restricted access 7. Sealed Chambers and Open Eyes: Leroux's Mystère de la chambre jaune

From: Optiques

University of Pennsylvania Press colophon
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Chapter 7 Sealed Chambers and Open Eyes: Leroux's Mystere de la chambre jaune The 2003 release in France of Bruno Podalydes's film adaptation of Gaston Leroux's Le Mystere de la chambre jaune (1907) has brought renewed attention to this classic detective story and to its visual potentiality.l Podalydes plays up its scenes of surveillance, blindness, and insight by overlaying tropes of photography with the visual universe ofTintin comic books; in his film, the book's narrator Sainclair becomes a bespectacled photographer whose optical prosthetics identify him as "the man who sees."2 But while the story's cinematic rebirth may tempt us to read its "optics" in a vague post-Lacanian sense (metaphors of mastery, sins of the filmic gaze), such a reading would elide a scientism specific to Leroux's age. As with so many late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century detective novels, Le Mystere de la chambrejaune embeds its criminal investigation plot in the broader semantic universe of scientific investigation: the initial crime, a nocturnal attack on Mademoiselle Stangerson, occurs in a chamber (the Yellow Room) abutting a scientific laboratory where Miss Stangerson and her father have spent years engaged in physics researchthe preradiographic study of the dissociation ofmatter. The international renown of the Stangersons, described as precursors to Monsieur and Madame Curie, is said to be such that the threatened interruption of their research constitutes an incalculable loss to science.3 But in Podalydes's film version, laboratory vials give way to quack machinery as Stangerson is recast as a kooky inventor of solar cars and trick gadgets. In his decision to evacuate the serious scientific content of Leroux's 1907 novel, Podalydes resembles modern critics of the detective fiction genre. In the wake offorceful psychoanalytic and post-structuralist readings of the 1970s and 1980s, critics have generally been loath to invoke the scientific context of detective fiction, perhaps for fear of falling into the simplistic influence model exemplified by one of the genre's earliest studies, Regis Messac's Le "Detective Novel" et l'influence de la pensee scientifique (1929).4 But by foregrounding the tensions inherent to linguistic system and libidinal romance, we risk forgetting that complex streams of ambivalence coursed through the scientific epistemology of detective 138 Chapter 7 fiction at its very genesis. These chapters aim to revive the connection between literary detection and scientific deduction, between investigative mode and empirical method in the context offin-de-siecle positivist thought. Leroux's Le Mystere de la chambre jaune, an acknowledged keystone in the detective genre's emergence, connects explicit musings on physics to a constellation of less obvious allusions to optics-that is, to the science of vision, in the literal, physiological, anatomical sense. This 1907 novel thus emerges as a key to understanding the early detective as private "eye."5 Indeed, through attention to the optical semantics of the novel's pivotal yellow room (chambrejaune/optical chamber) and its elaboration of criminal inquiry, this chapter extends our investigation of the detective genre's visuality as crucially structured by an unresolved epistemological struggle between empirical method and abstract deduction. The Yellow Room/The Blind Spot When writing his fiction, erstwhile journalist Gaston Leroux used to folIowa peculiar home ritual. He would shut himself up in a small study for the duration of the writing period while his family waited in silence; after days and weeks, he exited the room, announced the completion of his novel with a pistol shot, and was greeted by thejubilant "tintamarre" [din] of his relieved relatives.6 This anecdote may provide some psychobiographical illumination of themes in Le Mystere de la chambrejaune, a novel plotted around pistol shots, enclosed rooms, and a woman silenced by her (former) husband. But more specifically, it evokes precisely what made this popular novel, set in 1892, an instant classic: its "closed room" topOS.7 Inspired by Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue," the ''Yellow Room Mystery" takes the theme of crime in an enclosed chamber even further than did the father of the genre. Leroux's narrator mentions as antecedent solutions both Poe's ape and Doyle's serpent (in "The Speckled Band"), but emphasizes that his case involves a hermetically sealed space, with no conceivable or allowed ingress or egress: "But here, any kind of opening whatsoever is totally out of the question. With the door sealed and the shutters closed the way they were, and the window closed, not even a fly could get in or...