Calamity Town (Ellery Queen)

By Ellery Queen

First published: US, Little, Brown, 1942; UK, Gollancz, 1942

Blurb (US)

Queen - Calamity Town.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

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?”

My review

Not the masterpiece it’s often called, but very good all the same. Ellery “Smith”, a well-known detective novelist, buys a house in the small town of Wrightsville and finds himself involved in the lives of the Wrights, which develops from the suspicion that Jim Haight is planning to murder his wife into actual murder.

One of the most striking things about the book is how well it’s characterised and written. The early Queens were ingenious and sometimes brilliant problems, but often with rather cardboard characters. The story here, though, is character-driven. Ellery (and the reader) sees the characters from the inside, as human beings first and as suspects second. Tellingly, Ellery falls in love with a nice young thing; offers himself up as a possible murderer in order to raise doubts about the guilt of Jim Haight; and is distraught when a double tragedy envelops the Wrights at the end of the novel.

The most interesting character is the eponymous Wrightsville. I tend to remember settings as much as I do plots (one of the reasons why I’m such a fan of Gladys Mitchell, I suppose) so it’s nice to have such a well-drawn community as Wrightsville — decent and law-abiding on the outside, seething with paranoid spite and resentment inside and demanding that their prime suspect be lynched without benefit of a fair trial.

Where the book fails to reach classic status is in the vital department of plot. It’s good, but not brilliant. Maybe I was disappointed because it’s one of the few Queens I’ve solved. Of course, the truth dawned upon me forty pages before the end (largely because of the “impossibility” of the crime – if it wasn’t done that way, then it must have been done this way – and the provenance of certain documents) rather than halfway through Chapter 3 as has been the case with nearly every other detective story I’ve read this year. That’s one of the problems with writers whom one relies upon for surprises (The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Tragedy of X). When I spot the murderer before the author means me to, it’s very hard to resist feeling disappointed. In this case, however, the characterisation (and my getting the motive wrong!) is good enough to make the ending work.

On the whole, a very good book but lacking the SURPRISE! of a classic.

Contemporary reviews

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, 18th 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.


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.