Even before penning The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux had already lived a memorable life. Born in Paris in 1868, he grew up in Normandy, where his grandparents owned a ship-building company. Although he was an aspiring writer who looked up to such French luminaries as Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, Leroux for a time abandoned his plans in order to placate his father. Studying law in Paris, he graduated in 1889, but his father died that same year, leaving Leroux an inheritance of over a million francs. Suddenly finding himself a wealthy young man in the European capital of culture, Leroux quickly spent most of his money on gambling and drinking. After six months of living the playboy lifestyle, he was in need of a job.
Leroux’s first writing gig came as a reporter and theater critic for L'Echo de Paris, a daily newspaper. Before long, the young writer tapped into his legal training and became a courtroom reporter. One of his assignments was covering the controversial Dreyfus affair: a case of espionage which almost tore the troubled Third French Republic apart. By 1894, Leroux was one of the most widely read foreign correspondents for both L'Echo de Paris and Le Matin, another Paris-based daily newspaper.
Although a highly successful journalist, Leroux had almost abandoned the medium entirely by 1909. From that year on, he immersed himself in writing fiction, with a particular emphasis on detective novels and dramatic plays. On top of this, by 1919, he was the owner of a film company called Cineromans. Although Leroux was heavily involved in the French film industry, it took Carl Laemmle, one of the founders of Universal Pictures, and a vacation to Paris to begin the process of translating The Phantom of the Opera into a movie. The end result was 1925’s adaptation directed by Rupert Julian and starring Lon Chaney, Sr.
Because of the enormous success of Julian’s film, and because of subsequent film and stage adaptations, The Phantom of the Opera has become bigger than Leroux himself. Even among those who are aware of his responsibility for the enigmatic phantom known simply as Erik, not much is known about Leroux’s bibliography beyond the novel, which was first serialized in Le Gaulois, another daily newspaper. Yet some would argue that his best work is a detective story starring a strange looking young reporter.
Published in 1907, The Mystery of the Yellow Room introduced the world to Leroux’s energetic journalist Joseph Josephin, aka Rouletabille. Besides his bullet-shaped head, Rouletabille is known as an expert detective, and in The Mystery of the Yellow Room, he not only investigates a baffling, almost impossible case which involves a criminal somehow escaping unnoticed from a locked room, but he also faces off against Ballmeyer, an international criminal known for his many disguises and his ability to slip through the fingers of justice time and time again.
The Mystery of the Yellow Room was not only a hit upon its release but has proven to be one of the more influential detective novels. As one of the first “locked-room” mysteries (a sub-genre which almost always includes an elaborate crime which occurs inside of a locked room or some other kind of confined area), The Mystery of the Yellow Room was read and admired by such writers as Agatha Christie, who more than likely took the idea of including floor plans and detailed diagrams in her later novels from Leroux’s story, and John Dickson Carr, the American writer who specialized in locked-room mysteries.
For his own part, Leroux intended the novel to “go ‘one better’ than Conan Doyle.” The Mystery of the Yellow Room certainly presents one of the most genius plots ever concocted in a detective novel, and the author’s decision to challenge his readers with an intellectual puzzle has proven to be a winning formula. Because of this, Rouletabille is one of Leroux’s most popular characters, and he even made it into film years before the Phantom.
Besides Rouletabille, Leroux also created another literary hero. Cheri-Bibi is almost unknown in the English-speaking world, but in France he has been the subject of films and comics for several decades. A hulking butcher’s apprentice with inhuman strength, Cheri-Bibi is falsely accused of murdering his boss and the father of his fiancee, Mr. Bourrelier. While imprisoned at the notorious Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana, Cheri-Bibi’s fiancee Cecily marries Maxime du Touchais, but the marriage soon takes a dark turn. After taking over a prison ship and leaving the penal colony, Cheri-Bibi finds a shipwrecked Maxime and decides to switch faces with him. After calling upon a surgeon, Cher-Bibi returns to France wearing the face of the dead Maxime. Unfortunately, the unlucky butcher’s apprentice learns that it was Maxime who had murdered Mr. Bourrelier, and now, once again, Cheri-Bibi is wanted for a crime he didn’t commit.
Because of his obvious love for the outre, Leroux also found success as a writer of horror novels and short stories. His short story "In Letters of Fire" was considered one of the better haunted house stories from the era, and other short stories, such as “The Mystery of the Four Husbands,” even saw print in America, most notably in pulp magazines like Weird Tales.
In 1927, Leroux died at the age of 58 in the French city of Nice. Ultimately a victim of his indulgent lifestyle (he kept gambling, a habit he supported by writing), Leroux went to his deathbed a popular and successful writer across many genres. Still, even while alive, he could not break the shadow of his most famous work. It’s no wonder then that many of Leroux’s final moments were absorbed in declaring the truth behind the Phantom. Famously, he proclaimed that the “Opera Ghost really did exist!” Whether or not this is true (my personal vote is for not), Leroux was a brilliant storyteller who did much more than give the world one of its favorite ghosts.
Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vermont. He prefers “Ben” or “Benzo,” and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Crime Magazine, The Crime Factory, Seven Days and Ravenous Monster. He used to teach English at the University of Vermont, but now just drinks beer and runs his own blog called The Trebuchet.
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