“I find homicides quite stimulating.”
Not even Ellery Queen has ever encountered a crime scene quite like this one. Everything about the murder is topsy-turvy—quite literally. The dead man’s clothes are on backwards, furniture and paintings have been turned to face the wall, and a pair of African spears have been thrust up the victim’s trouser legs. The only other clue is a discarded tangerine peel. Ellery and Inspector Queen will have to turn themselves inside out if they hope to stamp out this killer.
The Chinese Orange Mystery pairs a snappy, well-paced narrative with a mystifying crime. The solution, though complicated from a logistical standpoint (honestly, I still don’t understand the mechanics of it) is psychologically sound. Everything about the crime fits perfectly with the personality of the murderer, lending a satisfying air of just-rightness to the conclusion. And while none of the characters are especially deep, all of the suspects are at least human enough to make the reader care about the outcome.
The opening chapter is almost cinematic. Miss Diversey, the nurse who attends Donald Kirk’s father, is kicked out of the Kirk apartment by her irascible patient and makes the rounds of the Chancellor Hotel. Her journey introduces most of the major players, as well as explaining the layout of the setting. Donald Kirk has taken over for his father in running the Mandarin Press. However, he finds it convenient to keep an office near the family’s suite at the Chancellor for business related to his stamp and jewel collections. As Miss Diversey wanders the hotel corridors she runs into Donald Kirk’s two love interests, glamorous Irene Llewes and down-to-earth author Jo Temple. Unfortunately, the nurse’s real goal, to flirt with Kirk’s secretary Osborne, is derailed by interruptions. A stranger drops by to see the absent Kirk. Glenn Macgowan (Kirk’s best friend and fiancé of his sister Marcella) turns up as well. Forty-five minutes later, one of these people will be dead.
This sequence provides a lot of exposition with the greatest of ease. It makes the layout of the crime scene clear. All of the suspects and their relationships are introduced organically, leaving just enough mystery to tantalize. There is also something eerie about Miss Diversey’s lonely wanderings through the hotel, past a sea of closed doors that could be hiding anything. Every encounter is fraught with tension, hinting at the violence to come.
It seems providential that Donald Kirk has invited Ellery Queen to dinner on the evening of the murder—Ellery is actually on hand when the body is discovered. Once the corpse is revealed, however, everyone clams up, refusing to tell Ellery why he was summoned. While Inspector Queen marshals all the forces of the NYPD to identify the victim, Ellery is focused on the inverted crime scene. “It’s not crazy; it’s clever. It has meaning.”
Experience has taught me that rarely does a criminal do something positive—as opposed to an unconscious act—without purpose. This was a positive, a conscious act. It required hard work and the expenditure of precious time in the accomplishment. I was justified in saying at once, therefore, that there was reason behind it; that while its manifestations seemed insane its purpose, at the least, must have been rational.
Conveniently, nearly all of the suspects live in the hotel, but that also means they have easy access to the waiting room. The one who does not, who is careful to keep himself out of the inner circle, is Kirk’s business partner Felix Berne. The inner circle is probably relieved. Berne is completely unbearable, beyond any level of normal human behavior (though it is pretty funny when he refers to Inspector Queen as a “vest-pocket Lucifer”). With Ellery, he is even more direct: “I dislike you intensely. I don’t know when I’ve disliked a fellow creature more. Go to hell.” Irene Llewes makes for a much more enjoyable foil, a femme fatale who knows how to play the game without ever taking it too seriously.
Several of the major players have ties to China: Jo Temple grew up there and has written a book about her experiences, while Kirk and Macgowan both collect Chinese postage stamps. Ellery is quick to note that Chinese writing is “backwards,” and many of China’s customs are polar opposites of American ways. I was braced for the worst when this topic arose, but it’s handled fairly sensitively. Jo fiercely defends her birthplace, while explaining the reasons behind some of its traditions. Ellery acknowledges that “backwardness” is relative, “purely a matter of perspective.”
“The greatest revenge your enemy can wreak on your head is to kill himself on your doorstep…”
“Indeed?” said Ellery gently. “That’s most interesting, Miss Temple. Good of you to recall it. And what’s the brilliant notion behind that little ceremony, may I ask?”
She murmured: “It bares to all the world the secret of your enemy’s culpability, and marks him eternally with public shame.”
“But you’re dead, yes.”
Everything moves along at a sprightly pace, at least until the Challenge to the Reader. Ellery has a unique plan for confirming his suspicions. He is probably right to do a dress rehearsal prior to the denouement, given how elaborate the scheme is, but this does not require a full, rather lengthy (and necessarily unrevealing) chapter all to itself. When I see a Challenge to the Reader, I expect a solution more or less imminently. If Ellery needs to faff around, he can do it before the Challenge.
Once the solution finally arrives, however, the reasoning behind it is wonderfully straightforward. To a certain extent, Ellery doesn’t even need to stage his demonstration. All he needs is a single fact. The moment he shares it, the reader knows, just on the basis of the suspects’ situations and personalities, exactly who the guilty party is. It’s one of those electric moments when everyone realizes the truth in the same second, and the reader is a part of it. (Mind you, this single fact isn’t one that would have occurred to me unprompted, but the moment Ellery says it, you instantly know who the culprit is, so the seeds of the solution have certainly been planted.)
The Chinese Orange Mystery is a slightly shallow but marvelously entertaining detective story with a solid mystery at its core. There are many goofy subplots and red herrings, all which I thoroughly enjoyed. While some aspects of the solution come across as window dressing, added to make the mystery seem more complicated than it really is, the psychology behind the crime and its staging makes perfect sense. As a mystery reader, it’s worth a lot to have that one moment when a single sentence from the detective makes everything clear. The Chinese Orange Mystery delivers that, and it’s an instant of pure joy.
So was the hook worth it? Did it justify buying six books in one go? Definitely, yes!
Maybe I’m being too picky – for 90% of the book, it’s great, but I thought the ending was disappointing. It’s entirely possible that you won’t/didn’t.
Mark this down as an overall success, in spite of its flaws.
If almost anyone else had written Chinese Orange, it would stand as a fine example of classic detective plotting. But within the canon of early Queen works (a canon that features such masterpieces as The Egyptian Cross Mystery and The Tragedy of Y), it qualifies as only a modest achievement.
The Chinese Orange Mystery is for my money one of the most completely successful of the early Ellery Queen mysteries. Very highly recommended.
It was filmed in 1936 under the title The Mandarin Mystery; this film is now in the public domain and can be viewed at the American Mystery Classics link.