Calamity Town by Ellery Queen

Calamity TownWhen Ellery Queen, adopting the cunning pseudonym of Ellery Smith, visits the town of Wrightsville, he knows he’s found the place to settle for a while to get on with his writing. Intrigued by the history of the so-called Calamity House, he soon rents it out and falls for one of the daughters of the owner. The family has a past shame – another daughter, Nora, was abandoned at the altar three years ago by her fiancé, Jim Haight. But no sooner has Ellery showed up, then Jim returns to town.

Everything seems to be returning to normal – Jim and Nora even get married  – when some letters, apparently written by Jim turn up. Letters that describe the sickening and eventual death of Jim’s wife – but they are dated days and weeks into the future. On the date of the first letter, Nora indeed becomes ill – arsenic poisoning. And on the date of the last letter, death does indeed come.

Despite all the evidence pointing towards Jim, Ellery is convinced of his innocence – but no one else had the chance to deliver the fatal dose of poison. It’s going to take a while for Ellery to solve this…

A very different outing for Ellery, this one. It’s a slow piece, with a small cast of characters and is much less of a puzzle story than a lot of the other stories. What’s also missing, from the more recent books at least, is any real attempt at humour. This is a much more serious piece of work – necessary, given the plot – and it works pretty well. For a book in which, to be honest, not a lot happens, this is a surprising page turner.

Surprising that it’s a page turner, that it. Anyone who’s surprised by the killer hasn’t read many mysteries. While the back story to what is going on takes some putting together, it beggars belief that Ellery doesn’t even consider what is going on for at least three months, if not longer.

I think that’s my only quibble with this book – it’s a more sedate, mature read than previous outings and a really good read, but Ellery is really stupid in this one. Even so, it gives the reader more time to concentrate on the motivations.

So, a strong entry into the series, and a change in direction for Ellery. The next book in the series, There Was An Old Woman, returns to more traditional Queen antics, but we’ll be back in Wrightsville soon… (if I can find the books in the garage!)


  1. Glad you liked this one and you’re right – it’s an interesting development for Ellery. By the way, I have Ten Days’ Wonder and The King is Dead. If you don’t find your copies in the garage, let me know (margotkinberg(at)gmail(dot)com and I’ll gladly get them to you.


  2. I agree completely Steve. Back in the mid 80s when i first read this one, I remember liking the change of pace and tone from the earlier, less naturalistic novels and breezy movie-style thrillers that followed (there had been a three year break since those novels I think) and being, in my youth, slightly disappointed that the plot was simpler and identifying the culprit less of an issue and certainly less of a surprise. Now I don’t mind that so well because it captures the atmosphere of Wrightsville so well and enjoyed the Queen cousins flexing their creative muscles.


  3. I have a couple Queens which I have read but it has been a while. Do the books do the “dying clue,” or was that just a TV series feature?


  4. I haven’t read this one, but you review makes me think I should. I must admit I don’t much like the crazier EQ books, mainly because they’re the sort of thing I’d absolutely love if they actually made sense. But they don’t. (I think it’s Sherlock syndrome again, only worse because those early EQs are expressly framed as challenges which can be solved and which have unique solutions.) I actually don’t think Dannay and Lee had a strong enough grasp of logic to pull off those weird plots successfully. Ellery’s reasoning is always so full of holes, and you never know whether you have to just roll with it or whether his mistakes will come back later as part of the solution.

    But a simpler, more mundane case could really suit the character.

    Completely off-topic, I didn’t realise that Death in Paradise or Father Brown were back on until I saw your note at the top right. So thanks for that! The events shown in the trailer for Death in Paradise were… unexpected. Not sure how I feel about it (assuming it’s not a trick).


    • I don’t think it is – but even if it is, Richard’s on the plane home for the series. Whether he’s actually in a coffin or not…

      Not got round to watching the Father Brown episodes yet. Maybe at the weekend…


  5. I must admit that my own preference is for the earlier, puzzle-oriented mysteries. It has been a while since I read any of the Wrightsville books, and maybe my now-much-older tastes have changed. I’ll take this as a push to me to add the Wrightsville-period Queen to my TBR pile. Thanks!


  6. This was one of the first Queen’s read. You’re right, the identity of the culprit is quite obvious for a seasoned mystery reader, but I still really liked the more mature tone and characterization and loved the Wrightsville setting, and remember being a bit disappointed when the next Queen I read was one of those more sterile logic-puzzle books.


    • What is odd is the shift in tone in the next book back towards the puzzle tale – although not all the way to the style of the earliest books – before, if I recall correctly, bouncing back to this style for a while. Maybe they were written out of order?


  7. Though this book is a page turner, I did not particularly like it and rate it as just Average. The plot is too convoluted.The identity of the murderer becomes obvious to the reader much before it becomes known to Ellery Queen! I agree that Ellery is really stupid here. Also not understandable is the silence of the reporter friend of Jim.
    The next book in the series “There Was An Old Woman” is a favourite of mine, I regard it as brilliant.


    • I’d rate it well below average. The plotting is ham-fisted. It’s not just that the identity of the killer is obvious – every single thing in the plot is obvious. It’s just not plausible that Ellery could be so stupid as to miss glaringly obvious clues.

      I also disliked the snarky tone of the book. The authors clearly despised small-town America and they really went overboard about it. They were typical American urban intellectuals who detested anyone who didn’t live in New York. It left a nasty taste in my mouth.

      I love the early Ellery Queens but I can’t see myself trying any more of the Wrightsville books.


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