Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Topsy-Turvy Murder

"At any rate, this thing needs the application of thought... China, China, China! I’m beginning to wish I had a Charlie Chan on the scene to clarify these esoteric mysteries of Orientalism. I’m completely bewildered. Nothing makes sense, nothing at all. This is the world’s most mystifying crime.”
"The Chinese Orange Mystery"

Almost there, almost there...

Reviews of Ellery Queen's 'nationality' novels:
The Roman Hat Mystery
The French Powder Mystery
The Dutch Shoe Mystery
The Greek Coffin Mystery
The Egyptian Cross Mystery
The American Gun Mystery
The Siamese Twin Mystery
The Chinese Orange Mystery
The Spanish Cape Mystery

The eight novel in the Ellery Queen series, The Chinese Orange Mystery (Dutch title: Moord Achterstevoren / Backwards Murder) starts with an unknown man visiting the office of Donald Kirk, publisher and philatelist, which occupies on the 22nd floor of the Hotel Chancellor. Ushered into the waiting room, the man is left alone for an hour or so, when Kirk and his friend Ellery Queen finally arrive at the office and Kirk takes a look inside the waiting room. What they find is total chaos. Or is it? Bookcases put backwards to the wall. The carpet upside down. And a man, dead, with his clothes on backwards, and a pair of decorative spears being slipped inside his trouser legs, running up behind his back and popping out near his head like a pair of devil's horns! Who was the poor man and why is he dressed backwards?

Often remembered as a certain kind of mystery which in effect spoils half the game, so do yourself a favor and don't read too much about The Chinese Orange Mystery before actually reading the book yourself. Ignoring the type of mystery, the problem of the man dressed backwards in a completely backwards room is definitely an alluring one. Most of the Queen novels have someone killed in an unlikely spot, but like The Egyptian Cross Mystery, this time we have a genuine 'strange' body. For why would the murderer go through the trouble of redressing his victim? Why, that is as strange as finding a totally naked dead body (foreshadowing!).

I have to admit though, while I like the idea of the reversed clothes and all, I never really liked The Chinese Orange Mystery. Most deductions are sound, but not nearly as impressive as those found in the earlier books. The theme of the backwardness is interesting, but it feels forced at times like the whole Egyptian cross thing in the same-titled novel. For some reason, the whole book feels, in my opinion, padded and it might have worked better as one or two separate short stories.

The world of philately is interesting though. Queen also used the Violent and Wild background of stamp collecting in his short stories and it is a specialist world that echoes Ellery's own bibliophilia (which on its own is a Queenian trope). Such high culture past-times naturally invoke a certain Philo Vance vibe, which isn't too strange considering the influence of those novels on the early Queens. Another interesting point is the character of a female writer who used to live in China; she seems like an early, but less fanatic Karen Leith of Queen's later The Door Between.

There really is not much I have to say about The Chinese Orange Mystery. The problem which shall not be named seems more suitable for a short story, and it is a bit too technical for my taste. It has, in a way, influenced writers like NisiOisiN, so it is not without its merits though. The problem of the backwards man is interesting, but too much padding in the middle seems to weaken the effect of the bizarre idea.


  1. Your anonymous commentator here again. Just started this one today. So far the one books in the original ten Queen novels I have read are French Powder,Dutch Shoe,and Greek Coffin. Solved Dutch but the other two fooled me. How did you do?

    1. Pfft, it's been so long since I first read the books, but I think I got Dutch, mainly because of the very last part of the book. I know for certain I didn't get Greek.

    2. Do not follow what you mean by very last part. I suspected it during after the second murder while the doctor was writing the book. There were really only people who could have done the first. Actually three. Will not say how because that would spoil the solution for blog readers. However looking at your review confirmed my suspicion because of the lack of motive.

    3. Ah, it's been a while, so maybe I remembered it wrong and it wasn't the 'very last part' of the story. I probably mean the same thing as you (in an office, I think?).