The alphabet in crime fiction community meme continues on its deadly journey through the letters of the alphabet under the very skillful leadership of Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Thanks, Kerrie, for keeping us all alive and together ; ). This week’s “stop” is the letter “Q,” and it will probably not surprise regular readers of Confessions of a Mystery Novelist that I’ve chosen a book by Ellery Queen for this letter (especially since Agatha Christie’s name doesn’t start with a “Q,” and neither does Dorothy Sayers’ ; ) ). My choice for this letter is Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, first published in the U.S. in 1942. I read the novel in this later (1972) paperback edition, so that’s the edition I’m using for this profile.
As the novel begins, Queen has arrived in Wrightsville, a small New England town, looking for a quiet place to write. He finds out through a local real estate professional that there’s a perfect place available: a guest house on the property of John F. and Hermione (Hermy) Wright, the most important couple in town. Wright is president of the Wrightsville National Bank, and his wife is the unchallenged social leader of the town. Queen is told that the guest house has a sad history; three years ago, the Wrights had had it built for their second daughter, Nora, as a wedding gift to her and her fiancé, Jim Haight. On the day before the wedding, Haight disappeared, and since then, Nora has lived practically as a recluse, and no-one has occupied the house. Queen decides to take the house anyway, and is soon settled in. It’s not long before he meets and gets to know his hosts, patrician John. F. Wright and socialite Hermy Wright and their three daughters. Lola, the oldest, no longer lives at home. She eloped and when she returned to Wrightville, divorced, her behavior was considered so scandalous that her parents say as little about her as possible. Nora, the second daughter, is shy and retiring, especially since the disappearance of her fiancé. Patty, the youngest and arguably the prettiest, is engaged to be married to a local up-and-coming lawyer, Carter Bradford.
Everything in the Wright home is turned upside down when, shortly after Queen’s arrival, Jim Haight returns to Wrightsville. He has no explanation for his absence, but it’s clear that he wants Nora back. Against everyone’s advice, Nora agrees and the couple is soon married. When Nora and Jim return from their honeymoon, Queen and Nora’s sister Pat are helping to pack away Jim’s things when Pat finds some disturbing letters that hint strongly that Jim is planning to kill Nora. Nora won’t believe it and refuses to discuss the matter. Then, the incriminating letters disappear. So does the book on pharmacology in which the letters were found.
Matters are made even more complicated with the arrival of Jim Haight’s cosmopolitan sister, Rosemary, who makes a bad impression from the very first. She’s contemptuous of Wrightsville and its residents, rude to the Wrights, and unkind about the other social leaders of the town. Before long, everyone wishes that she would leave, but instead, she has her things sent in and appears to have moved in permanently with Jim and Nora.
Everyone’s distracted from the problem of Rosemary Haight when, on Thanksgiving Day, Nora suddenly becomes ill. She gets well, but gets sick again on Christmas. Her sister, Pat, who remembers the letters Jim wrote, is afraid that Nora’s been poisoned and that Jim is responsible. She tries to get Queen to do something about it, but Queen’s loath to accuse anyone without evidence. Then, on New Year’s Eve, tragedy strikes. The Wright family gathers for a New Year’s Eve party, and Rosemary joins them. During the evening, she takes a drink that Nora had poured for herself and soon collapses – dead. Now, everyone is sure that Jim is trying to kill his wife, and that Rosemary was the unfortunate victim of an accidental poisoning. Only Ellery Queen and Lola Wright really believe that Jim could be innocent.
Jim is promptly arrested for the murder of Rosemary Haight, and his trial becomes a public spectacle as the town – and the Wrights – make him a pariah. Queen comes in for his share, too, of public censure, since he believes that Haight may be innocent. Haight himself is no help at all. He refuses to be active in his own defense, or to say what really happened on New Year’s Eve. Queen and Lola Wright soon realize that the only way to save Haight from what amounts to a public lynching is to find out who really poisoned Nora Wright Haight and killed Rosemary Haight.
Calamity Town is an engrossing read on several levels. Besides the intellectual interest of finding out who the real killer is, the novel provides an unflinching look at prejudice and prejudgment, social climbing and status. We sympathize with Jim Haight and his fight to get a fair trial. He’s not exactly a likeable character, but we find ourselves taking his side, simply because nearly the whole town is against him. In the end, too, we find out that there’s more to Haight than there seems on the surface.
The other characters are interesting, too. The Wright sisters are not “flat,” one-dimensional characters. In some ways, they act in ways that are typical for the time the book was written, but none of them is a weak-willed “typical” female character. We also meet an interesting character in Carter Bradford, Patricia Wright’s fiancé and an Assistant District Attorney. Throughout the novel, Bradford is torn between his professional duties as a prosecutor and his loyalty to Patricia and, by extension, the Wrights on the one hand, and his sense of “innocent until proven guilty” on the other. He, too, is more than he seems on the surface.
Calamity Town is at the same time a murder mystery, a fascinating social commentary and an interesting glimpse of small-town life during World War II. The end contains a very neat twist that even alert readers may miss, and on that score, too, it’s well-written. I recommend it, especially for Queen fans.
On Another Note….
Yesterday, I posted a list of six things about me. Five are true, and one is not. Here they are again:
1. I used to do gymnastics, although I’ve never competed in any major meets. I liked floor routines the best.
2. I’m a keyboard and vocalist musician; I’ve sung and played at several coffeehouses, although not yet at Wembley Stadium ; ).
3. Because of a childhood fall into a pool, I’m really afraid of water and swimming. Ironic, since I live just under 10 km from the beach.
4. I once saw a pride of lions finishing off a wildebeest. Strangely enough, it wasn’t nearly as gory as you would think.
5. I once drove across the U.S. state of Pennsylvania (about 497 km) in an old car that had a tailpipe that kept falling off. Every few miles, I had to stop, get out, crawl under the car and hammer it back into place. Not a fun trip.
6. I’m related on my mother’s side to Wilbur and Orville Wright, the developers of the airplane. Some kind of pedigree, isn’t it?
I also promised to tell which one of these is false….. It’s actually #3. I have no fear of water or swimming and in fact, I like to swim. Did you guess right???