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Calamity Town (1942) falls chronologically in the middle phase of the Ellery Queen canon and differs considerably from his earlier mysteries. The setting is far from New York City, although the exact location of Wrightsville remains unclear. Several chapters are devoted to an extended courtroom scene that, I believe, is unique to this EQ story. Ellery himself even takes the stand.
Ellery's somewhat one-dimensional character is now more fully developed, more complex, more realistic. Unexpectedly, Ellery even becomes romantically involved with an attractive, quick witted, and independent young woman.
Most noticeably, the characters and the plot, possibly because the setting is a typical small town, are more conventional than is found in Ellery Queen's more imaginative earlier stories such as The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Egyptian Cross Mystery, and The Siamese Twin Mystery. It is not hard to imagine this story, repackaged somewhat, transformed into a British manor house mystery.
This atypical Ellery Queen mystery makes good reading. Calamity Town has often been reprinted and should not be difficult to locate.
An old friend of Ellery, Howard Van Horn approaches him seeking help. He's been suffering blackouts and fears he may have committed a crime during one of them. Ellery follows him to Howard's New England hometown of Wrightsville - a town that Ellery knows very well, for twice Ellery has been there, and each time Ellery's a murder has occured for him to solve.
Already uneasy, Ellery meets Dietriech Van Horn, Howard's father, and Sally, the old man's very much younger and very attractive wife. As Ellery gets more involved with the Van Horns, and a series of odd, almost irrational crimes happens, his intution tells him one thing - there's definitely murder in the air, and he may be powerless to stop it.
"Ten Days' Wonder" is, in my estimation, Ellery Queen's best novel. It completely overwhelmed me the first time I read it, and it is a novel that not only delves into the secret lives hidden beneath small-town exteriors but also into the very heart of Ellery's own psychology. The clues are before the reader - all fair, no hiding - but when you and Ellery think you've got the solution, a final, delicious, deadly twist and a nasty surprise awaits both at the end. An ending that a friend of mine has described as feeling as if someone had sideswiped you with a nightstick. A high-water mark in the series.
This is a transitional phase in the Ellery Queen series. In the earlier novels a very cerebral Ellery who dabbles in interesting problems writes mysteries as a hobby. In the later novels Ellery is a famous writer who travels often promoting his books and takes frequent breaks to peaceful Wrightsville to relax, usually with unfortunate consequences for at least one local resident. This novel is the first time Ellery visits the little town and, like all the books in the series, is contemporary to the time it is written. Life in a small town in the pre war years is an alien landscape to the 21st century reader. It is a time when people did not book accommodations ahead of time, when people were who they said they were and paid cash for things. As always with this series though the problem was complex and intriguing, one that will challenge the reader to stay ahead of Ellery.
Fans of the series will not want to miss seeing Ellery's first trip to Wrightsville but those who are new to the series might be better off starting elsewhere. This is not a typical Ellery Queen story of either the first or second half of the series. It also features some rather prolonged court scenes, something that thankfully did not occur often in the series.
The reasons? For one thing, it is a crackerjack mystery with a well-developed setup that doesn't just depend on somebody finding a body where there couldn't possibly be one, and then the detective figures out how that knife could possibly have wound up sticking in the corpse's back. It's much more subtle.
Briefly, the story revolves around Ellery accompanying Howard Van Horn, a young man he had met years before in Paris, back to his hometown (Wrightsville, scene of several Ellery Queen novels of this period in the canon) in order to keep an eye on him because Van Horn had been having extended blackouts in which he did things and went places he didn't subsequently remember. Once in Wrightsville, Ellery meets Howard's family, including his stepfather Dietrich and his young stepmother Sally. Soon, Ellery gets entangled in a complex deception that at one point threatens him with arrest for grand larceny.
What I liked was how the story wrapped Ellery up instead of the other way around and how that rounded him as a character. To put it bluntly, in many of the earlier Ellery Queen novels, Ellery is insufferably pompous and preternaturally insightful. Here, he is very human and fallible and in fact that is a big part of the resolution. That resolution is not the most plausible thing I've ever read by a country mile but it is clever enough to be satisfying.
This is a much darker Ellery Queen novel than most, and I wonder if that was because the authors (the Ellery Queen books were written in collaboration by two cousins under the Ellery Queen pseudonym) were feeling the competition from the emerging hard-boiled/noir school of detective fiction. The blight, priggish, frankly effete Ellery Queen character of the early books was probably by this point an anachronism and clever plots were giving way to more atmospheric ones. Don't forget that 1948, when Ten Days Wonder came out, was around the heyday of the noir film at the movies, and it was also when new young mystery writers like Mickey Spillane and Ross MacDonald were taking up the path set out by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler with their violent, hard-boiled, cynical narratives. Gentlemen detectives were apparently on the way out (the one exception may be Hercule Poirot, though at this point in her career, Agatha Christie was sublimating her most famous character in plots that were really romantic dramas leavened with a drop of murder). In America, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe was probably the most successful holdover from the earlier era but the Wolfe stories also prominently featured Wolfe's wisecracking Chandler-esque assistant Archie Goodwin.
Ten Days Wonder was only the fourth Ellery Queen novel in a span of nine years (1939-48) and the first since 1945. By contrast, there were 15 in the decade between 1929 and 1939. Obviously, the authors were slowing down, but in this case, the wait was worth it. If you are a mystery fan and want to read the best of the classic writers, this is one of the first Ellery Queens to put on your list.