Sure, laugh it up. Just a few short months ago I stated my intention to read the entirety of the output of Manny Lee and/or Frederic Dannay under the Ellery Queen nom de plume, and here I am — some struggles later — jumping ahead to a more warmly-perceived title. I’m not happy about it myself, I much prefer to do these things chronologically, but equally I want to want to read their books again. I’ve loved some, been unaffected by others, and abominated a handful, and as such Queen remains a problem child for me. So here I am, back on the horse in a different town, mixing metaphors with the best of ’em. And the result…?
Well, the star rating above sort of gives it away (admit it, we all skip to the end first, so I’m trying to save you a job): I enjoyed this without loving it. But I’ll take enjoyed. Oh, yes, enjoyed is a delight in the wake of The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) and The French Powder Mystery (1930). It feels like Dannay and Lee are beginning to turn the tide here, and bodes well for the books that surround and follow this, starting with the off-kilter framing of the central problem: a man found murdered in a room where everything — the rug, the furniture, even the corpse’s clothes — has been reversed, whodunnit and whydunnit?
The why is almost certainly beyond an overwhelming majority of modern readers, relying as it does on a concept that is now surely faded into obsolescence, but it’s still entertaining enough to jolly you along. And you will need jollying because, for all its brevity and propulsion, there’s a lot of excess here which never really ties together in the way you imagine was intended. A variety of personal problems surround but do not touch the murder, lending this very much the air of a minor work by a minor author, those novels that are really four short stories cut up and mixed together. This is distinguished mainly due to the fact that Dannay and Lee have finally learned how to write, the years of collaboration now fructifying in something akin to an individual style rather than the mash of unstructured, unrealised too-celever-by-half ideas that bog down their earlier novels.
From Irene Llewes’ smile vanishing “as if she had put it on for the ceremony of making an entrance”, to Ellery actually displaying humour enough to remark “Certainly he doesn’t suspect me of burglarious methods. That’s one advantage of looking scholarly”, via the elderly Dr. Kirk summed up as “a bony shell filled with fury”, the cousins have discovered a crispness in expression and telling that befits their complexity of plot. Even when they fall into the old traps — like chapter 2 introducing every single character who will feature meaningfully in the book — they’ve trimmed it back: there are fewer people here than in those earlier works, with a mere 18 dramatis personae listed up front (and only three of them redundant — good work, fellas!).
However, things do fall apart when it comes to resolving the central problem. The two distinct, detailed descriptions of Irene Llewes’ breasts are doubtless important, but when the mechanical requirements of the solution are laid out they’re bloody difficult to follow (another diagram would have helped, because those bookcases still don’t make sense to me…). Additionally, Ellery’s justification in chapter 5 as to why it’s reasonable to suspect only the closed circle in front of him is, at heart, the worst form of circular reasoning. And, when all’s said and done, the actual solution here (which, smugface, I broadly worked out in advance) could easily be a false solution intended to throw suspicion on an innocent party — there is literally no reason at all this couldn’t be unpicked by our killer simply refusing to confess. In fact, a mundane solution would have been a superb way to usurp the overt complexities offered…but I guess you don’t buy a ticket for the delights of the circus only to end up playing Splat the Rat at a local fête.
Two things to finish: firstly, the absolute delight with which I hooted when, presented with an unexpected revelation, the redoubtable Sergeant Velie’s response is:
“By crap,” he said hoarsely, “I never thought of that.”
Secondly, the reputation this has as an impossible crime — making the famous Hoch List in 1981, no less — is misleading. It’s semi-understandable for reasons that will become apparent when read, but should absolutely not be approached as an impossible crime. As is said fairly soon after the discovery of the crime:
“Why, anybody had access to this room by way of the emergency stairs and this empty corridor. The murderer may be any one of the seven million people in New York!”
Yup, you ain’t kidding. I in no way hold this against the book, far from it, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you’re after a fiendish impossibility. This ain’t it, brother, move along. It is, however, an indication of Ellery Queen finally showing the promised their reputation has earned, and as such seems the perfect jumping off point to restart reading the books in order. Yup, it’s back on — a mere hiatus, that was all we experienced, and I’m actually looking forward to what comes next. Mark this down as an overall success, in spite of its flaws.
Mike @ Only Detect: That core puzzle—together with the puzzle of why the killer arranged the corpse and its surroundings in such a preposterous fashion—pivots around a trick that would be more suitable to a short story. It’s a brilliant trick, to be sure. But it does not, in this case, support a full-bodied novel. Most problematically, the tendrils of intrigue that wind around that main problem are ancillary rather than subsidiary to it; they amount to little more than a layer of padding. 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.
Bev @ My Reader’s Block: No one in the Kirk household or among his friends claim to have seen the man before and there is nothing on the body to identify him. What did he want? Was he a hopeful author? Did he have a gem or a rare stamp for sale? And why did the murderer take the time for reversal? Answer these questions and you just might beat Ellery to the solution. I humbly admit that I did not. Not even close. But that doesn’t bother me, I rarely figure out the Ellery Queen mysteries. They are such well-constructed puzzles that I just don’t get them. All the clues are there–just as Ellery states in the challenge to the reader. It’s never a case where the reader can cry “Unfair!” Every bit of evidence is dangled under your unsuspecting nose and all you have to do is recognize it for what it is and you’d be home and dry.