Saturday, June 18, 2011

"I have eaten all your caviar. I am your guest. I am your friend"

Sometimes one only imagines things," said Rouletabille, keeping his hand on the door.
"Oh yes," said the other, growing more and more melancholy. "So a man suffers.He is his own tormentor; he himself makes the wheel on which, like his own executioner, he binds himself."
"Rouletabille chez le Tsar"

While I love Maurice LeBlanc's Arsene Lupin novels, I really regret I can't read them in the original French. I just can't seem to get feeling for the language. Strangely enough, I had few problems with Latin at school, but French... I just can't do it. I feel the same regret about Gaston Leroux's Rouletabille series, which I have read in English. While not perfect, it's hard to not acknowledge how some problems in Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune were simply brilliant. I have to be honest and say I can remember absolutely nothing about the crimes in the sequel Le Parfum de la Dame en Noir, but as I don't feel an instant obnoxious feeling coming up like I feel with some Sayers' novels, I am going on a limb here and say it was at least entertaining.

The third Rouletabille novel picks up right where the previous left us. In Rouletabille chez le Tsar ("Rouletabille with the Czar", US: Secret of the Night), young French reporter Joseph Rouletabille is requested by the Czar himself to protect General Trebassof, responsible for subdueing a Nihilist revolution in Russia and the death of countless of young students. Designated as an enemy of the people for his deeds in the revolution by the Nihilists, there have been several attempts at the life of Trebassof. With his legs injured by a previous attempt with a bomb, Trebassof is confined to his house together with his wife and daughter. Despite an all-out security, somebody seems to be able to get into the house though, and it is up to the eccentric reporter to put a stop to this all.

Not sure what to think about the story. While the previous novels weren't that fair either, this novel was mostly a clueless mystery, with Rouletabille walking (crawling/swimming/etc.) around and then revealing unbelievable things we didn't know about. Yet, near the last two chapters some strings of plot were knitted together nicely and I felt positive about the book when I finished it. But I suspect I was just being fooled by a sweet aftertaste.

The poking around for the ways the Nihilists are going to attack the general is a big change from the previous two novels, which centered on good old crime scene investigation. Add in the change in writing style (no longer the notebook-style narration) and the new, rather antagonistic environment of Russia right after the subdueing of a bloody revolution attempt and and we have a novel that feels quite different from the previous novels. I guess you could do something really fun with the pre-emptive locked room mystery (solving how they're going to enter a locked room). But that is not really what Leroux did here. Too bad.

From the tone of my writings you can probably guess I am not really excited about this novel. If I think about the previous novels, I just see too much potential gone to waste. It's not completely awful, but it takes too long for just a small sniff of something nice.

1 comment :

  1. Its predecessor is pretty much the reason why always refrained from reading this book and I think your review justifies that decision.

    The Mystery of the Yellow Room, in spite of its flaws, is a landmark novel in the genre, but the whole series obviously started to go down hill in The Perfume of the Lady in Black – when some incredible coincidences were piled one up another to give Rouletabille a back story.

    However, it must be noted that Leroux's books aren't, technically speaking, detective novels, but roman-feuilletons, which explains the episodic nature of the chapters, and it's therefore not entirely fair to measure them with the same yardstick that we use for Carr, Queen, Yokomizo, etc. By the way, have you ever finished reading The Phantom of the Opera?

    And I'm curious which other Western novels you'll be reviewing in the upcoming days!