Imperishable anthologist Otto Penzler kicks off his newest publishing venture, a reprint series of American Mystery Classics, with this 1934 brainteaser involving perhaps the strangest crime scene in all fiction.
When millionaire publisher/philatelist/gem collector Donald Kirk and his acquaintance Ellery Queen (The Adventure of the Murdered Moths, 2005, etc.) stop just before dinner at Kirk’s office, on the 22nd floor of New York’s Hotel Chancellor, they step inside to find everything in the waiting room—framed pictures, bookcases, furniture, rugs—turned backward and an unknown caller who’d told Kirk’s secretary, James Osborne, that he was here to see Mr. Kirk on a matter of great importance beaten to death and wearing all his clothes backward as well. Why would someone, presumably the killer, have taken the trouble to create such a baffling scene? That’s one of the greatest riddles in Golden Age detective fiction, and it’s a shame that nothing in between the opening sequence and the two concluding chapters that follow Queen’s signature Challenge to the Reader remotely measures up to it. Since the corpse remains unidentified and there’s precious little evidence beyond the bizarre state of the murder room, Queen, whom this early case finds at his most mannered (“I don’t feel in the donative mood this morning”), spends his time chatting up the forgettable suspects—Kirk’s cantankerous father; his sister, Marcella; his partner, Felix Berne; his friend Glenn Macgowan; and the two women in his life, perceptive Jo Temple and seductive Irene Llewes—and alternately unearthing and dismissing red herrings. Penzler’s introduction, which focuses on the cousins who created the Queen pseudonym, is brief but informative.
It’s easy to see why Queen’s exercise in deduction has dated badly: Everything about it is creaky and artificial, from the incredible logistics of the murder to the alleged passions of the characters. After all these years, though, the unbridled ingenuity of its central puzzle has never been surpassed.