Oh, how uneasy lies the crown of authorial renown. Sixty years ago, when book critic Anthony Boucher wrote, “Ellery Queen is the American detective story,” his declaration might reasonably have been defended. The name Queen—both that of the amateur sleuth and the author to whom his fictional adventures were ascribed—was pretty much of the household variety. By that time, more than 20 Queen novels had seen print, a Queen radio drama series had run its course, nine Queen movies had been made and the first Ellery Queen TV series was just then wowing viewers.
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Today, though, most of the Queen books are out of print. And while several—including The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932), Cat of Many Tails (1949) and The Devil to Pay (1938)—feature on lists of “best-ever mystery stories,” even readers who consider themselves clued-up on crime fiction have probably never cracked the spines of a single one. Perhaps they aren’t aware, either, that author Queen was really two cousins, Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay, writing behind a joint pseudonym. All they think they know is that the Queen investigations are hopelessly old-fashioned—an opinion reinforced by a mid-1970s Ellery Queen TV series that, while excellent in many respects, firmly established the fabled snoop and his policeman father, Inspector Richard Queen, as creatures of 1940s New York City.
Certainly in the early books, Ellery was a pince-nez-wearing know-it-all, constantly lecturing others from the lofty pedestal of his deductive reasoning (even co-creator Lee dubbed him “the biggest prig that ever came down the pike”). By the mid-’30s, however, the authors began simplifying their once-labyrinthine puzzle plots and redefining Ellery as less omniscient, more fallible, and more of a romantic and philosopher than he’d been. They even dispatched him beyond Manhattan’s concrete confines on occasion.
One result was Calamity Town (1942), a psychologically complex family tragedy and the first of four novels that took Ellery Queen off to the ostensibly serene hamlet of Wrightsville.
As this story commences, Ellery has decided to set his next mystery novel in a small town and figures that spending six months in Wrightsville, with its oh-so-quaint central square, cobbled streets and Carnegie Library, will help him establish the proper atmospherics. Unfortunately, the local hotels and apartments are all occupied. The only place he can rent—under the alias “Ellery Smith”—is an allegedly “unlucky” abode that was constructed by the prominent Wright clan for a daughter, Nora, whose fiancé, Jim Haight, ran out on her before they could walk down the aisle together.
It doesn’t take long for the handsome, sociable Ellery to win over the Wrights and assimilate himself into the community. But suddenly Jim Haight reappears, insists he still loves Nora and convinces her to proceed with their nuptials then join him on a honeymoon to Brazil. By the time the couple returns, Ellery has vacated his rental to make way for them and moved into the Wright mansion next door. All seems well—that is, until Jim’s peculiar sister, Rosemary, arrives for an extended visit; a book on toxicology is found to contain letters detailing an illness and death that haven’t yet occurred; Nora begins showing signs of a baffling illness; and Rosemary is poisoned during a New Year’s Eve party, with Jim subsequently arrested for the crime.
This story’s months-long framework allows for generous character development, as readers watch the Wright family collapse under stress, observe Ellery’s inspection of suspects and follow the ensuing courtroom drama. “I’ve been handling crime facts so long in fiction,” the part-time snoop insists, “that I’ve—uh—acquired a certain dexterity in handling them in real life.” Yet, intriguingly, it’s our hero’s inability to spot clues here that leads to heartbreak and catastrophe, and makes this one of the series’ finest installments.
After the events in Calamity Town, it’s a wonder Ellery Queen was ever allowed into Wrightsville again.