Calamity Town (Ellery Queen)

  • By Ellery Queen
  • First published: US: Little, Brown, 1942; UK: Gollancz, 1942

Rating: 4 out of 5.

They drove down the Hill in silence. There was ice on the road, and the chains sang cheerfully. Wrightsville looked nicely wintry, all whites and reds and blacks, no shading; it had the country look, the rich and simple cleanliness, of a Grant Wood painting. But in town there were people, and sloppy slush, and a meanness in the air; the shops looked pinched and stale; everybody was hurrying through the cold; no one smiled. In the Square they had to stop for traffic; a shopgirl recognized Pat and pointed her out with a lacquered fingernail to a pimpled youth in a leather storm-breaker. They whispered excitedly as Pat kicked the gas pedal.

Chapter 20

During World War II, a new note of sober realism entered the detective story; out were flamboyant crimes, genius sleuths, and Baroque puzzles; in were believable people, emotional depth, and plots driven by relationships. In the UK, Agatha Christie wrote some of her most intimate and deeply felt works: Sad Cypress (1940), Five Little Pigs (1942), Sparkling Cyanide (1945), The Hollow (1946). In the United States, Calamity Town. (There were also, of course, writers like Nicholas Blake and Mary Fitt.)

Calamity Town begins Period Three, viewed by many as Ellery Queen’s artistic maturity. “The cousins had taken a new turn,” Francis Nevins (Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection, 2013), writes. “Ellery Queen is still the central character, but he’s dropped his pince-nez and polysyllables and is no longer a detached intellect resolving terrible events but a human being involved in and torn by them. In the third period the deductive puzzle merges with rounded characterization, superb writing, and intellectual and imaginative patterns of a depth long believed both impossible and inappropriate in crime fiction.”

Calamity Town is a novel of smalltown America and the problems of a prominent family. Nora Wright was engaged to Jim Haight, who ditched her just before the wedding and left town. Three years later, Jim returns to town, and they marry. But Nora discovers letters Jim wrote, dated three months in advance, describing his wife’s illness and death. Jim, it seems, is planning to murder Nora…

In the background, the broader life of the town goes on: State Fairs where cattle win prizes; skiing at Christmas; and seasonal festivities: Hallowe’en, when Nora finds the letters; Thanksgiving and Christmas, when Nora takes ill; New Year’s Eve, when murder is done… (ROT13: Wvz vf neerfgrq ba Fg Inyragvar’f Qnl, naq Aben vf gnxra gb ubfcvgny naq qvrf ba Rnfgre Fhaqnl.)

In its quiet way, this is one of the best efforts to give the detective story the scope and depth of the straight novel. The British approach, led by Dorothy L. Sayers, was to expand, to make the mystery an intellectual (even metaphysical) comedy of manners, ‘about’ social and ethical themes.

Queen instead focuses on the characters and the community. Wrightsville and its inhabitants feel real in a way that suspects and places in, say, Period One or Period Two books don’t. Nothing is overdone; everything is, so to speak, just Wright. (Later Period Three books will be more fantastical.) Wrightsville might be charming, but it is also a place dictated by social position and respectability, and where characters are terrified of scandal to the point of murder. “There are no secrets or delicacies, and there is much cruelty in the Wrightsvilles of this world,” observes Ellery.

“Wrightsville! Gossipy, malicious, intolerant … the great American slob,” remarks Lola Wright, outcast member of the leading family. “More dirty linen to the square inch of backyard than New York or Marseilles. … It’s wormy and damp – a breeding place of nastiness.”

We see this during the arrest and trial that follow the murder (as in Halfway House); the defence try valiantly to break down a damning case, while the townsfolk throw stones and turn against the Wrights. Its outraged citizens try to take law into their own hands, and want to lynch the prime suspect without benefit of a fair trial. “Wrightsville’s in an ugly mood,” reports a journalist. “People here talk about nothing else. Their talk is pure Fascism. It’s going to be ‘fun’ watching them pick an unbiased jury.” Queen will make that theme the focus of The Glass Village (1954), his anti-McCarthy novel.

Wrightsville is decent and law-abiding on the surface; underneath, it seethes with spite and resentment underneath. But Wrightsville is also a place Ellery becomes very fond of, and to which he will return throughout Period Three.

Ellery himself is a person as never before. He is deprived of his usual accessories: his snuffy old father, Inspector Queen, beefy Sergeant Velie, the Challenge to the Reader and the National Whatsit. For much of the book, he is simply Ellery ‘Smith’, a novelist staying in Wrightsville, who becomes involved in town life. He is more personally involved with the suspects than ever before. True, in The Four of Hearts, he is attracted to lovely Paula Paris, but she is a social recluse, on the periphery of the case. Here, he falls in love with a member of the suspect family: lively, clever Pat Wright; he offers himself up as a possible murderer to try to save an accused man; and he is distraught by the tragedy at the finish.

Mike Grost calls this a minimalist work; there’s very little room to manoeuvre. Only one person mixed the cocktails and could have been certain the poisoned drink reached the intended victim. (Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy seems an influence; “No poisoner would leave it to Almighty God to decide who’d pick up the poisoned one,” even remarks the local policeman.)

Calamity Town is probably to be enjoyed more on rereading. The solution is transparent (ROT13: bayl gjb crbcyr pbhyq unir cbvfbarq gur pbpxgnvy, bar vf arire fhfcrpgrq). It’s always mildly disappointing to see through the mystery, but one can appreciate the story more the second time. The hidden triangular relationship is almost a standard Agatha Christie device. Ellery’s logical solution relies on physical clues and opportunity, but also more sophisticated clues of character and behaviour. (ROT13: Aben qevaxf zvyx bs zntarfvhz jura fur vf cbvfbarq jvgu nefravp – ubj qbrf fur xabj jung cbvfba?; fur fnirq Wvz’f yrggref engure guna oheavat gurz (juvpu fur jbhyq unir qbar gb cebgrpg uvz); fur erirnyrq gur rkvfgrapr bs gur yrggref gb gur cbyvpr; naq Wvz jbhyq abg ybbx ng ure.)

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Blurb (US)

At last another full-length mystery story by Ellery Queen – his first in three years.

Observe Queen, detective, as he realizes that a murder is to be committed, as he watches the supposed murderer before the crime, as he sees the death but even then isn’t sure of the who and the why.  Follow the intensely dramatic trial scene, then unravel with Queen the solution which brings happiness to those who should be happy and punishment to those who deserve it.

Of course, Ellery Queen didn’t want to get into all this trouble, for he went to the small town of Wrightsville under a pseudonym to write a novel.  Neither did he intend to fall for Patricia nor did he want to get in the middle of malicious gossip with wicked results in a town turned topsy-turvy by a murder.

“Calamity Town” has action, excitement, novelty, atmosphere.  With some temerity, the publisher queries: “Will this be considered a minor classic in the field of the American mystery novel?”

Contemporary reviews

The Observer (Maurice Richardson, 22 March 1942): In Calamity Town, Ellery Queen, in process of studying small town life, finds himself on to tragedy-haunted family and waits for the murder which, between ourselves, he could very easily have prevented. It is a good murder of its kind – poisoning at a party – leads to some sensational developments, including a trial scene and a lynching attempt, and has a genuinely staggering and not unduly strained solution. The best Ellery Queen for several books.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 4th April 1942): As a moving picture of life in Wrightsville Calamity Town is engaging.  There is no satire to spoil our liking for the Wrights, descendants of the pioneer, and their friends.  When calamity overtakes them their solid worth prevents the tale from becoming drab or depressing.  The crime that brings down upon them the contempt of those they had formerly overawed belongs to the scene.  Here are the materials for a straightforward novel of atmosphere and character; whether it has been made or marred by the addition of a murder mystery could be argued.  But the presence of a handsome, shrewd, captivating, famous Ellery Queen of fiction is an unmitigated nuisance.  If the Mr. Ellery Queen of fact intended this to be laughed at he should have pointed the jest.  As things are it is puzzling that a supposedly clever detective should miss explanations which leap to the eye.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 18 April 1942): Ellery Queen has long been reported Missing, Believed Prisoner of War at Hollywood, but this new book proves that he is still at large, if somewhat debilitated.  With advancing years Ellery has become verbose, sentimental and self-satisfied.  These characteristics predominate in Calamity Town almost to the exclusion of detection.  After a lot of preliminary small-talk in an American small-town, a young man is gaoled for the murder of a woman.  Ex hypothesi he must be innocent, but he refuses to put up any defence.  Why?  Ellery, with a great air of condescension, snoops smugly around to find out.  Not a difficult case, and not a feather in Ellery’s cap, but for old times’ sake many may like to read the book.  For the younger generation, let them read The Dutch Shoe or The Roman Hat if they want to see what Ellery could do in his prime.

Kirkus (27 April 1942): Snippets of family gossip keep Ellery Queen on tiptoes in typically American Wrightsville, where he is incognito-ing. Forewarned of attempts on bride’s life, when murder occurs, Queen is fighting to protect his new friends when the young husband is put on trial. He throws himself to the lions to aid the youth, quits when the wife dies in childbirth and the youth suicides, and returns to patch up a romance with the true explanation of events. Novel of deduction rather than straight detection procedure.

The Philadelphia Inquirer (K.F.T., 29 April 1942): Now we come to an entirely different kind of story [from Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Haunted Lady] – with a detective who keeps his readers constantly on edge and sometimes hardly leaves himself a loop-hole through which to crawl. Sometimes Ellery Queen’s “analyses” of given situations are difficult to follow without looking in the back of the book for the answer ahead of time, but in this one he does all right by followers. In his stories there is always just one person who can be guilty – all the other suspects may fit 9 of the 10 requirements but only one fits all 10.

That’s true in this new one in which Ellery goes to a small town to write a novel and watches murder in the making. He has a great courtroom scene and then proceeds to ferret out the killer by his usual methods.

The Boston Globe (Elizabeth Hull, 20 May 1942): This book should make every detective story reader an Ellery Queen fan. He has never written a better book and very few people have written as good a detective novel. The story is well planned, well written and interesting because of its characterizations, its plot and its atmosphere. The wish to guess who is strong and the mystery of the people is so well developed that you feel you are living a life in the small town depicted and wondering curiously about your neighbours.

Queen goes into a town to get material for a novel he is writing. He finds it almost immediately but cannot figure out the why and wherefore. With a very pleasant girl companion he observes and then gets entangled in a domestic and murderous situation.

The book is close to being an American classic in its field.

The Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 27 May 1942): Calamity Town is probably better than most detective stories, but certainly worse than most of those written by Mr. Ellery Queen.

Isaac Anderson in the New York Times Book Review: By far the best mystery novel yet produced by the two men who use the name of their detective hero as a pseudonym.  It may well come to be hailed as a major classic.

Vincent Starrett: A distinguished mystery novel marking the fusion of the detective story with the novel of manners…Queen at his best.

Irvin S. Cobb: The way it looks to me, this audacious fellow is fixing to break into the immortal company which includes Edgar Allan Poe, A. Conan Doyle and Gilbert K. Chesterton.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): One of the less irritating works of the author.  Ellery leaves Manhattan for “Wrightsville”, where he falls in love and gets entangled in various concerns culminating in murder; he is for a time himself a suspect.  The town with its gossip and cliques is well done; the narrative is sober, and there are good courtroom scenes.  Ellery is, as usual, more oracular than active.

10 thoughts on “Calamity Town (Ellery Queen)

  1. I don’t know that I pieced together the holiday bit fully when I read this; thanks for pointing it out.

    Calamity Town is easily the most enjoyable read by Queen, and might not be a bad place to start with the author (although you’d be in danger of things going downhill from there).


    1. I can’t take all the credit for spotting the holiday bit; Ellery draws attention to it, and Francis Nevins discusses it in his book.

      Calamity Town is probably Queen’s best book as novel, although not his best mystery. (That would probably be one of the Period I books – maybe Tragedy of X or Siamese Twin, although I found X laborious when I reread it.)

      I started with The Adventures of Ellery Queen – a dozen really ingenious short stories; it gives you the outré situations and brilliant reasoning of Period I without any of the longueurs. Then worked my way through Period I – which I enjoyed! They don’t stand up so well on rereading, though.


      1. Purely from a mystery point of view I think that The Tragedy of Y is Queen’s best (although I’ve only read maybe a dozen titles). The Dutch Shoe Mystery may feature the best misdirection, although I was pretty bored with the book up until the reveal.

        The Tragedy of X is an absolute chore to get through, although it is such a strange beast that I actively encourage people to suffer through it. There should be some sort of badge that everyone gets when they complete it.


      2. Tragedy of Y (and Origin of Evil) actually put me off Ellery Queen for a few years; I thought the solution was pretty stupid! “The blunt instrument”, indeed. I need to reread it!

        From Period I, Tragedy of Z has a smashing solution, but a few plotholes. American Gun is also quite clever.

        You’re right about Dutch Shoe – the solution is ingenious, but there’s not enough for an almost 300 page book; it would make a classic short story.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review as always, Nick. Calamity Town works for me—as a novel more than as a mystery, but it works for me. As with Ten Days’ Wonder, really great Manfred Lee writing… It’s kind of surprising that he wrote those early EQs, which can be excruciatingly bland, because these Period IIs and IIIs are so descriptive and poetic, almost verging on purple (not that I mind that much). This book has a great picture of Wrightsville; as you say, “Wrightsville is decent and law-abiding on the surface; underneath, it seethes with spite and resentment underneath. But Wrightsville is also a place Ellery becomes very fond of.” And I’m very fond of it, too—it’s one of my favorite small towns in fiction. The Our Town-ness is also well done; it’d be interesting to compare this, Our Town, and Thornton Wilder’s screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt.

    Unlike Ten Days’ Wonder, in which I think figuring the mystery out early may hurt the book, here the simplicity of the puzzle (at least for us used to Carr, Christie, and Brand) may actually help the story Queen’s telling, make it seem even more of a tragedy. And, as you say, the psychological/character-based clues are more numerous than in most Queens.

    Ever since learning of it I’ve wanted to see Joseph Goodrich’s play based on Calamity Town. It’s probably the best Queen for a stage adaptation.


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