Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction - Calamity Town by Ellery Queen

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???


  1. No I didn't guest correctly. Those were good.

    And, "Calamity Town" sounds like it would be most interesting. It would be one of those books that keeps you on your toes until the very end. Thanks for sharing it and your list.

  2. Mason - You're right; Calamity Town does keep you guessing, and there are some realy memorable courtroom scenes, too. I really didn't know whodunit until the end...

  3. Sounds like an interesting book, Margot. I am quite astounded by the variety of Qs this morning (have not thought about mine yet). Funny, I thought that Agatha Christie did write a novel about someone with a name beginning with Q, but perhaps I am confusing it with The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn by Colin Morse.

    I am glad you aren't afraid of swimming, somehow that idea does not fit with you! From the other points, you have led a very varied and, er, interesting life, though.

  4. Maxine - I didn't really think about the number of "Q" authors and books at first, but there really are more than one would think. Christie did have one protagonist, Mr. Harley Quin, who's even featured in his own set of short stories, but the book, The Mysterious Mr. Quin didn't start with "Q," so I decided not to profile it. That's also why I didn't do The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, although I must say, I really liked that one.

    As far as my life goes?? Well, it's not as interesting as it may seem, although (except for #3), everything on that list is true. The lion thing happened while I was at a conference that was hosted at the Pilanesburg National Preserve in South Africa. It was a beautiful resort right in the middle of the African bush. One could go on "camera safaris," so I decided to do that, and that's when I saw the lions. Elephants, too. And lots of other animals.

  5. I had guessed #5, probably because I once had a harrowing trip across the PA Turnpike. Your life sounds absolutely fascinating now that I know the others are true!

  6. Ah! Just seen Kerrie's contribution - Mr Harley Quin by Agatha Christie. My brain fairly, but not totally, decrepit, then. ;-) Very clever of you to avoid the possible duplicate, though, by choosing a different author this time!

  7. Barbara - LOL! The PA Turnpike can be just that - absolutely harrowing!! That's where that tailpipe adventure happened, too . I wouldn't say I've had that fascinating a life. I think most people's lives look more interesting from the outside. Hmm...."food for thought" for a future post, I think - thanks!! : ).

    Maxine - No worries - your brain is as keen as can be. There are so many great blogs out there, including Kerrie's Mysteries in Paradise that I have no idea how you have time to check out as many as you do. I admire your ability to keep track of so many.

  8. Sounds like a wonderful book. When I first saw the cover, I thought you were blogging the newest Barbie Doll and that was its box. I think I'd like the book better. Thanks for the post.


  9. Ann - Oh, that is *funny!* I am not fond of that cover, either, and the truth is, it's got nothing at all to do with the plot. There are some physically attractive women in the story, but the plot has little to do with looks. This cover was, I'm sure, chosen for "draw," not because it has anything to do with the contents...

  10. Like Ann Elle, I was a little put off by the cover! But I quickly recovered and am now intrigued! (Especially since I know it wasn't written in the 1970s.) Question, is Queen both the author AND the protagonist? Or is it a true crime novel? I was confused...

    Fantastic post! Thank you!


  11. Michele - Thanks : )! Yeah, that cover does that to one.... Ellery Queen is the nom de plume adopted by cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. They collaborated on almost all of the Queen novels and stories. Their fictional sleuth is also named Ellery Queen; hence the confusion. To my memory (and if someone knows better, please correct me), none of the Queen works was directly about a true crime (although, like most crime fiction, I'll bet true crime influenced them).

  12. That cover is a bit off-putting, but thanks so much Margot for posting about another book I've never read.

    I love your list by the way and what an interesting pedigree! If I go WAY BACK I've got kings of Ireland in my family tree. I remind those I live with of this fact from time to time.

  13. Hi Margot, as you probably realised our comments crossed- when I wrote that about Harley Quin at Kerrie's blog, I had not seen the reply you'd already provided mentioning this book - probably because I did not refresh the browser between my earlier comments.
    Personally, I struggled with Q but finally came up with one. I am really going to be stuck with X now that Craig has done the one I had up my sleeve, but for Q!

    Your life can't be as boring as mine - but I like it that way. The more boring the better I think, as then I can read lots of books.....

  14. PS my "secret" for following blogs is the RSS reader - it collects up all the new posts so I just check in when I have a min. If you don't use one I can highly recommend it (I use Google Reader, which is linked into Blogger in various ways).

  15. What a cover! LOL

    And though I did not guess your lie, I think my reasoning was correct: you HAD experienced so many interesting things that I should look for something ordinary.

  16. I had forgotten Ellery Queen even though in my recent quiz I had used them for an example crime writing duos, as "royal cousins". Thanks for reminding me what good books the Queens were and this one sounds particularly interesting.

  17. Elspeth - You're right about the cover; I'm not crazy about it, either! Still, that's the cover I was dealt, so to speak..

    I think it's absolutely fascinating that you're descended from Irish kings - and you said *my* pedigree was interesting! Yeesh! I really think that's cool!

    Maxine - Ah, so *that's* your secret! RSS feed! I will definitely have to try it. I noticed that you'd planned to use the same author that Craig chose. Personally, I have absolutely no idea what I will do for "X." Right now, I'm happy that I have "R" and "S" planned. That's how my life's been lately. On weeks like this, I agree with you that a boring life has its advantages!

    Dorte - Isn't that cover too much!? Well, I have the satisfaction of knowin that I had nothing to do with it ; ). Your logic really was right about my list; go for the ordinary. I guess I've just been fortunate that some interesting things have come my way - and that the lions were more interested in the wildebeest than they were in me ; ).

    Norman - Some of the Quuen stories really are quite good, aren't they? They are dated, and some of them are not as engrossinig as others, but this one really is interesting. I think it's the characterization that makes this one absorbing. That and the larger issues the novel addresses.

  18. Your blog is the perfect illustration of my belief that blogging can be the beginning of a conversation.
    BTW I had thought of cheating in another way by using Josephine Tey's THE MAN IN THE QUEUE - but I decided to run the risk of duplicating your choice.
    Thanks for your support of the Crime Fiction Alphabet Margot. I'm amazed that it has generated so much discussion.

  19. Kerrie - Thank you very much : ). I truly do enjoy the back-and-forth of everyone's comments. I learn so very, very much from reading everyone's responses, and yes, I think that blogging does allow people to converse. What's even better, it allows for conversation with people from all over the world... And I'm glad that you chose Harley Quin; he's such a terrific character, isn't he?

  20. I too posted about Ellery Queen. I think I have all the novels featuring Queen!

    Here is my Crime Fiction Alphabet: Q post!

  21. Gautami - Those Ellery Queen novels are terrific, aren't they? No wonder you have them all. I don't, but I do have several of them.