by Nicki Leone
“No, he is not a ghost; he is a man of Heaven and earth, that is all.”
― Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera
Gaston Leroux came into the world somewhat inconveniently on May 6, 1868, on the road from Le Mans to Normandy. His parents were forced to stop the coach between one train station and another and his mother, Marie-Alphonse, was carried to the nearest house, where she gave birth to a healthy and no doubt squalling baby boy. Years later, Leroux returned to see the house that had served as his inadvertent birthplace, only to discover that it had been converted to an undertaker’s shop. “There, where I sought a cradle,” he wrote, “I found a coffin.”
As metaphors for a life go, this tale seems wildly appropriate: A man who vagabonded around the globe in pursuit of stories is born almost before the carriage carrying his mother has a chance to stop. The writer who would become famous for his gothic tales and dark, sinister novels finds a coffin shop ensconced in his birthplace.
Gaston Louis Alfred Leroux, despite his adventurous introduction into the world, led a relatively normal, if privileged, childhood—his way smoothed by his father’s money, but also by his own easy nature and not insignificant intelligence. The son of a successful Normandy shipbuilder, Leroux was an excellent sailor, a good swimmer, and apparently also proficient at handling a catch of herring.
But of course parents always want something better for their children, so when he was old enough Gaston Leroux was sent to school to study law, where he took the requisite prizes and impressed his teachers. Had anyone asked what would become of M. Leroux at the time he received his degree, all would have avowed that the young man was destined to become a brilliant lawyer.
But two significant things happened in 1889 in the life of young Leroux. He had a sonnet published in the newspaper L’Echo de Paris, and his father died.
At first glance, it would seem that the latter tragedy would be more important than the former small triumph, especially since upon his death Leroux père left his son an inheritance of one million francs. Leroux fils did what any young man would do upon finding himself suddenly independent and very rich—he went on a bender. He dropped his law career and dived head first into the gambling dens, nightclubs, and theatrical shows of fin de siècle Paris, becoming immensely popular with all sorts of dissolute, albeit interesting, types. After six months, Gaston Leroux was broke. And the only thing he seemed to have learned from half a year’s worth of self-indulgence was that he absolutely did not want to be a lawyer.
Instead, he decided to be a writer.
To call Gaston Leroux a late bloomer is something of a misnomer. By the time he wrote The Mystery of the Yellow Room in 1907—the novel that would establish his literary reputation—he already enjoyed near-celebrity status as a journalist. He was the kind of correspondent who would go to almost any lengths to get his story, and became famous for getting interviews with elusive people under unusual circumstances. Leroux had demonstrated this aptitude early in his career, when he took it upon himself to interview a prisoner awaiting trial for a serious crime by posing as a prison anthropologist, even going so far as to produce forged credentials. This was outrageous enough, but much to the chagrin of the courts and the police, the article Leroux wrote exonerated the prisoner completely.
By all rights, he should have been arrested. But sales of the paper skyrocketed, and the editors at his paper Le Matin, knowing a good thing when it fell into their laps, stood by their wunderkind and promptly began dispatching him around the globe in pursuit of breaking news. Leroux’s name at the head of a column became a sure way to increase circulation.
And so Gaston Leroux became a roving investigative reporter, charged with ferreting out the story others couldn’t get. He journeyed from hot spot to hot spot, from one dangerous situation to another—a life of constant adventure that would have made Sir Richard Francis Burton envious, if only there had been more sex in it.
His talent for subterfuge and disguise, his willingness to walk into danger, and his ability to strike up a conversation with anyone under any circumstances became the most useful weapons in Leroux’s arsenal. He reported on an erupting Vesuvius from the edge of the crater, and disguised himself as an Arab to report on riots in Fez. He broke a story about a secret summit between Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Russian Tsar by making friends with a cook in the Tsar’s entourage. He met arctic explorers and Russian revolutionaries, but the man who brought world events to the pages of Le Matin was not a simply a yellow journalist anxious to jump on the most sensational story. His coverage, early in his career, of public executions by the guillotine made him an opponent of capital punishment for the rest of his life. He was also instrumental in the second trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, whom Leroux believed unequivocally to be innocent, and spared no ink in attempting to expose the scandal that poisoned France for more than a decade.
So why was it that in 1907, at the height of his fame and the pinnacle of his success as an investigative journalist, did Gaston Leroux decide to hang it all up so he could write novels? George Perry, in his book The Complete Phantom of the Opera, suggests it was an impulsive decision made when Leroux, having just returned from a long foreign assignment, received a late-night phone call from his editor telling him to hop on the next train to Toulon. Leroux responded with something Gallic and unprintable, slammed down the phone, and decided to become a novelist.
But it should not be forgotten that what first inspired Leroux to live by the pen was that sonnet published years before. He fell in love with literature as a young man studying law, going on to become a great reader who admired many important novelists of the age, including Stendhal, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas père, Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Émile Zola. And he never really abandoned what we might call “creative” writing, despite the demands of his journalism career; like many writers, his first novel, The Mystery of the Yellow Room, was not, in fact, his first novel. Since 1903 he had been publishing serialized fiction in Le Matin, and one of these—The Seeking of the Morning Treasures, based on the exploits of a famous bandit known as Cartouche—was wildly popular, not least because the paper staged a series of treasure hunts around Paris to publicize it.
The Mystery of the Yellow Room was Leroux’s breakthrough novel. He must have started writing the moment he hung up the phone on his editor, because it was published the very same year.
The genre known as “locked room mysteries” is something of an acquired taste. Modern readers tend to prefer their mystery novels for the “whodunnit” and “whydunnit” aspects of the story. The “howdunnit” is somewhat out of fashion in this era of forensic science and computer wizardry.
But in Leroux’s day, howdunnit was all the rage. Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue and the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle fascinated readers everywhere. So Leroux, like any budding novelist, decided to write what was selling. “When I sat down to pen that story,” he recalled, “I decided to go ‘one better’ than Conan Doyle, and make my ‘mystery’ more complete than even Edgar Allan Poe had ever done.”
This would have been fabulously arrogant if Leroux hadn’t made good with his very first book. The Mystery of the Yellow Room is often cited as one of the original—and best—of the locked room mysteries. John Dickson Carr, the acknowledged master of the genre, cites it as the book to which he aspired.
But why did it make such an impression? The main character, Joseph Rouletabille, is not especially original. A young but brilliant journalist, at the beginning of the story he has already achieved fame for solving a crime that had the police stumped. If the character sounds a little familiar—well, that’s no accident. Nor can the book’s success be attributed to Leroux’s style, which at this point in his literary career still carries the cadences of a journalist. The story, like other novels of the day, is presented as a series of memoirs, journals, letters, and court documents, but there is no real attempt to distinguish one speaker from another in the profusion of sources.
Part of the problem with locked room mysteries is that the narrative tends to sink into a morass of technical details provided so the reader can be absolutely sure that the room in question was, in fact, locked. In the case of the Yellow Room, a woman is attacked in her own bedroom. Her father and a loyal family servant hear a commotion and her cry for help, and attempt to break into the room. It takes a few minutes, during which they are standing at the door—the only way out of the room. They burst in, find the lady unconscious and bloody, and the room otherwise empty. Even the window is still locked and barred. There is nowhere for the perpetrator to hide, no way for him to have escaped, yet he is not in the room.
The solution to this mystery—who tried to kill the young woman and how he could have escaped—occupies the rest of the book, and Leroux takes great pains to explain just how impossible it was for anyone to have escaped unseen. He measures the dimensions of the bedroom, describes the construction of the door and the window, and offers the direction of the corridor and the height of the room from the ground below, going so far as to draw maps of the house’s layout for the reader’s edification. Various characters propose solutions, which the author then, in the character of Rouletabille, demolishes. One person suggests the father was in on it, another that the accomplice was the family servant. A family friend proposes that the would-be murderer hid in the mattress on the lady’s bed. (Rouletabille barely deigns to respond to this). A local magistrate suggests that the murderer slipped past the men while they were looking the other way. At one point, people start to suggest ghosts and apparitions. Rouletabille all but loses his temper:
Novelists build mountains of stupidity out of a footprint on the sand, or from an impression of a hand on the wall. That’s the way innocent men are brought to prison. It might convince an examining magistrate or the head of a detective department, but it’s not proof. You writers forget that what the senses furnish is not proof. If I am taking cognisance of what is offered me by my senses I do so but to bring the results within the circle of my reason. That circle may be the most circumscribed, but if it is, it has this advantage—it holds nothing but the truth! Yes, I swear that I have never used the evidence of the senses but as servants to my reason. I have never permitted them to become my master. They have not made of me that monstrous thing,—worse than a blind man,—a man who sees falsely.
What is it that Sherlock Holmes used to say? When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever left, however improbable, must be the truth.
The particular triumph of The Mystery of the Yellow Room, the reason Leroux might be justified in his claim to have one-upped Mr. Arthur Conan Doyle and Mr. Edgar Allan Poe, and the reason why the book is still cited by aficionados as one of the great locked room mysteries of all time, lies in the answer to how the would-be murderer escaped that room. Poe and Doyle each wrote their own locked room stories, of course. And in each case the solution is exotic, to say the least: strange animals loose in the night, secret passageways and hidden doors.
Leroux dispenses with all such fantastic devices. The police spend a fair amount of time searching for trap doors and secret passages, but Rouletabille is confident at the outset no such thing will be found. Instead, the author relies on misdirection to trap the unwary reader, who would do well to remember Roulatabille’s somewhat heated admonishment: “You writers forget that what the senses furnish is not proof.”
All good mysteries take advantage of that disconnect between what we see and what we expect to see, and this one does so to wonderful effect. The men of the house behold a woman swooning on the floor, but no assailant in the room, and begin to think of supernatural explanations. Rouletabille sees the same picture, but deduces something far more ordinary, logical, and mundane. His reasoning is absolutely sound, but most readers will have to wait for the denouement at the end of the novel to discover it.
At which point, 99 out of a hundred readers will exclaim, “Oh!” and the novel, which up to this point has been a strange collection of testimonies and seemingly sinister coincidences, will suddenly resolve itself into a highly satisfying mystery story.
Gaston Leroux would go on to write dozens of other novels, many featuring Rouletabille and liberally sprinkled with anecdotes from his vast experience as a journalist. He still enjoyed gambling, and was in the habit of writing a new book whenever he had to pay off his gambling debts. “I have to be pushed by deadlines,” he said, the reporter’s discipline never truly leaving him. It wasn’t until 1911 that Leroux wrote the novel that would make him famous forever, The Phantom of the Opera.
Today, The Mystery of the Yellow Room is an all but forgotten story drowned out by the more famous madman behind his mask, banging away, enraged, on the Opera House organ. Inspired by true events—a chandelier counterweight falling into the audience at the Opera House, and the discovery of a skeleton in the catacombs under the building—The Phantom of the Opera became Leroux’s best known and most successful book. Although its fame was somewhat late in coming, having received only lukewarm praise on the continent, Phantom took off once Hollywood turned it into a movie with Lon Cheney almost a dozen years after it was first published. Its success continues unabated into the 21st century, with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation topping the list of Broadway’s longest running shows.
In many ways, The Phantom of the Opera is utterly unlike The Mystery of the Yellow Room: reason gives way to horror, common sense to superstition. Dark and secret passageways abound, and a specter rules the stage of the Paris Opera House. It is only on reflection that one sees the common threads between the early detective story and the late gothic novel. But The Mystery of the Yellow Room is littered with gothic elements: strange animal cries in the night, sinister caped figures that seem to vanish into nowhere, brave young women set upon by evil forces. And the Opera Ghost of The Phantom of the Opera turns out to be not a demon, but as Leroux writes, just “a man of Heaven and Earth, that is all.”
The late but rising popularity of The Phantom of the Opera did not deter Leroux from racking up more gambling debts, which he had to pay off with the advances from more books. He wrote up until his death in 1929, at the age of 59, publishing books at the rate of roughly once a year in a wide variety of genres—fantasy, horror, even romance. He also wrote plays, and screenplays, and even founded a company with the mission of turning novels into films. (He soon lost interest.)
But Phantom’s success in Hollywood did allow Leroux to enjoy the last years of his life in rather sumptuous circumstances. Until he died, Leroux insisted that there really was a Phantom of the Opera House—a real, breathing man who made his home in the catacombs below the building—and his children and grandchildren continue to reaffirm his statement. The book itself is written not as a novel, but as a reporter submitting copy to his editor.
Leroux led a story-filled life, which he turned into novel after novel. So it is hard not to imagine that the lines between what was real and what was fiction might have become a little blurred. “In Paris,” as Leroux writes, “our lives are one masked ball.”
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities at a young age when she asked her parents if she could exchange a gift of jewelry for a hardcover Merriam-Webster. Later, her college career and attending loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. Currently she works with the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. She has been a book reviewer for local magazines and newspapers, and the on-air book commentator for her local public radio and television stations. She is also past president and a current member of the board of the North Carolina Writers Network. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with a varying numbers of dogs and cats.
Homepage photo credit: Universal Pictures