#334: The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) by Ellery Queen

Chinese Orange Mysterystar filledstar filledstar filledstarsstars
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.

~

See also

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.

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to She Who Was No More from last week as both were written by two authors in collaboration.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category Color in the title.

52 thoughts on “#334: The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) by Ellery Queen

  1. Uh…so…I, uh…I get to skip ahead too, right?

    It’s funny, because I’ve finally reached the acclaimed The Greek Coffin Mystery, and I find myself questioning whether that’s what I really want next. Why not The Siamese Twin Mystery, The Four of Hearts (controversial), or The Murderer is a Fox? There is a temptation to try something new, because, man, I really want to like Queen.

    For that matter, why did you land on this one? The reputation as an impossible crime? What else did you consider?

    I’m glad it worked for you.

    • Man, it’s the new frontier: you can make your own rules, everything’s fine.

      Greek Coffin is the apotheosis of plot, it’s just unrelenting in its vision and execution, and so astoundingly accomplished that you really have to stare in amazement. But it does make it hard to love as a book, because the writing is still rather too callow (it’s very blunt, would be the best way of putting it) for all its cleverness. So, yeah, skip ahead, find something that appeals, or — hey — pick up one of their story collections. Because the view from this side of the bridge is infinitely more pleasant.

      As for why this one…well, partly because of the impossibility, partly because I have it in paperback, and partly because of something else I’m working on at the moment that I’m hoping to talk about before too long (yup, I’m being vague — get excited).

      Whatever you decide, good luck — we’re all here for you if you need us…

    • If I were in your position, I think I’d go ahead and read Greek Coffin, then pick some later ones with strong reputations and see how I liked Queen after reading them. I’d go with The Four of Hearts, Calamity Town (somewhat overrated but a very readable story), Calendar of Crime (some great short stories and a couple of duds), and Face to Face. Even though they’re at the top of a lot of “best of Queen” lists, I’d avoid Ten Days’ Wonder and Cat of Many Tails for now… TDW is a Wrightsville story and I think those books are better read in order, and CoMT, well, I think it does have a greater impact if you’ve already read a lot of the Queen books that came before.

  2. GREEK is awesone as JJ says but SIAMESE is the one I thinks best of the Van Dine inspired style bothers you so so up there. ORANGE was the first I read and I loved the sheer central cunning of its basic situation and the visual quality is has. But it clearly has less plot than it needs compared with most of the first period novels. But like Carr, Queen in the 30s and 40s is mostly a marvel – and don’t forget the wonderful first two collections of short stories.

    • Siamese Twin is the novel immediately before this, so I can believe it too would represent an improvement in style…I think I might leave it for the time being and go onto Spanish Cape, the novel succeeding this one, and then perhaps loop around and finish with Siamese. That said, I’m learning that it never really pays to make plans in public…

  3. Noooooooooo…! I always leave the star-rating right till the end, as I enjoy trying to infer, as I read along, what you might give.

    Anyway, I haven’t read this one, as it sounded like credulity would be stretched to the breaking point. I suspect I like Queen better than you do generally, while you like Carr better than I do generally. Though I would also say that I suspect we both like Carr better than Queen.

    • Sorry, Jonathan, it’s a brave new world – no more inferring, now we eryone will know what they’re about to get. But only on Thursdays. The other posts on other days will still retain some sense of mistique…

  4. Glad to read you enjoyed this one, but, please, don’t follow it up with The Spanish Cape Mystery. You can argue that the other titles in EQ’s international series have the tendency to be overly complex or too clever for their own good, but Spanish Cape is incredibly transparent and therefore rather disappointing. So not a title that’s representative of the early period.

    I would, however, be interested in your opinion on The American Gun Mystery. It’s near perfect, as far as early EQ goes, which could have ended up at the top of the pile had it not been for the solution of the vanishing gun. A plot-point I found impossible to swallow, but the overall story is great and is enhanced by the practically unique backdrop.

    The Greek Coffin Mystery is a classic of the series and agree with Sergio on The Siamese Twin Mystery, which has a rather novel plot-device by cutting off the character from the outside world by a raging forest fire. I believe The Egyptian Cross Mystery is very popular in Japan. So that might be an interesting angle to take.

    • I distinctly remember Egyptian Cross being a slog until the halfway point, when it suddenly springs to life for three of four chapters before becoming an even more infuriating slog to the finish. In spite of my recently-declared lousy memory I remember this so well because it was my second Queen after Greek Coffin, and where that seemed to have waaaay too much plot Cross was clearly spinning its wheels to fill out a page count (or so it seemed). Two such diametrically opposed books should have given me an idea of the tough time I was in for with Queen in the future, eh?

      Maybe there’s just a thinness of plot issue: Chinese Orange, Spanish Cape, Egyptian Cross…is there a tendency for EQ to come up short on content? And if so, where does their staggering, plot-dense reputation come from? Discuss…

      • Oh, good heavens, it’s not a No Coffin for the Corpse affair, is it?

        Don’t worry. The problem of the vanishing gun is a bit more original in its failure than No Coffin for the Corpse was.

        Maybe there’s just a thinness of plot issue: Chinese Orange, Spanish Cape, Egyptian Cross…is there a tendency for EQ to come up short on content? And if so, where does their staggering, plot-dense reputation come from? Discuss…

        Once again, I really need to re-read these earlier titles in order to make a proper judgment, but I believe their reputation was that of producing plot-driven (not plot-dense) detective stories.

        • But…isn’t the detective story — by nature of that genre — plot driven? I mean, sure, some people wander around or produce thin and uninteresting situations, but most detective fiction writers are producing plot-driven narratives. Seems have a reputation for doing something that, like, the majority of people in your genre are doing.

      • But…isn’t the detective story — by nature of that genre — plot driven?

        You’re absolutely right. Scrap my previous statement and replace it with “I really need to re-read these earlier titles.” I’m trying to make sense of this dislike of EQ and it’s still quite early over here.

        You know what? You should read Spanish Cape next, because I remember thinking how threadbare the plot was in comparison to such titles as Greek Coffin, American Gun and Siamese Twin.

        • Cool, in that case I definitely shall, with all the previously-expressed caveats, problems, and general dissatisfaction front and centre in my mind. It’ll be interesting to see how it compares to this more readable Queen I’ve unearthed in Chinese Orange.

          Incidentally, what’s your stance on The Lamp of God?

        • Well, with NCFTC I’m still trying to figure out why anyone would build a house so that one of the bedroom windows allowed guests to be thrown directly into the river. But no, it’s not … come back to this comment after you’ve read American Gun and I promise you will understand.

          • I feel the same about the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Bruce-Partington Plans’ — the equally convenient location of the lodgings there seems tailor-made for little beyond a clever crime story!

  5. ”I’ve loved some, been unaffected by others, and abominated a handful . . .”

    You’ve loved some?!?!? What did I miss?

    Egyptian Cross makes nudity boring. It makes a crucifying serial killer dull. And it uses my least favorite gambit in the world, giving the whole thing a sense of being a cheat at the end. Thank you, Sir Arthur.

    Siamese Twin is gonna irk all of you people who decry the dying message, but I think it has genuine atmosphere, and the denouement is cool.

    The less said about Spanish Cape, the better.

    John and Ben like saving the best for last, and given your tastes, I fear the best doesn’t lie in Period One. So skip ahead, by all means. As JJ noted, the writing style changes, and all this Queen-bashing is making me mad. I might unleash the unholy writing demon on you all, simply by staring into the mirror and chanting, “Paul Halter, Paul Halter, Paul Halter . . .”

    • I’d meant to say, Brad, that if this was the sort of overly-complex explanation you’d grown up with then I can entirely concur with your aversion to these sorts of puzzles and solutions when impossible crimes come a-calling. I’m sure this is very, very clever, but after reading the summation of events four times and still not being able to work out precisely what was going on I just had to throw up my hands and assume it was fine and it worked and everyone was happy.

      I shall sail on to SPanish Cape with warnings echoing in my ears, and we’ll see what we see. I can accept that now as a hump to get over, because I see in this a glimmer of the joy you get out of these books — I’ll take good writing over an interminable masterwork any day of the week (which explains my enthusiasm for Norman Berrow, and my aversion to Wilkie Collins).

    • Come to think of it, the bare bones of ‘Egyptian Cross Mystery’ is, as Brad alluded, somewhat risque – but, despite it all, it was not very good. In fact, I think it’s one of the weakest Queen novels I’ve read. And this is coming from someone who thought ‘Roman Hat Mystery’ was decent, and ‘French Powder Mystery’ was good. So beware JJ!

      • Oh, yeah, I read Egyptian Cross some years ago and it still leaves a sour taste. Another exmple of a wonderful hook not paying off — hmm, are we gonna discover that Queen actually isn’t that good after all? 😛

        • There’s still the renown ‘Greek Coffin Mystery’, and possibly ‘Siamese Twin Mystery’ – both of which I’ve not read though. Personally, I thought ‘Face to Face’ and ‘There Was an Old Woman’ were worth reading. Then again, bear in mind that I liked ‘French Powder Mystery’.

    • No, no, no! It’s John who insists on saving the best for last. My mania is a bit more complex. I’m all about spreading the journey. Start really strong with an author like Carr and drink deeply from the hits. But, then with ~50 more books to go, you don’t want to get into a spot where you end on a run of 15 mediocre books. That’s where the spreading comes into play.

      In terms of a last book, I’d be fine going out on, say, The Mad Hatter Mystery – it’s not really that great, but it has a decent enough bit of misdirection that it would leave me with a smile. For that matter, The Hungry Goblin wouldn’t be that bad of a final Carr because it isn’t nearly as awful as its reputation suggests and it has a lot of traits that recall earlier works.

      I just want to avoid going out on a book like Night at the Mocking Widow, which I really didn’t like. That would leave a bit of a sour taste. Of course, I’m squirreling away Carr’s short stories as an insurance policy in case my final pick is a dud!

      I’m taking a similar approach with Christie, enjoying quite a few of her hits, although I haven’t really thought about what I do 10 books from now. I’ll play that by ear.

      With Queen, I probably should have taken a similar approach instead of going in order. I can’t really say though, since I haven’t found one that quite works for me yet. I’m guessing I should have done Greek Coffin, Siamese Twin, Chinese Orange, and the Calamity Town, but that’s just a shot in the dark based on reputation, although I would have picked up French Powder by that logic too.

      Anyway, I’ve rambled about reading order long enough, although it’s a topic that really fascinates me. I’m really encouraged that JJ liked Chinese Orange, and it strengthens my will to continue my journey with Queen.

      • Whereas I was smugly trying to do things mainly chronologically for these authors with large libraries…and then came horribly unstuck here.

        I maintain that I’d not want to’ve read Christie any other way, though, and had Carr been more available I would definitely have reas him through first to last. I’m stockpiling Crofts titles like a man before a hurricane with the idea of doing the remeainder in order…but let’s see what happens there, as some of his setups might bear investigation before others.

  6. I’m pleased that releasing yourself from the bonds of chronology has brought reward (however moderate). My suggestion for your next Queen is ‘The Dragon’s Teeth’ – purely because of the title’s associations with ‘Jason and the Argonauts’. (Ok, the possibility of Queen facing an army of synchronised skeletons is fairly slim, but there’s always a hope).

    • Well, at least I’m a step up from Hen’s Teeth now where readable Ellery Queen books are concerned…that’s a start. Who knows where I’ll go next, but I want to get to The Lamp of God novella before too long because I’m curious to see how they handle that, and that follows Spanish Cape which follows this…so I’ll attempt chronology again until I don’t. And doubtless everyone will be told about it as and when it happens.

      Someone better get Brad some ulcer medication…

  7. Glad you enjoyed this, at least a little. Meanwhile, chump that I am, I ground out the rest of The Dutch Shoe Mystery and am now wishing that I had followed your lead and broken out from the chronology!

  8. Those bloody bookcases! Don’t get me started on those bloody bookcases!! I had the sane experience of reading the solution 4-5 times and still not getting it. I really look forward to enjoying a Queen one day, and you enjoying this in some sense is more than I was capable of for sure. But you’re right too, that there are flashes brilliance here, and you can see some gold emerging from the dross.

    As you know I currently dragging myself through the Kind is Dead and it feels like Queen’s impossibles (although as you say it’s questionable here) seem to have the problem of having a great central hook/impossible ideas, stuck in a slow and dry narrative, with then unfortunately not a good solution. I don’t think impossibility was Queen’s forte at all.

    • Clearly there was spome paper rationing that meant a second crime scene map was out of the question — you very much feel that Danny and Lee know what they want to communicate, but aren’t sure how to tell it to you…

      As for their impossibilities, I only have this and TKiD to go by (The Door Between is also impossible, right?). The hooks are great, no doubt, but you’re really not sure what the purpose of making them impossible was beyond having a great hook. Like, TKiD is just…painfully drawn out, and hilariously simple. It sounds great, but how the resulting plot struck EQ as worthy of them or their detective is beyond me.

      • TDB is also impossible and I think Tom Cat described it in the same terms, good idea stuck in a bad story. There is also the Lamp of God. Which fairs a little better, but again in very obvious. They obviously knew how to write a traditional plot, but not a locked room plot – which may be a different thing altogether? (One for debate…)

        • I can’t speak for the Queenian takes exclusively, but it’s certainly true that certain roblems do not lend themselves to the impossibility market, with TKiD being an abject lesson. Sometimes something doesn’t seem to be possible for the simple reason that it is not possible. There’s no amount of clever framing that can get around certain concepts, so maybe EQ just chose poorly in this regard…

        • TDB is also impossible and I think Tom Cat described it in the same terms, good idea stuck in a bad story.

          No, no, no! The Door Between is an absolute bore, from start to finish, and the locked room has one of those answers I absolutely loath. And the answer to the vanishing weapon is as mind-numbingly stupid as the one from The American Gun Mystery.

          Funnily enough, one of their ghostwriters rewrote the book as Ellery Queen, Master Detective (a.k.a. The Vanishing Corpse) and is a huge improvement on the original. However, the book is not canon and probably takes place in the radio-realm of the Ellery-verse as Nikki Porter is one of the characters who was added to the cast of characters.

          By the way, the good (locked room) idea stuck in a bad story was A Room to Die In.

        • These Queen impossibles are really getting a bad press!!

          I’m afraid that none of the novel-length EQ impossible crimes are any good. The vanishing weapon from American Gun is ridiculous, Chinese Orange only masquerades as a locked room and The Door Between is boring with a locked room solution I despise. The King is Dead and A Room to Die In offer a better explanation for their respective locked room problems, but they were stuck in mediocre books.

          However, Queen fared better with the miracle crime in the short story format. Their famous novella, “The Lamp of God,” is an atmospheric, Gothic-style story about a vanishing house and the closest they ever came to matching Carr in the impossible crime department.

          “The Dauphin’s Doll” (Calendar of Crime, 1952) is a wonderful Christmas story about the miraculous theft of a doll and “The Three Widows” (Queen’s Bureau of Investigation, 1955) is a nifty impossible poisoning story. And the same collection has two additional impossible crime stories: “Snowball in July” (vanishing train) and “Double Your Money” (disappearance from a locked room).

          There are a number of other short stories and radio plays, but have to look them up to be sure. But there should be enough of them to compile a new EQ collection with only locked room and impossible crime stories.

            • Robert Adey gives the following list of impossible crime short stories by Ellery Queen:
              1. The Dead Cat
              2. The Dauphin’s Doll
              3. The Three Widows
              4. Double Your Money
              5. The Black Ledger
              6. Object Lesson
              7. Snowball in July
              8. E = Murder

          • I found a copy of Queens Bureau last year and picked up after something you mentioned about it on your blog a little while back. And I had read Snowball in July but didn’t realise Double Your Money was impossible as well. Will check that. The best impossible of theirs I think, was the one on the back of the cereal box or whatever it was that you linked to (I think in that same post) for a super short story I thought it was a brilliant solution!

  9. The impossible crime novels and novella of Ellery Queen listed by Robert Adey are as follows (in order of publication):
    1. The American Gun Mystery
    2. The Chinese Orange Mystery
    3. The Lamp Of God (novella)
    4. The Door Between
    5. The King Is Dead

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