Calamity Town [UNABRIDGED] by Ellery Queen
; Dimensions (in inches): 1.50 x 10.00 x 7.00
Publisher: Blackstone Audiobooks; Unabridged edition (March 1998)
Introducing Wrightsville, November 17, 2002
M. L. Worley
from Kingdom of the Mouse, United States
To refer to the authors, I'll use their real names - Fred Dannay and Manfred Lee - to distinguish them from their chief character, Ellery Queen. _Calamity Town_ was first published in April 1942, nearly 3 years after _The Dragon's Teeth_. At this stage, Ellery Queen is in his second incarnation. He's no longer the 'pure reasoner' of the first EQ stories, who had filed for divorce from the human race; he agonizes over the consequences of his investigations, he loves and loses like anyone else. (Mind you, in the right frame of mind, I can enjoy the pure puzzle type of mystery, too, but *this* is a *novel*, where 'why?' can be as important as 'who'.) In fact, Ellery's been fleshed out enough to serve as the viewpoint character for most of the story, though not in first person. The fleshing out of characters and emotional situations is decent, although through Ellery's perception we're often given his take on something rather than being left to draw our own conclusions - i.e., some gracefully handled exposition here and there. Ellery, no longer drawn as a dilettante, takes his writing seriously. Since his next novel will be set in a typical small town, the normally city-dwelling Ellery plans to live in one for the next six months, incognito, researching the setting and producing a draft. Welcome to Wrightsville, Wright County, New York, making the first of its many appearances in the Queen canon. As in most Queen stories, the setting was contemporary when written - in this case, August 1940 - May 1941 - making it a period piece today. Rural Wrightsville, founded by Jezreel Wright in 1701, still has some cobbled streets, and horses are still commonplace in the area. The fact that Ellery can *sign a six-month lease* under an assumed name, with no ID and no credentials (other than 'I'm a writer under a pseudonym' and 'here's 3 months' rent in advance') *really* drives home that this is a vanished world. Even 2 years later, he'd have been a suspicious character, if not actually arrested for espionage or whatnot. (He later avoids being exposed by draft registration by quietly registering in his native New York City.) As it is, the defence industry is rejuvenating Wrightsville's economy, although not yet on a war footing, so Ellery can find only one available furnished rental: Calamity House. The Wrights remain the first family of Wrightsville: John F., bank president; his wife Hermione, holding the reins of Wrightsville society. They built a separate house on their property three years ago as a gift to Nora, their middle daughter, upon her marriage to Jim Haight, a promising young bank officer - but the engagement was broken, Jim left town, and Nora shut herself away, as much to protect herself from the town's petty gossip as from her broken heart. A now-ex newspaper reporter coined the tag 'Calamity House' when a massive heart attack struck down a would-be buyer. Ellery scoffs at the jinx theory, of course: "Calamity House! As sensible as calling Wrightsville Calamity Town!" Only gradually does he come to see the calamities inflicted by spite and mean-spirited gossip, and the hidden wish to see the mighty fallen. In this small town, the arrival of 'the famous writer, Ellery Smith' (as the realtor calls him while buttering up the Wrights) causes a stir - think of Hitchcock's film _Shadow of a Doubt_ for the flavor. Most of Wrightsville society bluffs its way through enthusiastic gushing over the famous author nobody's ever heard of, following up with clandestine visits to the library that, of course, come up empty. :) But even during Ellery's smooth entry into Wrightsville society, shadows occupy the picture, not only for Nora, but her elder sister Lola, who not only eloped, but (gasp!) got *divorced*, then refused either to take alimony or crawl back to her parents - who won't take her back since she won't play by the rules. Lola lives on piano lessons, alcohol, and guts. Only the 3rd sister, Patricia, is socially in good standing, and frankly enjoys using Ellery to make her *real* interest jealous - the Wright County Prosecutor. Ellery's lease soon creates a problem - Jim Haight reappears, demands to see Nora, and the long-delayed wedding finally takes place. Their long honeymoon cruise (late August - Halloween) is all very well, but Ellery's lease will still have a few months to run. He amiably offers to leave before being asked, and the Wrights, senior, settle matters by offering him rooms in their mansion for the rest of his lease. But upon the newlyweds' return, disturbing patterns begin taking shape: quarrels, escalated as Jim's poisonous sister Rosemary settles in for a long visit; a book on toxicology containing letters about an illness and death that haven't happened, yet; Jim's occasional binge drinking. And at last, on New Year's Eve, a poisoned cocktail sets events in motion that lift the lid off Hell, as the subsequent murder trial and its aftermath bring out the worst in Wrightsville. This tale is more like _The Scarlet Letters_ than the earliest Queen stories, as Ellery's part is more concerned with the court case than the arrest.
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