Before 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.