The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen (1934)

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chinese orangeThe Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) by Ellery Queen
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Most older mystery readers will be quite familiar with Ellery Queen, but for a new generation of readers it is necessary to provide a little background information. Ellery Queen is not only a fictional detective, one of the greatest figures in American detective fiction, he is also a pseudonym originally used by two American cousins from Brooklyn, Daniel Nathan, alias Frederic Dannay (1905 – 1982) and Manford Emanuel Lepofsky, alias Manfred Bennington Lee (1905 – 1971), who wrote, edited, and anthologized detective fiction, most notably in the famous Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which was launched in 1941 and is still published today under the supervision of new ‘Ellery Queen’ editors. Even a brief review of the number of talented authors whose careers began with being published in this magazine is quite remarkable. The fictional Ellery Queen, as created by Dannay and Lee, was a man about town, a mystery writer, and an amateur sleuth who helped his father, New York City police inspector, Richard Queen, in solving many extremely baffling murders. This character was initially intended to compete with S. S. Van Dine’s, Philo Vance, only with ‘less exaggerated’ qualities, though he long outlasted the popularity of his famous competition.

The early Ellery Queen novels are most famous for the ‘fair play’ statement, where the authors breaks the fourth wall to inform the reader, in this case: “I maintain that at this point in your reading of The Chinese Orange Mystery you have all the facts in your possession essential to a clear solution of the mystery.” A statement which is always factually true, though those clues may be quite unrecognizable and buried beneath a mountain of red herrings. Still, it does provide something of a challenge to the reader. This novel was later loosely adapted for a 1936 film ‘The Mandarin Mystery’, starring Eddie Quillan, in the role of Ellery Queen; while other elements were included in the 1941 film, ‘Ellery Queen’s Penthouse Mystery’.

‘The Chinese Orange Mystery’ (1934) is the eighth in the series, and one of the better known Ellery Queen novels, especially among those who are fans of the locked room sub-genre. In fact it has been near the top of nearly every list of great locked room mysteries since the basic list was first compiled by Edward D. Hoch and others back in the 1980’s – though why this should be the case is entirely another matter. Still, you simply have to love the Ellery Queen novels, they are classics works of American detective fiction that are a true joy to read.

This novel begins with the wanderings of a young woman by the name of Miss Diversey, who takes us on a tour of the luxury suite and offices of the Kirk Family on the 22nd floor of ‘The Hotel Chancellor’ in midtown Manhattan. Miss Diversey is the nurse for Dr Hugh Kirk, an eccentric aging scholar and father of Donald Kirk, a wealthy New York publisher, owner of Mandarin Press, and collector of rare Chinese stamps, jewels and ‘trouble’ – as Queen notes in the cast of characters! In addition, the Kirk household consists of Donald’s sister, Marcella, a butler by the name of Hubell, and a recent guest, a Pearl Buck style novelist from China, the lovely Jo Temple. The 22nd floor is also subject to frequent visits by Glenn Macgowan, Donald’s closest friend, and Irene Llewes, another long term resident of the Chanchellor. Miss Diversey simply gives the reader a brief tour and sets the scene for one of the oddest crimes to ever be featured in a mystery novel. Donald Kirk is almost the last to be introduced, arriving only moments before the discovery of the body – conveniently with Ellery Queen in tow!

Queen, Donald Kirk and Kirk’s assistant, James Osborne, congregate in the office, dealing with the afternoon’s business, and are about to leave for dinner when Osborne suddenly recalls that a visitor is in the waiting room. Kirk attempts to enter the room to greet this mysterious visitor, only to discover that the connecting door to the office has been bolted from the other side. Ellery takes a quick peep through the keyhole, then quickly leads the group towards a second entrance from the hallway, conveniently out of sight of the hotel floor clerk, where they discover a room that has been turned entirely backwards and a corpse that has been carefully redressed with each item of clothing turned front to back – and, for good measure, two decorative African spears inserted between the body and clothing – forming rather suggestive diabolical horns! To say the least it is a very odd and extremely puzzling crime scene!

The list of who could have entered the waiting room is essentially limitless, as it may have been accessed via the back stairs without being observed by the floor clerk. However, once Inspector Queen arrives on the scene, it is generally assumed that the murderer must be a resident of the hotel, though why this assumption is made is never fully explained. The odd little man who had offered no name to Osborne, had arrived in the office while Donald was absent for the afternoon, then was ushered into the adjoining waiting room by Kirk’s assistant, after claiming he must see Kirk on urgent business. Now he is dead, whacked over the head with a handy poker, then redressed to match the now backwards motif that has been applied to the entire room. The first task of the police investigation is to determine the identity of the victim, he is not known by any of the central characters, or so they claim, and carries no form of identification. The police expend considerable time and effort trying to identify the corpse, all to no avail, even after giving the story to the press and enquiring with all the major American police forces, as well as those on the other side of the pond! It is quite naturally assumed that once the identity is revealed, the ‘whodunnit’ will be obvious – as this must be the reason for the murderer not only removing all obvious sources of identity, but even taking the time to get rid of all the labels and laundry marks! How could Inspector Queen be expected to solve the murder of an unknown man? Oddly, the name of the victim is never actually ascertained and is not even important to the solution of the mystery!

While Inspector Queen takes care of the usual police investigation, Ellery is determined to understand the reason for this overwhelming backwardness. The next few chapters investigate a long list of things that might be considered backwards in western culture, especially Chinese and Hebrew writing and various contrary foreign customs. Ellery finds ‘backwardness’ in some form nearly everywhere he looks, but none that seems to form a sufficient motive that would lead the murderer to risk as much time and trouble as was required to rearrange the murder scene. The Chinese Orange, or Tangerine, of the title, is another point that initially puzzles Queen – especially after the autopsy reveals that the visitor ate one of the oranges, left in a fruit bowl in the waiting room, shortly before his violent death. Needless to say, there are many romantic currents and numerous secrets concerning jewels and stamps, and a troubled publishing house, which only serve to confuse the entire situation. In the end, it is not until they finally discover the victim’s rather odd missing luggage, that Ellery finally has his epiphany – but even then, understanding the reason for the backwardness, does not solve the ‘whodunnit’ – and though this novel clearly has its faults as a locked room story, it is still a very good mystery that few will solve before the final denouement.

To explain all my problems with this novel as a locked room mystery, would require a spoiler alert, and this is too good a story to be ruined by critical dissection. I will therefore limit myself to three quite general observations, and the reader can later make up their own mind about the validity of each point.

First, this is quite simply not a locked room mystery – and only an impossible crime novel because the final solution is virtually impossible! The room has two doors and only one was locked – though it is that one bolted door which has made this a favourite for generations of locked room fans. This door was immortalized by John Dickson Carr in the famous Chapter 17 lecture of ‘The Hollow Man’, and I can only imagine that this is the source of this quite obvious confusion. In almost every other way, ‘The Chinese Orange Mystery breaks just about every rule in Carr’s convenient handbook. Somehow, all of these ‘locked room experts’ have managed to ignore that unlocked second door, conveniently around the corner, quite near the stairs, and outside the line of vision of the floor clerk. Literally anyone in New York could have entered via the stairs – so where is the locked room puzzle? I must vote with Dr Fell (see Locked Room Review of ‘The Hollow Man’) and declare that this open door should quite simply knock this mystery off any locked room list – even though I love the Ellery Queen mysteries and this still remains a great ‘whodunnit’!

Secondly, this murder scene was necessarily turned backwards within a very short time after the arrival of this visitor on the elevator at 5:44 pm, and after the consumption of that orange – say death occurred at 6pm at the earliest. Yet, the entire scene must have been set before a steady stream of visitors began to enter the hallway, headed for the office in search of the tardy Donald, beginning with Macgowan just before 6:25 pm. It would therefore be quite generous to grant the killer twenty minutes without some form of interruption. Turning the victims clothes around in this time, is perhaps acceptable. Turning the lampshades and pictures around, well maybe – but once the murderer begins turning the rugs, the clock, and the tables in different directions, it is now hardly credible! Still, we might give the author a pass, if the murderer did not also need to turn two necessarily tall and extremely heavy bookcases and invent and set up a complex illusion! Now we are quite simply talking about a truly impossible crime – and this point is never addressed in the solution! Call me picky, if you like, but this plot is busted!

Thirdly, it is never explained how the murderer knew that Donald Kirk would be absent for such an extended period – or at what hour the victim would arrive – or how the murderer could be certain that he would not be discovered by another visitor during the lengthy time required to turn everything upside down. It brings in a ludicrous level of risk that would have been far more than foolhardy!

Some critics have attempted to compare this book to Carr or Chesterton, but I suggest they need to carefully read the pages, before making unfounded statements. One review online even claims that Donald Kirk was beaten to death – the type of error that makes every reviewer cringe! Another is so determined that this is a locked room mystery that they claim the second door was always under observation by the floor clerk – a fact which both Ellery and the floor plan clearly contradict! Yet another dubious tribute, claims that the murderer left no clues, when it is difficult to imagine a case with more clues – though the identity of the victim would have helped the case! Quite a few others reviewers note that the motive is rather weak and improbable, which is fair comment – even though it may be the least improbable part of this mystery! Many, of course, also object to the racial stereotyping found in this novel, a point which enters into nearly every review of these classic mysteries, and the answer is always the same! The reader must either allow for cultural change or simply stop reading anything written before 1980 – give or take a decade or two! Others, who are better acquainted with the entire series than I am, hold that the writing in this novel puts it at the top of the Queen reading list, largely because it does not give way to ‘the verbal excesses’ found in some of the earlier works. This is a point I will keep in mind as I begin to reread some of these titles which are once again near the top of my list – forty odd years after I first discovered Ellery Queen! Overall, the best reviews, in my mind, are those that freely admit that this novel is bizarre and unrealistic, that the plot is horribly flawed, that you need to understand the rules of the 1930’s dress code to solve the crime, and then go on to openly and honestly admit that this is all part of the essential charm of the Ellery Queen formula – an assessment with which I am in full agreement!

On the positive side, one must admit that the deductive method employed by Ellery demonstrates a rather remarkable understanding of the psychological process. The authors note: “The human brain is a curious instrument. It is remarkably like the sea, possessing deeps and shallows – cold dark profundities and sunny crests. It has its breakers dashing into shore, and its sullen backwashes. Swift currents race beneath a surface ruffled by minor winds. And there is a constant pulsing rhythm in it very like the tides. For it possesses periods of ebb, when all inspiration recedes into the blind spumy distance; and periods of flow, when strong thoughts come hurtling in, resistless and supreme.” This passage sums up the Ellery Queen style I have grown to know and love over the years – and this is the single best reason for reading this series. It quite simply defines the ebb and flow of the storyline, which leads readers of ‘The Chinese Orange Mystery’ back and forth, closer then more distant, but always slowly moving from that inconceivable crime scene to a solution that explains all those grotesque oddities which initially confound the mind. I will never be the biggest Ellery Queen fan, but I must admit that the character and method of Ellery Queen is one of the best inventions in the mystery universe. It is the horrid stereotyping of those omnipresent, rather soft-boiled, too brutish, too tough, wisecracking cops, and the far too extravagant plots, that tend to take the edge off these mysteries in my estimation. Some of the later Queen novels take a more psychological twist, and I feel more comfortable with these works, though the entire series is, without a doubt, one of the most important literary contributions of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

How to rate this book? It is so odd and improbable, and yet such great fun and a fantastic ‘whodunnit’, that any rating seems completely unfair. Why this book is #8 on the locked room mystery list, I simply cannot fathom, though there is that one quite good trick, that if set in a better plot, might actually have made this mystery a serious contender. In truth, purely as a locked room story – two stars is more than generous – though I know many will take issue with this statement. However, as a regular whodunnit mystery read, and simply an entertaining novel, ‘The Chinese Orange Mystery’ is a solid four star effort! I will therefore give it a very light four stars – accompanied by a strong warning to all Locked Room enthusiasts: ‘Don’t expect a locked room classic!’ It is time someone called the judges to account for placing this otherwise terrific mystery at the top of the locked room charts! I suspect there must have been a bad case of collective amnesia making the rounds, or perhaps they took the suggestion in the forward, which provides the alternative title of ‘The Crime That was Backwards’, as sufficient reason for putting this book on the list in a backwards order? Who knows? Stranger things have happened in the world of murder and mayhem!


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