What's interesting about Calamity Town, roughly the 16th installment, is that it modernizes the series. You're asking, how this is possible considering the book arrived in 1942? But, think about that time period. The US had turned the corner on the Great Depression, a financially barren 10-year era that occurred during Ellery Queen's early beginnings in 1929. Additionally, the series, and this book in particular, mention the rumblings of WWII. Calamity Town also diversifies the locale, moving this sleuth from the well-trampled urban environments of New York and Hollywood to the rural American Northeast, a small fictional town of Wrightsville in an unnamed state in New England. There are also some psychological elements that come to fruition, leading to a rather chilling end.
Calamity Town opens with Ellery Queen (using the name Ellery Smith) moving his belongings into a medium-sized Victorian house in Wrightsville. The quiet, out-of-nowhere setting will be the perfect place for Queen to accomplish his writings. Upon his first visit to the house, the real estate agent explains that the home is owned by the Haight family, with deep ties to the Wrightsville National Bank. The agent is thankful for Queen due to the house's long vacancy. It is a sort of “spook house” due to a prior resident dropping dead in the living room. Additionally, the house was built for the Haight's daughter Nora and her new husband Jim. However, a cloud of gloom enveloped the house when Jim up and left shortly after the wedding. Nora returned to her family's residence.
Unfortunately, Queen's first few weeks in the new house are interrupted when Jim Haight returns to town and wants to continue his marriage to Nora. Queen agrees to move out of the house so the newlyweds can return to the home. During a New Year's Eve party, Jim and Nora host Queen, the Haight family, and the town's prominent businessmen. But, death is in the air as someone attempts to murder Nora with arsenic poisoning.
When Queen and Nora's sister Pat team-up to investigate the attempted murder, they discover numerous indications that Jim was the planned murderer. He owned a toxicology book, and had written ominous letters dated in the future, suggesting that his wife was poisoned. Witnesses say Jim confessed that he wanted to murder his wife for money and he is a gambling alcoholic in debt. Everything points to Jim, but Queen believes the young man is innocent. Despite Jim's refusal to admit his innocence, Queen rushes to his aid as Calamity Town's second half morphs into a courtroom drama.
This novel is the typical Golden Age of Detective offering, complete with a cast of characters at a dinner party, a poisoning, and numerous red herrings. But, the novel has plenty of open air – a chance to breathe – with Queen and Pat combing the town for clues. It isn't a locked room puzzle, but instead resembles an early work of crime-noir. The New England small town is reminiscent of Our Town, a tranquil place occupied by wholesome characters. The authors complete the novel with numerous twists that surprised me. It was a compelling read that introduced new elements to the formula, and for that reason, I highly recommend it.
Note – Calamity Town is the first of four novels that are set in Wrightsville. The others are The Murderer is a Fox (1945), Ten Days' Wonder (1948), Double Double (1950), and The Last Woman in his Life (1970).