Old Bestseller: The Perfume of the Lady in Black, by Gaston Leroux
A review by Rich Horton
Back to the original focus of this blog with a true Old Bestseller, though this book’s best sales might have been in France. Gaston Leroux (1868-1927) was a native of Paris who inherited a lot of money and earned a law degree. But by about 1890 he was broke and working in journalism. He became an international correspondent for Le Matin, most significantly covering the 1905 Russian Revolution (one that didn’t stick). He began publishing fiction as early as 1887, and his first novel appeared in 1904 (La Double Vie de Théophraste Longuet, known as The Double Life in English). He quit journalism in 1907, more or less simultaneously with his first major novelistic success, The Mystery of the Yellow Room. That was the first of ultimately seven novels about a young journalist who acts as a detective, Joseph Rouletabille. He is of course best known for his 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (The Phantom of the Opera), which has been made into numerous films and one very famous musical.
The Mystery of the Yellow Room was a locked-room story, and is still regarded as one of the best locked room mysteries of all time. The book at hand, La Parfum de la Dame en Noir (The Perfume of the Lady in Black), from 1909, is a direct sequel to The Mystery of the Yellow Room, and it is also a locked-room mystery. Of necessity, the following will involve spoilers for the first book.
The novel is narrated by M. Sainclair, an older friend of Joseph Rouletabille, who seems fairly openly a Watson figure. We begin in a shabby church in Paris, as Mlle. Mathilde Stangerson marries M. Robert Darzac. We gather that Mlle. Stangerson and M. Darzac were involved in the events of the previous book. Mathilde’s father, Professor Stangerson, had been accused of a murder, investigated by a detective, Frederic Larsan, with the assistance of Joseph Rouletabille. At the end, Rouletabille proved that the actual killer was in fact Larsan, a master of disguise who was also known as Ballmyer and as Jean Roussel, under which name he had married Mlle. Stangerson in America. She had a child with him, who died young, but had become estranged, and fell in love with M. Darzac. After Larsan is convicted of murder, he escapes, and flees to America, but falls overboard and drowns on the way there, freeing his ex-wife to marry M. Darzac.
The book is interrupted for some extended exposition about the childhood of Joseph Rouletabille, where we learn that he was actually the supposedly dead son of Frederic Larsan and Mathilde, who ended up at a strict boarding school, before he was expelled on a false charge of theft. Living on his own, he managed eventually to work his way into journalism.
The scene thus set, the newly married couple head off on their honeymoon to the South of France. But on the way, Mme. Darzac is shocked to see Larsan. Sainclair and Rouletabille follow them to their destination, a curious castle/island just on the Italian side of the Riviera, owned by Mr. Arthur Rance, an American, and his wife Edith. Mr. Rance, it seems, was once desperately in love with Mlle. Stangerson, and Edith is terribly jealous of her. Their party consists, then, of the Rances, the Darzacs, Sainclair, Rouletabille, Edith’s uncle, Old Bob, an anthropologist who believes he has discovered the oldest human skull of all time, and occasionally a neighbor, Prince Galitch, a Russian who is a rival of Old Bob, and who also seems inappropriately close to Mme. Edith. Other players are several servants, and, all fear, the mysterious specter of the apparently not really dead M. Larsan – whose continued survival would invalidate the marriage of the Darzacs.
All this takes a long, and frankly tedious, time to set up. Then the action commences, with strange behavior by Old Bob, flirtation and jealousy from Edith, and eventually a shooting, and the apparent disposal of the victim in a potato sack. But is he really dead? And, despite all Rouletabille’s efforts to make the castle impregnable, has Larsan found a way in? And how did the “extra body” somehow make his way into the Darzac chambers? And who was actually shot? And who is responsible for the death of one of the servants?
The whole thing is kind of convoluted and, as I suggested, often tedious. The characters never really come to life – it’s hard to much like any of them. (Part of this, to be sure, is because each character – even the narrator, Sainclair -- has to be presented as plausibly Larsan in disguise.) Leroux painstakingly describes, with diagrams!, the layout of the castle and of some key interiors. Things eventually come to a head, leading to a traditional wrapping up, with the detective gathering everyone in a room and explaining who is guilty – and with the bad guy, as is traditional, removing him- or herself from an inconvenient potential trial by some precipitate actions …
The mystery, I suppose, is nicely enough solved, if it does depend rather too much on Larsan’s incredible ability to disguise himself. But beyond that, the novel just doesn’t work – it’s too long, too boring, with an uninteresting set of characters. Some of this, I suppose, might possibly be laid at the door of the translator. My edition, I should add, is a 1909 edition, probably a first American, from Brentano’s (I assume possibly related to the bookseller). There are numerous illustrations (including the diagrams). The illustrator and translator are both uncredited. (I note that the science fiction writer Brian Stableford, who had translated an immense amount of French popular fiction from the 19th and early 20th Century, has translated at least one of the Rouletabille books.)