The Murder That Was Backwards

Most of The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) takes place on the 22nd floor of Manhattan’s Hotel Chancellor, which houses both the office of Donald Kirk—wealthy young publisher, socialite, jewel and stamp collector—and the huge apartment Kirk shares with his sister, his wheelchair-bound father, and the fiery old philologist’s private nurse. At 5:44 p.m. on a brisk fall day, a stout middle-aged man of excruciatingly ordinary appearance steps out of the elevator and asks Mrs. Shane, the floor clerk, to direct him to Kirk’s office. Osborne, Kirk’s secretary, informs the stranger that Mr. Kirk is out and ushers him into a luxurious waiting room where the newcomer sits down, alone. During the next hour several of Kirk’s acquaintances—including his fiancée’s brother, a woman novelist and an international adventuress—drop into the office looking for him, but he remains out. He arrives at 6:45, accompanied by his friend Ellery Queen, to find the waiting room transformed into something out of Lewis Carroll: the rug turned upside down, pictures and clock facing the walls, floor lamps standing on their shades, every movable object in the room either inside out or backside front. Lying on the overturned rug, his brains splattered with a blow from the fireplace poker, is Mr. Nobody from Nowhere, the nameless visitor on nameless business. Every article of clothing—collar, shirt, coat, trousers, shoes—is on him backwards. There’s no necktie on the body or in the room but the peelings of a tangerine are found in a fruit bowl. Two ornamental African spears have been thrust up the dead man’s trouser legs, out at the waist and under his reversed suit jacket, with the blades sticking out of his lapels like horns growing on the back of his neck.

— from Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection by Francis M. Nevins

Ellery Queen The Art of Detection by Francis M NevinsWhen I started reading whodunits back in my high school days, I quickly settled on four authors as my favorites. There was Agatha Christie, of course, the absolute Queen of the Mystery, and John Dickson Carr, the Locked Room specialist, probably my top two whodunit writers. But following very close behind were Rex Stout and Ellery Queen. I’ll just note in passing that all of those authors were still actively writing when I first discovered them back in the 60s.

Unlike Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen (Queen was both the pseudonym of the authors as well as the name of their fictional detective) did not maintain a consistent characterization over the course of the novels. In the early books he’s something of a smart ass that you’d never want to have over for dinner; later on he mellows quite a bit and simply becomes something of a function of the plot. I suspect that’s the main reason Ellery Queen isn’t as well liked as Christie even though his plots are at least as convoluted as hers, and just as much fun.

In my third year at Penn State one of the fellows in the room next door on the fifth floor of Mifflin Hall was Jon Graves who seemed to love whodunits, and in particular Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, as much as I did. (He probably liked the other two authors as well, but I only recall discussing Christie and Queen with him.)

After Lloyd, whom I had met that past summer, Jon was the next Black fellow that I got to know. And as I now re-read some of those classic whodunits, I can’t help feeling that Jon must have cringed as he read some of them back then. After all, there were seldom any Black characters in any of the classic books from the Golden Age of Whodunits, and when there were, they were usually just waiters or servants and not very sympathetically portrayed, to say the least. 

In the book I want to discuss today, The Chinese Orange Mystery, one of the characters even utters the phrase “That’s awfully white of you.” 

The Chinese Orange MysteryI, of course, didn’t much notice those things back in the day, being the clueless white guy that I was.

Anyway one of the books that I recall discussing with Jon was the afore-mentioned The Chinese Orange Mystery. It’s one of the early Queen books that all have a nationality in their title: Egyptian Cross, American Gun, Roman Hat, Greek Coffin, Spanish Cape, etc., and where Ellery is still something of a smart ass.

Those books also have Ellery’s Challenge to the Reader. About four fifths of the way through the novel, Ellery interrupts the flow to tell the readers that all the clues have now been laid out fairly and that using logic the readers can now work their way to the one and only true solution to the mystery.

Both Jon and I had read that book while in high school and neither one of us had figured out the solution. In fact Jon said that he had read it a second time and he still couldn’t understand how the murder was accomplished. So it’s one of those books that I’ve always wanted to read again, and now finally I’ve gotten around to it.

I have always remembered some things from my first reading. For example, that tangerines are also known as Chinese oranges, although I don’t think I’ve ever heard that term used anywhere except in that book.

Also, because everything at the murder scene was turned backwards, including the victim’s clothing, Ellery kept searching for more things that were backwards. And he turned to a Chinese expert because he decided that the Chinese did a lot of things that are backwards (i.e., different) compared to the Occident. Oh, yes, they still used the term Oriental back then.

And I always recalled this exchange:

“When they want to be cooled, they drink hot liquids.”
“Marvelous! I begin to fancy your Chinese more and more. I’ve found, myself, that raising the internal temperature makes the external temperature much more bearable. Go on; you’re doing splendidly.”

I’ve tried drinking hot coffee or tea on hot, humid days, and it just makes me sweat more, so I’ve never understood the appeal.

I re-read the book over the past few days, and when I began it, recalling who the culprit turns out to be, and recalling the reason why everything had to be arranged backwards, I had only the slightest idea of how the deed was performed. And when I got to the denouement, as Ellery was explaining in excruciating detail just exactly how the killer did what the killer had to do, I found my eyes glazing over. So I’m no wiser now than when I started it.

Even Francis Nevins, author of the biography of the cousins who used the pseudonym Ellery Queen, says that the solution hangs on “outlandish physical manipulations” and calls this novel one of the weakest of the early period.

But I still say it’s worth reading. There is after all a solid reason that the killer needs to turn everything at the scene of the crime backwards, and it’s certainly not the only classic whodunit where the author has stretched logic to the breaking point.


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