For instance, on holidays last year I read my first Agatha Christie novel — The ABC Murders, featuring Hercule Poirot, and I loved it. After a lifetime of vague, self-obsessed literary fiction and auteur cinema, I had been missing the hearty, satisfying goodness of a well-made plot. Plus, Christie’s writing was a lot better than I had expected: crafted, dynamic and appealingly wry in places.
The detective genre has its own share of literary cred, but the most famous ones are not always as good as you hope. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were a let-down. Where the TV adaptations with Jeremy Brett and later Benedict Cumberbatch were taut and swaggering, Watson’s narration in the books is woolly and sometimes boring. Edgar Allan Poe’s famous detective story, ‘Murder in the Rue Morgue’, is let down by a fairly poor ending. (It was the raven.) The one Maigret novel I started reading, I didn’t bother to finish.
So, what’s the best detective novel? According to a Sunday newspaper article I happened upon lately (the method by which I make all my life choices these days) it’s a French one from 1908 called The Mystery of the Yellow Room, by Gaston Leroux — he of the original book of The Phantom of the Opera. Can anything good really come from someone who enabled an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical? I decided to find out.
Mystery solved; The Mystery of the Yellow Room is fantastic. Its plot is the daddy of all locked-room conundrums. The heroine is attacked and mortally wounded but her would-be rescuers, on hearing gunshots and breaking down her bedroom door, are astounded to discover that her assailant has apparently escaped into thin air. All the doors had been bolted shut from the inside. All windows were barred. No secret hatches or gaps or holes were hidden in the walls. H-h-h-how?
Right from the off, Leroux piles on the excitement — our narrator slashes through the Watsonian waffle and breathlessly introduces us to both the impossible crime and the sleuth who will solve it. Every new detail reinforces the perplexity, and yet despite each new obstacle the hero still insists he is closing in on an explanation. This double dose of intrigue is intoxicating; I read the book over several commutes and at least twice I stayed on the bus for an extra stop just to finish a chapter.
That sleuth is Joseph Rouletabille, a mere lad of 19 but already a noted reporter for a Paris newspaper. This might at first sound more like Tintin, but he’s a precocious, grandstanding problem-solver in the manner of Sherlock Holmes (or perhaps more accurately, Young Sherlock Holmes). Unusually for such a famous detective story there aren’t many film or TV adaptations of this book. I suspect this is because Rouletabille is such an intense yet elusive character that any screen portrayal would fade abysmally compared to the Rouletabille in the reader’s mind.
As if the mystery itself wasn’t taxing enough, facing Rouletabille is an equally thorny tangle of family and locals, each seeming to have something to hide, plus a celebrated rival detective competing for the prize. On top of that, set it all in a shadowy chateau a mere train hop from Paris, and you have an atmospheric thriller to beat them all.
Rest assured, Leroux does his set-up justice by serving a satisfactory pay-off — no copping out with implausibly-trained killer wildlife like your Poes or your Doyles. (A big #SozNotSoz for spoiling some key works of 19th century detective fiction for you just there.) The climax of the novel sees Rouletabille literally hold court in a sensational trial, the forerunner to all those showpiece courtroom scenes you know so well from cinema.
Anyway, here’s how it was done. You see, it’s… ah, forget it. I know damn well that since I mentioned it six paragraphs ago, all you’ve been thinking about is the theme from The Phantom of the Opera:
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