'Country looks good, by jake,' murmers Mr Queen enthusiastically. 'Green and yellow. Straw colors. And sky of blue, and clouds of white' -bluer blue and whiter wite than he recalled ever having seen before. City - country; and here they met, where Wrightsville station flings the twentieth century ito the astonished face of the land.
I 'finished' reading the Ellery Queen series last year, but I have not reviewed all of the books on the blog (you can find the reviews either through the Ellery Queen tag, or in the library). Reviewing all the books here is certainly not a goal of mine, but I might reread some books and post a review on them once a while. Like today.
Ah, Wrightsville, one of the most important places in Queen history. Wrightsville first appeared in Calamity Town, but Ellery Queen (both the character as well as the writers) grew fond of the simple town and would revisit the place several times in his career as writer and amateur detective in both novel and short story format. The place was also featured once in the TV series (The Adventure of the Chinese Dog). There are several reasons why Wrightsville would become so important, but one of them is definitely that Wrightsville, as a fictional town, simply works well as a setting. The opening chapter of Calamity Town paints a quaint little New England town that sounds nice to live in. The buildings described, the people and the relations portrayed: they all make up for a believable setting that. Calamity Town is often praised for its characterization, which is debatable I think, but one cannot deny that the town itself is done memorably. It kinda reminds of Dr. Sam Hawthorne's Northmont. And if you think about it, that's not strange. Queen novels have often featured memorable settings: the Roman theater, the French Department Store, the lone mansion in The Siamese Twin Mystery, the Spanish Cape. Sure, these might be smaller and slightly more specific locations, but setting has never been a problem in Queen's stories in my opinion and Wrightsville is a great example.
Wrightsville, as a whole character on its own, is also memorable because the way it changes over the course of the story. Whereas Ellery first comes to enjoy Wrightsville, he also starts to notice cracks in the perfect picture when the murder is committed and he sees how Wrightsville as a community basically starts to shun the Wright family, being the source of a scandal. Later stories also show darker sides of the model town, though I remember that being more like Cabot Cove (a setting for crimes to happen), than a portraying Wrightsville as a whole.
Calamity Town, together with Wrightsville, also stands symbol for a transition in Queen's style of plotting. The overly complex deductions and fantastic murder settings of his early novels (especially the "nationality" novels), were replaced with simpler plots with, well, more 'living characters' and less of random Suspect X, Y and Z. Like I mentioned, I don't think Calamity Town is especially impressive when it comes to characterization (save for Wrightsville itself), but in comparison to the earlier Queen novels, things certainly look a bit more human. The interaction with the town and its inhabitants also makes Ellery (the character) much more human and there is little of the pompous bibliophile from the earlier novels. By the way, the Dutch translation of the book features the title De Verliefde Detective ("The Detective In Love"), which also highlights a change in the character that started with The Four of Hearts.
But is the change a good thing? To be honest, I thought the mystery plot of Calamity Town was way too simple for an Ellery Queen novel. I want overly complex puzzle plots that focus on combining all kinds of hints and facts together to form a logical prison around the suspect when I read Ellery Queen. I don't want an Ellery Queen who literally takes months to solve the kind of murder he'd solve in minutes in earlier novels. I doubt seasoned readers of the genre will have any trouble figuring out who the murderer is in Calamity Town and even people without that much experience should figure out that a certain piece of misdirection really shouldn't be that misdirecting. It is a very minimalistic mystery plot and one that doesn't feel "Queen-like" per se. A novel like Ten Days' Wonder, also set in Wrightsville, for example, features a plot that one can distinctly recognize as Queen, but that is less so with Calamity Town. Because of that, I actually forgot most of this book. This is the second time I read the book, but I noticed I had forgotten most of it. The plot is just rather nondescript compared to other novels in the series.
For the Queen reader, there are some interesting points. On one hand, some familiar characters don't appear at all in this book, save for short references. With the move to Wrightsville, we also lose sight of Inspector Queen, who hadn't appeared in all of the previous books, but was certainly a character who appeared in most of the books. Also, it's pretty interesting to see Ellery so deeply involved with the stars of the drama so early on: in earlier novels, Ellery usually only arrived at the scene after the crime was commited, or very shortly before it. Here, Ellery has been cultivating relations with everyone for a long while and thus has a personal connection to the whole ordeal. Very different from the 'detective coming from the outside' role Ellery used to have. On the other hand, the circumstances in which the murder is commited are very Queen-like: in a (relatively) open space with a lot of people around. It's been like that ever since The Roman Hat Mystery, but in Ellery Queen stories, the murders are often commited in fairly public places, or the corpses are discovered in such places. In that respect, Calamity Town does have a Queen-like feature, even if its scale is a lot more limited than in older books.
In general though, Calamity Town is very well-regarded as a detective novel, though as you can guess, I am not of the same opinion. H.R.F. Keatings for example had in his Crime and Mystery: the 100 Best Books for example, while the book also ranked in at 90 in the most recent edition of Japan's Tozai Mystery Best 100 for non-Japanese books. So obviously, your mileage may vary from mine on this book. There is a Japanese film based on this book, Haitatsu Sarenai Santsuu no Tegami ("The Three Undelivered Letters" 1979) by famous director Nomura Yoshitarou (Suna no Utsuwa, among others) which is supposedly quite good, though I haven't seen it yet. Considering that Nomura has done a ton of mystery films emphasizing human drama with a larger society backdrop (a lot of Matsumoto Seichou film adaptations for example), the choice for Calamity Town is an understandable one though.
Anyway, I don't think Calamity Town is the classic so many appear consider it to be, though I have to admit that the characterization of Wrightsville is done quite well in the book. The thing is: when I read Queen, I am not reading it for characterization or 'real' characters. That is an extra. I want complex puzzle plots that challenge me on an intellectual level. And in that respect, Calamity Town is not particularly rewarding,