Gaston Leroux Essay - Critical Essays


The first two volumes of the Rouletabille series, The Mystery of the Yellow Room and The Perfume of the Lady in Black, are Gaston Leroux’s masterpieces. These novels complement each other by rounding out the character and personality of their hero, the reporter-detective Joseph Rouletabille. They also involve Rouletabille’s confidant Sainclair (who also serves as the narrator), Mathilde Stangerson (the Lady in Black), Robert Darzac, and the notorious criminal Ballmeyer (alias Jean Roussel and Frédéric Larsan). Both stories involve the attempted murder of Mathilde Stangerson by the same persistent criminal whose identity is hidden from the rest of the characters until uncovered by Rouletabille, and both concern the mystery of how the criminal entered a hermetically sealed room to make such attempts and escaped thereafter.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room and The Perfume of the Lady in Black

The two novels differ in the times and places in which their stories occur in France. The Mystery of the Yellow Room takes place in 1892, principally at the Château du Glandier, located on the edge of the forest of Sainte-Genevieve, just above Èpinay-sur-Orge. It is the residence of the famous American-French chemist Professor Stangerson and his beautiful daughter Mathilde, who assists her father in his experiments regarding his theory of the “dissociation of matter” by electrical action that contradicted the law of the “conservation of matter.” Her bedroom, abutting her father’s laboratory, is the sealed “yellow room,” in which she is viciously attacked and seriously injured by the unknown criminal. The narrative of The Perfume of the Lady in Black takes place in 1895—although flashbacks take the reader to earlier times in the lives of Rouletabille, Stangerson, and Larsan. The main events take place at the Fort of Hercules, located at Roches Rouges, near Menton on the Côte d’Azur, the home of Arthur and Edith Rance. In The Perfume of the Lady in Black, Mathilde Stangerson and Robert Darzac are married. As husband and wife, they occupy adjoining bedrooms in the Square Tower of the fort, and these apartments are hermetically sealed when an attempt on the life of Darzac takes place inside, thus constituting another locked-room mystery. In addition, there are mysteries concerning the identification of Larsan and the one “body too many.”

What is not so plain about these two novels, among a number of subordinate matters, is their underlying mythical structures, which are hidden, particularly in The Mystery of the Yellow Room, by the technical device of displacement or the adaptation of myth to realistic criteria. In The Mystery of the Yellow Room, Rouletabille says of Mathilde Stangerson: “I saw her. . . . I breathed her—I inhaled the perfume of the lady in black. . . . How the memory of that perfume—felt by me alone—carries me back to the days of my childhood.” Although ignorant at this time that she is his mother, he—and he alone—senses the fragrance, one might say the aura, of the mother he knew as a child. The Perfume of the Lady in Black reveals that Rouletabille was separated from his mother at the age of nine. When he applied for the job of reporter in The Mystery of the Yellow Room, its editor in chief asked him his name. He replied “Joseph Josephine.” The...

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