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Calamity Town

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 11 months ago

Queen, Ellery - Calamity Town


Those of you with long memories will read that I'm about to review an Ellery Queen novel, and expect a page-long diatribe pointing out that the authors are talentless hacks who couldn't construct a decent plot or clue it properly, and that they're nowhere near as good as Carr or Mitchell. (Which last is true, of course, but then it's rather like saying that a writer isn't as good as Dickens or Donne.) The first two points were, I now believe, the result of reading The Tragedy of Y, The Origin of Evil and The Finishing Stroke in rapid succession.


Calamity Town, you see, is very good. Not the masterpiece it's often trotted out as, 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 with rather cardboard characters (The Tragedy of X, The Siamese Twin Mystery and The Spanish Cape Mystery excepted). 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 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. (I should find a copy of The Glass Village, which is supposed to take this metaphor for America even further.)


Where the book fails to reach classic status is in the vital department of plot. It's good, but not brilliant. Perhaps my disappointment with it is the fact that it was one of the few Queens I've solved (the others are Halfway House and The Dragon's Teeth, although I did have my doubts about The Roman Hat Mystery, The Spanish Cape Mystery and There Was an Old Woman). 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 the fact that I got the motive wrong!) is good enough to make the ending work.


On the whole, a very good book that may well have been a classic if the authors had made the ending more surprising.


Nick Fuller

I have little to add to Nick's review other than to express my gratified amazement at the way in which the authors manage to: a) present a detailed and evocative description of a little American town and its inhabitants; b) describe the progress of a tragic love affair and a doomed marriage with delicacy and grace; c) construct and solve a fairly-clued detective story, all in a single shortish novel. Names, places and personalities are juggled with such consummate skill that it's easy to forgive the flaws Nick points out, in particular the inevitability of the solution. Like John Dickson Carr, Queen as an author delights in taking risks. Sometimes these don't come off, but when they do the pyrotechnics are dazzling.




I thought this book started quite well, but my interest drifted off by the time of the deadly drink. There is more character interest here then in earlier Queens I have read, but I wouldn't say that Queen matches the better work by, say, Allingham or Marsh. The conception of the town seemed more interesting than the actual inhabitants. But maybe I'm an Anglophile, like our Nick F.!




As far as the puzzle goes, I read through this part quickly, but the puzzle plot seemed overly simple for the reader yet, convoluted in Ellery's explanation. The whole business about the letters and the sister/wife thing thing seemed more than obvious. It seemed implausible that they would have kept quiet so long about suspected attempted poisoning too. I can't see this as a poisoning classic like several by Christie or Street.



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