Calamity Town – Ellery Queen (1942)

CalamityTownBefore I ever started actually reading Ellery Queen, I had read a lot about him.  Err…them…and him?  If you’re reading this then you’re likely aware that “Ellery Queen” refers to both the detective character and the pseudonym used by the Dannay/Lee cousins who wrote the series.  And quite a series it was, stretching well over 30 novels.  Two of my favorite blogs – Noah’s Archive and Ah Sweet Mystery – have excellent posts breaking that career down into a set of periods.  From the very beginning, the third period – Wrightsville – has stood out as a destination I very much wanted to get too.

My experience with Ellery Queen hasn’t exactly been great so far.  The first period books were dry slogs.  I dragged myself through four of them before abandoning my mission to read the series in order.  I skipped ahead to the so called Hollywood period, and had much better luck with The Four of Hearts, even if it did feel a little…well, Hollywood.

Since I was jumping around, I figured I’d finally try my luck with the Wrightsville books.  This is supposedly the period where the writing really shifted focus to a much deeper type of story, and it’s also this period that seems to garner consistently positive reviews.

Calamity Town starts off with Ellery Queen arriving at the Wrightsville train station  He finds himself in the epitome of small town America – a place he plans to hang his hat for a few months while he works on his next novel.  The first few chapters are a lazy stroll through life in Wrightsville, and as funny as it sounds, I found myself getting wrapped up in the story without a mystery in sight.

This isn’t the Ellery Queen I know!  I’m finishing chapter 12, wrapped warmly in the pages, and there hasn’t even been a murder yet!  If this was a period one novel, I would have just spent 12 chapters reading detectives interviewing an exhaustive list of suspects.  Instead I find myself sauntering along city streets, soaking in the atmosphere, and I’m loving it. 

Be assured though, there is a mystery coming.

Ellery ends up getting lodging with the Wright’s – descendants of the town’s founder and somewhat of local royalty.  Ellery inhabits an abandoned guest house, nicknamed Calamity House after a series of tragic events that have taken place since it was built.  Inhabiting those walls again will lead to another tragedy that will this time engulf the entire town.

Nora Wright has recently married Jim Haight, and the couple return home from their honeymoon in complete bliss.  Ellery is constantly nosing around the house (like a good guest should) and stumbles upon Jim’s plans to murder Nora.  Ellery sticks closely by the couple in an effort to thwart the plot, but ultimately fails when both Nora and a party guest are poisoned after consuming an arsenic laced drink.

Yet again, we see the authors shift dramatically from the style of the first period Queen novels.  Rather than chapter after chapter of studious investigation, we maybe have four paragraphs where local detectives question witnesses and search for clues.  Instead, the story focuses more on the impact that the murder has on the Wright family, and more importantly the town of Wrightsville.

“Ain’t never had a homicide in Wrightsville before, and I’ve been Chief here for pretty near twenty years.”

We experience the scandal from the perspective of the town itself, as gossipers buzz and reporter’s typewriters clatter.  The murder is front page news across the country, and the impact of being in the spotlight changes Wrightsville.  The Wright family become pariahs, in part because they refuse to believe that their son-in-law poisoned their daughter.

The story somewhat shifts into a court room drama, although it never gets dragged down by it.  Instead, the authors are keen to focus on characters and story, rather than getting wrapped up in minutiae.

“The difficulty with detailed records, however, is that you cannot see the tree for the leaves.  So let us stand off and make the leaves blur and bend into larger shapes.  Let us look at contours, not textures.”

Whatever caused the shift in story telling, I’m thankful for it.  Dannay/Lee can plot well and turn a beautiful sentence – something I never thought I’d find myself saying.

Now, as much as I loved Calamity Town, the mystery itself was somewhat weak.  You see, early on in the story something happens that could be interpreted multiple ways.  My mind immediately leapt to one interpretation, while the characters all went whole hog in the other direction.  I found myself thinking “oh no, I’m not going to have to sit through 180 more pages of people lumbering on under this assumption when in fact…”  Well, I was.

Fortunately, it was an engaging set of pages.  Although I ended up with most of the important points figured out, that didn’t mean that everything was predictable by any means.  The authors have learned how to build excitement throughout the story instead of relying purely on the denouement.  I had some nice epiphanies along the way and the end still held some secrets, even if the most shocking parts were muted.  This is one of those rare Golden Age mysteries that really delivers an emotional blow and leaves you cold in the end.

At this point I’m pretty much bought in on Ellery Queen.  The Tragedy of Y (published under the pseudonym of Barnaby Ross) was excellent and now I’ve followed it with another book that I know will stick with me.  It’s amazing to see how much the authors evolved in a decade and I want more of what I got with Calamity Town.  I’ll definitely be reading the third period in order, so I can look forward to my next encounter being There Was an Old Woman.

My copy of Calamity Town was a 1955 Pocket Book edition.  As you may be able to tell by my picture, it was a bit worse for wear – I had to be a bit careful as the binding was starting to split.  It was worth it for the cover though.  This is such a varied story that a single picture wouldn’t quite capture the spirit.

18 thoughts on “Calamity Town – Ellery Queen (1942)”

  1. Rumor has it that There Was an Old Woman is basically what the boys were writing when Agatha Christie stopped them with And Then There Were None! Not that there is any similarity between the two stories, but you do get the sense that TWaOW is an interruption in the Wrightsville scheme of things, since it is, in many ways, a screwball mystery. But I absolutely loved it and was even fooled by it at first reading! (Like you, I figured out CT by seeing the forest for the trees, so to speak, but that didn’t stop my enjoyment a jot either.) I’m so glad you liked this one, Ben! Can’t wait to hear what you think about your next Queen!


    1. Not strictly a spoiler, but implications. Skip if you haven’t read…
      If… if you didn’t see the twist in this one coming, you would end up spitting your teeth across the floor – along with your jaw. Man, if only I could have been caught by surprise with this one! I even got goosebumps despite seeing it coming – similar to The Tragedy of Y. I think Calamity Town goes down as #1 for introducing a GAD virgin to the genre – not nearly the best, but it would deliver an impact that would be hard to replicate.


    2. That seems a plausible theory, Brad. It would explain why “There Was an Old Woman” suddenly appears in the middle of what is otherwise a full Wrightsville run from “Calamity Town” to “Double Double”. Yes, “Cat of Many Tails” appears in the middle of that run as well, but is clearly set in the same universe, unlike “Woman” which is an outlier. I can’t remember if Nevins addresses this in his Queen biography.

      I think if “Woman” had appeared in the 50s, the tail end of Period 3, or even in the late 30s in Period 2, it wouldn’t seem so out of place as it does now.

      That is not to say it’s not a good novel – it is one of Queen’s very best, IMO.


  2. Speaking of Hollywood (as you were early on), that cover really looks like a movie poster, doesn’t it?

    I enjoyed Calamity Town, and I did not see the ending coming, although when I read it I had trouble believing that (rot-13’d spoiler) n zna jub cybggrq n zheqre naq gura puvpxrarq bhg jbhyq yrnir nal rivqrapr bs uvf fpurzvat ylvat nebhaq. (Naq gura gurer’f gung znggre bs gurer orvat ab lrnef va gur qngrf.) That said, it still has one of Queen’s cleverest plots, and in a more vivid setting than any he’d used before (although The Siamese Twin Mystery and The Four of Hearts come close). In spite of the rotten conduct of so many of the characters, I think of this book as a love letter to small-town America.

    Anthony Boucher said There Was an Old Woman was like a book-length episode of the Ellery Queen radio series, and I would guess that in light of the fact that it was a successful show, the cousins were trying to see if a book written in the same vein would be equally popular. By this time they were no longer selling their books to magazines for serialization (not for lack of trying), so I couldn’t blame them for trying to boost their income another way.

    Do you know there’s a stage version of Calamity Town? Here’s a link to a review of one production: The play is by Joseph Goodrich, who edited Blood Relations, the collection of Dannay-Lee letters.


    1. I’m reading this post now having saved the link until I had read the book myself. In response to the spoiler above, in ROT 13 Creuncf Wvz jnfa’g frevbhf nobhg pbzzvggvat zheqre (ng yrnfg abg hagvy uvf svefg jvsr unq erghearq gb pnhfr uvz gebhoyr) – jevgvat gur yrggref jnf n sbez bs jvfu shysvyyzrag, juvpu jrer gura pneryrffyl ghpxrq njnl va n obk bs byq obbxf.

      I was hoping the How would be different than it was, having seen that before in a book published much later, but the reasons Why were very believable. And I loved the last line that tied one of the themes of the book together perfectly.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There was no “reply” option to Green Capsule’s comment below so I’m putting it in here.

        I find it hard to say what elements I saw through because although I do sometimes mentally take note of points I don’t try to put them together because I actively don’t want to try to solve the mystery – I so want to be surprised – so it’s more in retrospect that I look back and say, well I saw this and that.

        If I do solve a mystery it normally happens by accident e.g. The Paddington Mystery by John Rhode where I happened to notice one thing and then the whole thing was in my head at once.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s great to see that the charms of EQ aren’t entirely lost on you. I had the good fortune of discovering Queen at an impressionable age: In short, I encountered Christie, Carr, and Queen over the course of a glorious summer during my teens, and I haven’t been the same since. I read Calamity Town when I was older, but I fell for the core stroke of misdirection, as you (for better or worse) did not. The Queen oeuvre is quite varied, and I tend to like all of its variations—which isn’t to say that I don’t see flaw in particular works. But the quality that stands out for me is Dannay and Lee’s ability to instill classic puzzles with *moral resonance.* That is the case with Calamity and with most of my other favorite EQ novels (Siamese, Egyptian, Tragedy of Y, Murderer Is a Fox, Cat of Many Tails, King Is Dead, etc.).

    Liked by 1 person

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