Ellery Queen was one of the great American exponents of the classic whodunit, and Calamity Town, first published in 1942 is a book that marked a departure from his elaborate mysteries of the Thirties. Here he is aiming for a more realistic style, reflected in the setting of Wrightsville, the small town where Ellery arrives incognito one day. He rents a house in order to write in peace and quiet. But of course he becomes involved at once in mysterious goings on.
The Wright family gave their name to Wrightsville,but mystery surrounds Nora Wright, a woman who was mysteriously abandoned by her husband-to-be just before her wedding. Three years later, he turns up again, and they are happily reunited. This time the marriage does take place, and for a while, all seems to be well. But is it? I must say that if I'd been in Wrightsville at the time, I'd have wanted to know more about the reasons for Jim Haight's absence, but even Ellery seems relatively incurious....
The discovery of some rather odd letters seems to suggest that Nora's life is at risk. In due course, murder follows. It appears that the wrong person was killed, but the finger of suspicion points firmly at Jim Haight. There is a lengthy and enjoyable trial scene, and more than one twist. Queen the author manages to juggle suspicion neatly, and the result is a satisfying mystery.
Although this book marked a new direction for Ellery Queen, there is no doubt that he owed quite a debt to the leading British Golden Age writers, whom he much admired. I spotted plot devices used previously by that trio of giants Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley and Dorothy L. Sayers. But Queen was clever enough to blend the ingredients in a new and satisfying way. The result is a tasty dish, and I'll be coming back for more Ellery Queen before long.