Monday, 28 March 2011

Penguin no. 1150: The Chinese Orange Mystery
by Ellery Queen

"The human brain is a curious instrument. It is remarkably like the sea, possessing deeps and shallows - cold dark profundities and sunny crests. It has its breakers dashing into shore, and its sullen backwashes. Swift currents race beneath a surface ruffled by minor winds. And there is a constant pulsing rhythm in it very like the tides. For it possesses periods of ebb, when all inspiration recedes into the blind spumy distance; and periods of flow, when strong thoughts come hurtling in, resistless and supreme."

When it comes to considering an Ellery Queen mystery I have to abandon all pretence of objectivity. I am completely biased; I find the whole concept and approach so satisfying, irrespective of whether they are early or late Queen novels, that there is no question of not enjoying them. Like someone in love with an ideology, who must temper the facts to fit the theory, I ignore the weaknesses of the story, and censor any negative thoughts as soon as they arise. I am complicit in this process, I watch myself do it.

But then of course they appeal, the problem at the heart of each of these books is recognisably mathematical. There is no obfuscation, no sudden surprises, no facts kept hidden. Ellery describes what he observes and what he thinks,  and so the clues are revealed to the reader at the same rate that they are revealed to the sleuth. In theory the opportunity is there to solve it as you solve any problem in mathematics: by separating signal from noise, and by forcing your mind to reflect not only on what is known directly but also on what is known indirectly. They even tell you how to do it, describing the fundamental need for 'disembodied concentration':
"Now Mr Ellery Queen, who laboured habitually within the confines of his skull, had long since found in his researches that this was a universal law, and that to achieve intellectual light it was mandatory that he struggle through a phase of intellectual darkness...For days on end his brain wrestled through a slippery fog, groping for signposts; willing, even eager, but impotent. And suddenly there was the light staring coldly into his puckered eyes."
and that inevitable first thought when the solution is found: how can you have been so dense not to have spotted it from the start?
"The trouble is, as Ellery likes to point out, that all puzzles are irritatingly cryptic until you know the answer, and then you wonder why you were baffled so long."
The fiction is that Ellery Queen is both the author and the sleuth, writing of his own cases conducted not in any official capacity, but purely through a fascination with solving riddles. This was the 8th Ellery Queen novel, and it has to be acknowledged that this Ellery is a bit too self-satisfied, and a bit patronising and cynical; in time he mellows to someone much more likeable. But there is a little gentle mocking at his affected and occasionally indolent ways, and the contrast is made with his gruff, practical and hard working father Richard, Inspector Queen of the New York Police.

The story within which this problem is posed is completely unrealistic, the clues bizarre. Donald Kirk is a well known publisher, philatelist and gem collector, and he is out of his office for the afternoon. When a plain, nondescript man calls to see him he is admitted to the adjacent waiting room, and seemingly forgotten. But fortunately Kirk has invited Ellery Queen to dinner. They enter the waiting room together to find the unknown man dead and the furniture rearranged. Bizarrely the dead man's clothes have been removed and replaced backwards, with all identifying tags removed. Two African spears have been removed from the wall and passed through the mans clothes, feet towards head.

I've seen it suggested that this is a locked room mystery, but this I don't understand at all: even the most cursory look at the map included at the front of the book makes this idea difficult to sustain. The waiting room in which the murder is committed has two doors.There is no question of the killer appearing to vanish into thin air; he can leave through the second door which opens onto an unobserved hotel corridor. This corridor then leads to a fire escape. The arrangement doesn't even preclude some unknown person committing the crime.

Unfortunately, this novel has the problem that time has moved on, habits have changed, and the hidden clues are no longer clues at all. A fairly thorough understanding of 1930s dress codes is fundamental to solving this problem. And then there is all that moved furniture. Is any reader really going to take the trouble to decipher the descriptions and plot it all out? And does it make sense anyway: assuming someone can move furniture silently, is it feasible to move fully laden oak bookshelves at all?

But of course it didn't matter. I loved it anyway.


  1. It's great when you find an author you can rely on! I confess I hadn't heard of Ellery Queen until reading this review.

  2. Hi Joanne,
    I should point out that Ellery Queen is actually the pseudonym of two writers, the cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee. And have you read 84 Charing Cross Rd? Helene Hanff wrote the scripts of Ellery Queen for the TV series. I only have the vaguest recollection of Ellery Queen as a TV show from when I was a child, and I can't remember if I liked it, but I think the books are wonderful.

  3. Yes, I loved 84 Charing Cross Road! How interesting. I don't remember the tv series at all. I'll ask my husband, he seems to have spent his entire childhood watching tv.

  4. Knowing that it was considered a locked room mystery helped enormously in figuring who was the murderer. The method however was a surprise.



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