The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen

A complete stranger is found dead in an office waiting room. No-one seems to know who he is, no-one seems to know what he was doing there and most importantly of all, no-one knows why everything in the murder scene, from the victim’s clothes to the bookcases in the room, have all been turned back to front – or why the victim has a couple of African spears shoved up the arms and legs of his clothes.

The Chinese Orange Mystery is one of the early Ellery Queen novels that are often cited as being classics – the other mentioned is usually The Greek Coffin Mystery. So, read in sequence, does it stand head and shoulders above the surrounding novels?

Not really, in my opinion.

Let’s start with the good. As with the preceding Siamese Twin Mystery, the writing style has settled down considerably – Ellery’s verbal excesses are few and far between and Ellery himself is feeling more and more like a real person. The story focusses mostly on Ellery for at least the first two-thirds of the book until his police inspector father really gets involved, and he is more active than in some books in his investigations. Given this is one of those single murder books, the plot continues at quite a pace with blackmail, stamp and jewellery thefts and all sorts going on. Generally speaking, this is a highly enjoyable mystery…

… until you get to the end. The revelation of the reason for the backwards room is not bad, although I’m not convinced that Ellery should have been fooled by it – being vague here, but I don’t think that they’re the same. As for the spears – there must have been easier ways to have achieved the same effect. That’s all I’ll say.

With regards to the style of the plot, the “person you will have overlooked” theme, present for all of the books so far is (sort of) ditched for an Agatha Christie-style way of eliminating the murderer from your suspicions and, because of that, I found it a lot less satisfying that some of the other books in the series to date.

Maybe I’m being too picky – for 90% of the book, it’s great, but I thought the ending was disappointing. It’s entirely possible that you won’t/didn’t.


Long out of print, I’m afraid. Try eBay or Abebooks.


  1. I was surprised when I read in one of your previous posts that this was considered one of the superior Ellery Queen novels, because I wouldn’t consider it as one of my favourites, and for the exact reason you mention, the ending is disappointing. I’m not sure it mattered though; I haven’t yet found an Ellery Queen novel that I didn’t enjoy reading irrespective of the resolution.


    • Well, my “classic” judgement came from distant memory and other word of mouth. In terms of enjoyment, you’re right, but there are books – recently American Gun and Player on the Other Side – where the solution was so disappointing that it soured the book for me.

      Very much looking forward to the next one, Halfway House, as I know absolutely nothing about it. Fingers crossed.


  2. I suspect it was I who twinned GREEK COFFIN and CHINESE ORANGE as amongst my personal favourites, and I do stand by that, with certain caveats …

    I remember reading this as a lad of 13 and being blown away by the ****** **** puzzle – it may well have been the first of its type I’d ever read. On re-reading it, it became clear that the Queens had created a fabulous central situation and then just built things around it without much effort perhaps so that you remember nothing about the book except that part of it. I have a real sentimental soft spot for it, and I love the central situation, but it is not one of the stronger 30s novels per se, I agree – but I’ve always considered it to be great fun. Like Christie, Queen actually did very few ********** crime novels (KING IS DEAD is one of the few others I can think of) and perhaps it is just as well. **** was the master and it’s easy to see why.



    • Sergio, I’ve edited the comment (and an earlier one on a different post) because it does give away who the murderer is. It’s only such a thing in terms of one character who happens to be the murderer For any other character, then it’s not.

      It’s not just you who mentions The Chinese Orange Mystery in high regard – I’m sure that the two books have often been praised as the best of the early ones. It is, as you say, fun, and it’s only the ending and the unnecessary complications to create the central situation that blow it for me. It’s still good, just not the best. I’m going to do a top three (and bottom one) of the first ten when I get round to it – it’ll give me a chance to sing the praises of my new favourite.


      • No worries. I love the notion that my site might have protocol!

        To be honest, I recalled from reading it ten or so years ago that it was that sort of a mystery and found myself surprised when reading it that it wasn’t. Then the penny dropped towards the end. Funny how the memory plays tricks on you.

        Looking forward to Halfway House, the next one, as it’s the first of the chronological ones that I haven’t read before. If I can put leave my newfound Doherty library alone that is – thanks again for that, by the way. Finally got my hands on a copy of The House of the Red Slayer that you recommended.


    • I can discuss this more in detail on another forum where spoilers are allowed, but I vehemently disagree with the assertion that this mystery is the type of mystery that people claim it is, let alone one of the best of that type ever written. Not only is that wrong, but it gives away the solution to the puzzle.


  3. Just a few thoughts on TCOM. I can’t say much more without giving away the plot, but what we have in this book is a brilliant example of misdirection on the part of the author(s) rather than the killer. I think the solution would have been much mote fairer if a closer diagram of the crime scene (or at least the furniture) had been drawn, rather than assuming the reader can effortlessly keep track of acute and obtuse angles. Also, it’s unfortunate that a key part of the solution hinges on an aspect of men’s fashion in the 1930’s that is now obsolete.


    • I can’t be sure, as my copy’s packed away, but I think mine might have had such a diagram.

      Regardless, I’m not a massive fan of such a technical solution either – all of my favourites of the classics hinge on a single notion, such as The Judas Window, rather than something so complicated


  4. There’s another thing about The Chinese Orange Mystery which I’d like to comment on is that I think it helped inspire John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man. The reason why I think it is safe to say that is because knowing the solution to TCOM will not help the reader solve The Hollow Man. Towards the end of The Hollow Man, Dr. Fell says that the crime is backwards, and I had no idea what that meant until I read the brilliant solution.


  5. I read all the early Queens long, long ago when I was 20 or 22. He was my first GAD after Christie, and I loved all of them except American Gun and Roman Hat. This and French Powder were my favourites. I recently reread Greek Coffin, which I remember really liking, … and was less than thrilled. The deficiencies as a novel bother me more now than they did then, but I also found some of the clues and inferences far too strained. I suspect the logic in Orange, being simpler, will hold up better but I fear rereading it.


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