Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Ellery Queen's The Chinese Orange Mystery

The Chinese Orange Mystery appeared in 1934. It was the eighth of the Ellery Queen mysteries written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee (not counting the Drury Lane books published under the Barnaby Ross pseudonym). And it has a wonderful setup.

A fat little man is murdered on the twenty-second floor of the Hotel Chancellor in New York. Everything about the murder is backwards. The victim’s clothes are on back-to-front. Every item in the room has been turned back-to-front as well. As the case progresses more backwards items emerge. Even Ellery Queen has to confess to being puzzled.

The twenty-second floor is occupied by the wealthy Kirk family - the elderly curmudgeonly scholar Dr Kirk, his son Donald and daughter Marcella. The body was found in Donald Kirk’s office. In partnership with the rather snobbish Felix Berne Donald runs an up-market arty publishing business known as the Mandarin Press (one of the many links to China in this story).

Also present at the time of the murder were Donald’s friend Glenn MacGowan (engaged to Marcella), a young would-be writer named Jo Temple who was brought up in China, the glamorous and slightly mysterious beauty Irene Llewes, Dr Kirk’s nurse Miss Diversey and Donald Kirk’s private secretary Jimmy Osborne.

As well as everything about the murder being backwards there are also various connections to both China and stamp collecting. One particular stamp plays a vital role in the story and that stamp happens to be a great rarity - because it was printed backwards!

There’s another puzzle that has to be unravelled - the identity of the murder victim.

The setup is so clever and the idea of the backwards crime is so original that you can’t help worrying that the solution, when it’s finally revealed, will be a letdown. Fortunately though it doesn’t disappoint. It’s far-fetched certainly but it’s conceived with such skill that we have to admit that it really is plausible. The motive and identity aspects are also tied in with the murder method in an intricate and entirely satisfying way. There’s also some fine misdirection. I have to confess that I didn’t have the remotest idea of the identity of the murderer until Ellery revealed it. As a pure puzzle plot this is one of the very best of the Queens.

There’s also some fun stuff about stamp collecting, such as the fact that some collectors specialise entirely in “locals” - semi-official stamps issued before proper government-controlled postal systems were established. The rather curious obsession that stamp collectors have for flawed or misprinted stamps adds an amusing touch and becomes a plot point as well.

This is also very much a New York novel. By the mid-30s Dannay and Lee were starting to send Ellery off into the countryside but personally I think he’s most at home in New York.

The S.S. Van Dine influence is still evident in this tale and Ellery has his Philo Vance-ish moments. Personally that doesn’t bother me. I like Philo Vance, and I like the early incarnation of Ellery Queen. The affectionate antagonism between Ellery and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, adds more fun.

The Chinese Orange Mystery is for my money one of the most completely successful of the early Ellery Queen mysteries. Very highly recommended.

The book was filmed in 1936 as The Mandarin Mystery.


  1. In spite of my much-vaunted enthusiasm for an impossible crime, I've not yet read this. In order to correct that oversight I had intended to reread the entire Queen (Danny and/or Lee) canon chronologically; after struggling through The Roman Hat Mystery, I stumbled and fell about 30 pages into The French Powder Mystery...but I must go back and try again. I must!

    Just let me build up a head of steam with a run of excellent books first, and I'll be right back on track...

    1. I've liked most of the early Queens. They did make a few missteps. The Spanish Cape Mystery has a brilliant murder method but the identity of the murderer is obvious. The Chinese Orange Mystery might perhaps be the most perfect - the identity of the murderer is well concealed, there are some good red herrings but it's still fair play, the murder method is ingenious and every clue that seems like it's going to be important really is important. It's outlandish but it all hangs together.

      I quite liked The French Powder Mystery. I loved the department store setting. I wasn't so fond of The Egyptian Cross Mystery.

  2. I had part of the solution to 'Chinese Orange Mystery' spoilt for me - at least, the part explaining why the corpse was dressed in that bizarre fashion. Grrrrr.

    DforDoom - which non-nationality Queen titles have you read, and enjoyed?

    1. which non-nationality Queen titles have you read, and enjoyed?

      The only non-nationality title I've read is Calamity Town, which I'm afraid I didn't like at all. I should give the later Queens another chance I guess.

    2. I had part of the solution to 'Chinese Orange Mystery' spoilt for me

      As John Wayne would say, I've shot men for less than that!

  3. Well, no chance of shooting a blogger. :P Anyway, I agree with your less-than-favourable take of 'Egyptian Cross'. To be fair, of the Nationality sequence, I've only read 'Roman Hat', 'French Powder', 'Dutch Shoe' and 'Egyptian Cross' - and it was definitely the weakest. Would you rank 'Chinese Orange' as the very best of the Nationality novels?

    I have heard many mixed reviews of 'Calamity Town', but enough negative ones to steer clear of it... Of the non-Nationality titles, I enjoyed 'Face to Face' and 'There was an Old Woman'.

    1. Would you rank 'Chinese Orange' as the very best of the Nationality novels?

      The Greek Coffin Mystery is pretty darned good.

  4. [i]Egyptian Cross[/i] was not, to my 14-year-old mind when I first read it, the best of the early EQs. But I've come to love it for the unusual settings, the bizarre murder scenes, the epic multi-state chase Ellery undertakes at the climax, and the blindingly simple essential clue.