Friday, January 29, 2016

Ellery Queen's Calamity Town

Calamity Town marked a major change in direction for the Ellery Queen mysteries. Published in 1942 this was the first of the so-called Wrightsville mysteries which saw the authors (Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee) moving away from the puzzle-plot mysteries that had brought them so much success and towards a more character-driven and self-consciously realist style. Unfortunately the result is a book that fails on every level.

New York detective story writer Ellery Queen decides to move to a small town in New England. Presumably he is looking for inspiration for his next novel. He rents a house that has such a bad reputation that it has become known as Calamity House. The house had been built by the town’s most prominent citizen, John F. Wright, for his daughter and her new husband to live in. Just before the wedding the prospective bridegroom disappears. The house is left empty - the one person who rents it dies mysteriously as soon as he moves in.

Calamity House happens to be the only house in the town available for rent and Ellery is happy to sign a six-month lease. 

John F. Wright runs the local bank and the Wright family more or less runs the town. Ellery is drawn into the family’s dramas when he takes a shine to Wright’s daughter Pat. Pat has two sisters. Nora, the one whose intended husband Jim ran out on her, has clearly had some kind of breakdown and rarely leaves her room. No-one wants to talk about the third sister, Lola. She is not Respectable.

Three years after running out on her Jim returns and now the wedding between Nola and Jim can finally take place.

Everything now seems to be hunky dory, until Pat and Ellery make a discovery that suggests that murder may be afoot. Ellery, rather recklessly, adopts a wait-and-see approach confident that he can prevent any such crime from being committed. This turns out to be the first of his many mistakes in this case.

When the murder does take place it appears to be an open-and-shut case but Ellery has his doubts. What follows is a long drawn-out saga to establish the truth and it has to be said that Ellery does not distinguish himself, missing painfully obvious clues.

It’s quite common for writers of detective fiction (and genre fiction in general) to decide quite suddenly that they really don’t want to be mere writers of detective fiction. They want to be Serious Writers. This almost invariably turns out to be an error of judgment. Such is the case with the Ellery Queen authors. Wanting to write more character-driven books is all well and good but they don’t display much flair for it. The characterisation is not very convincing. 

They also decided they wanted to add some social commentary (almost always a bad idea) and the results are heavy-handed in the extreme. The idea seems to have been to make the town itself a character in its own right. This is Calamity Town and it’s the real villain.  Dannay and Lee were New Yorkers and like so may urban intellectuals they clearly did not like or approve of small town America. Their hostility is unfortunately all too obvious. The people of Wrightsville are portrayed as narrow-minded gossip-ridden hypocritical bigots. In fact it’s the authors who come across as the real bigots. Their snarkiness is rather off-putting.

Then there’s the plot. A child of five could have solved this one but unfortunately Ellery can’t find a child of five to help him out so he spends months(!) bumbling about missing every vital clue. Being charitable I assume the idea was to make Ellery more human by making him fallible. That’s fair enough but sadly he comes across as a complete buffoon.

And then there’s the courtroom scenes. If your name isn’t Erle Stanley Gardner you’re well advised to avoid lengthy courtroom scenes. They can be dull, and in this case they are. The two Surprise Moves in the legal case are illogical, silly, gimmicky, pointless and embarrassing. 

The plot limps along until finally Ellery sees the light, and then for no logical reason decides not to reveal the truth until even more months have passed, thus adding more unnecessary padding to a book that already has major pacing problems.

I love the very early Ellery Queens (I love them very much indeed) but to be honest even as early as The Spanish Cape Mystery in 1935 there were signs that the authors’ powers of invention were flagging in regard to plotting. That book has a serious structural flaw that makes the identity of the killer just a little too obvious. 

Calamity Town should have been called Calamity Novel because that’s what it is - a misguided poorly conceived disaster. Very very disappointing.

If you’ve never read Ellery Queen then seek out their novels from the early 1930s. Books like The Greek Coffin Mystery and The French Powder Mystery are among the finest of all golden age mysteries. But give Calamity Town a miss.


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  2. Since I believe, and I am hardly alone in this, that "Calamity Town" is one of the best crime novels ever written, and since it is pretty much universally acknowledged to mark the beginning of a new and exciting phase in the Ellery Queen series, I find this review utterly bizarre. I am surprised that there have not been other comments, because the statements here are nothing if not controversial.

    1. Patrick, I'm also surprised. I was preparing myself for a firestorm over this review!

  3. Okay, here's my comment then. I agree more or less wholeheartedly.

    I'm not particularly fond of the Wrightsville novels in general. The Ellery Queen I like is the one with fun and games. With one big exception: Cat of Many Tails.

    1. I'll have to add Cat of Many Tails to my shopping list.

  4. [i]Cat of Many Tails[/i] has been called the richest novel the Queens ever wrote, and it is. [i]Calamity Town[/i] is in some ways more subtle than earlier EQs. I don't agree, though, that all the Wrightsvillians are painted as narrow-minded bigots. Patricia Wright, with whom Ellery has a hinted-at romance, is not like that.

    The mystery elements are not the dazzling fireworks of earlier and some later stories, no. But it's about character. Comparisons have been drawn between Thornton Wilder's [i]Our Town[/i] and this novel; and when Wilder wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock's [i]Shadow of a Doubt[/i], the little town in the story comes off very much like Wrightsville.

  5. I made it halfway through and gave up. I suspect the murderer confessed because he couldn't stand having the story drawn out any longer.