How many fictional French detectives can you name? I’ve asked a number of people this question recently and most of the answers I’ve received contain the name Inspector Clouseau, and little else. It seems that in any list of famous fictional detectives there is likely to be a representative from Belgium, but not from France. This is unfair. French detective fiction contains many treasures, and the finest among them is the character Joseph Rouletabille, from the pen of the great Gaston Leroux.
For a good deal of the twentieth French crime writers had to resort to using American pseudonyms in order to get published. When one considers both the start that the genre had in France and the plethora of fine crime fiction that exists today, this seems extraordinary.
The origins of French detective fiction can be traced back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the memoirs of the part criminal, part Chief of Police, Eugène François Vidocq who founded La Sûreté Nationale, the precursor to the French national police, and much-parodied employer of Inspector Clouseau. Vidocq’s memoirs inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write The Murders in the Rue Morgue, his celebrated locked room mystery set in Paris. Poe’s work was translated by Baudelaire and it was the appearance of crime fiction in the French language, that paved the way for French crime fiction in its own right.
Whether it was inspiration or necessity that drove Gaston Leroux to write is unclear, but he came to it after a dramatic change in fortune. Leroux was born in 1868 and studied law but his youthful excesses led him into bankruptcy shortly after graduation. It was to be the making of him and his legacy. Crippled financially he turned to writing and worked as a theatre critic and a journalist. An accomplished foreign correspondent he covered the Russian Revolution at the start of the twentieth century. Closer to home he reported on the discovery of a prison cell in the basement of the Paris Opera, a story that would influence his most famous literary contribution. In 1907 his story, The Mystery of the Yellow Room, was serialised in a periodical and was published as a book in its own right the following year. It is one of the finest locked room mysteries ever written drawing praise from a young Agatha Christie and later, John Dickson Carr, a celebrated locked room mystery writer, who pays homage to Leroux’s work in his own writing. This praise is well placed not least because The Mystery of the Yellow Room introduces the world to Joseph Rouletabille.
Rouletabille is a young journalist, a parallel of Leroux’s own life and his character dominates the pages of the book. He reappears in its follow up The Perfume of the Lady in Black in which he grapples once again with the master criminal Ballmeyer, and in several other lesser-known, but equally impressive books. He is a journalist, detective, secret agent, lover and international playboy all rolled into one. Very cool. Very French.
If you like crime fiction, and locked room mysteries in particular, then The Mystery of the Yellow Room should be on your bedside table. It is exceptional. You might not know it but you are actually very familiar with Leroux’s most famous literary contribution. As a novel, it received little credit, but in a different form it has gone on to become one of the most recognised love stories ever written, enjoyed by millions across the world. I’ll give you a clue. It is the title of this post.