It is the first novel starring fictional detective Joseph Rouletabille, and concerns a complex and seemingly impossible crime in which the criminal appears to disappear from a locked room. Leroux provides the reader with detailed, precise diagrams and floorplans illustrating the scene of the crime. The emphasis of the story is firmly on the intellectual challenge to the reader, who will almost certainly be hard pressed to unravel every detail of the situation.
Agatha Christie admired the novel and in her early years said she would like to try writing such a book. John Dickson Carr, the master of locked-room mystery, has his detective Dr Gideon Fell declare this as the 'best detective tale ever written' in his 1935 novel The Hollow Man. In a poll of 17 mystery writers and reviewers, this novel was voted as the third best locked room mystery of all time, behind The Hollow Man and Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit.
The novel finds its continuation in The Perfume of the Lady in Black where a number of the characters familiar from this story reappear.