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University at Buffalo Libraries

George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

Calamity Town

cover image By: Queen, Ellery (pseudonym of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee) (male)
Publisher: Pocket Books, Inc. (2283)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 354: PS3533 .U4 C24 1955
Contributor: P. Kearney


Era: 1940s Author as on Cover: Ellery Queen Geographic Locale: Wrightsville (fictional town); somewhere in the Corn Belt Date of Publication: 1955  |  Original Date: 1942 Setting: downtown Wrightsville: a "big" small town; the Wright home: country estate; general atmosphere of a progressive country town on the verge of boom times Motives: blackmail, murder

Plot Summary

Ellery Queen arrives in the fictional town of Wrightsville to begin work on a novel. He rents a house owned by the town's "first family," the Wrights. This house has come to be known as "Calamity House" due to some unfortunate events that occurred there, one involving Nora, middle daughter of the current matriarch and patriarch, Hermione and John. On the eve of Nora's wedding to Jim Haight three years earlier, the couple had a mysterious fight in the house and Jim left town. During Ellery's stay, Jim suddenly reappears, reconciles with Nora, and they marry. However, suspicions arise that Jim intends to murder Nora with arsenic, based on the discovery of three letters written by Jim which predict the "illness" and death of his wife over the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's holidays. The letters were found in a book titled "Edgecomb's Toxicology" between two pages dealing with arsenic. Sure enough, Nora becomes ill on the first two holidays, but on New Year's Eve, it is Jim's sister Rosemary, not Nora, who dies after sipping a poisoned drink. Ellery and Pat, Nora's younger sister, believe Jim is innocent, and work to find evidence to save him.

Major Characters

Ellery Queen (uses the alias of Ellery Smith), adult male, estimated age in mid-30s, indications of average height and weight, above average strength, mystery novelist

James Haight "Jim," adult male, assume late 20s/early 30s, average height and weight, banker

Rosemary Haight adult female, assume late 20s/early 30s, slim, very attractive, sophisticated

Nora (Wright) Haight adult female, assume late 20s, slim, pale, fragile, often sickly, petite and underweight, nervous, homemaker

Patricia Wright "Pat," "Patty," adult female, assume mid-20s, slim, attractive, average height and weight

Carter Bradford "Cart," adult male, assume late 20s/early 30s, tall, handsome, strong, assistant district attorney

Roberta Roberts adult female, assume late 20s, attractive, average height and weight, journalist


arsenic poison

Level of Violence

very low frequency; a mob scene in the town which turns violent; some gunshots by police to stop an escaped prisoner.


heterosexuality; kissing, handholding, flirting. No sexual intercourse. Level of description: explicit; medium frequency.

Gender Roles

generally traditional, although many of the women are quite opinionated and self-sufficient; also many female characters have more strength of character than the males.


not evident

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

Jim Haight drinks progressively more alcohol throughout the story; also, there is a great deal of alcohol consumption at the New Year's Eve party during which Rosemary Haight dies. There is a large amount of social alcohol consumption. The town drunk makes occasional but generally irrelevant appearances. No illicit drug use; some characters briefly use prescribed sedatives. Frequency: alcohol - high; drugs - low.

Law Enforcement

local police, local coroner, assistant district attorney.

Added Features

background atmosphere of wealth and privilege. A general feeling exists that the Wrights are just a little better than their neighbors; they are respected, but are also the source of envy and gossip. The eldest Wright daughter, Lola, is the black sheep of the family and is generally looked down upon. Once Rosemary Haight is murdered and the skeletons in the Wright family's closet come to light, the townspeople seem to delight in the family being knocked off its prestigious pedestal. They are shunned and vilified, as are the few friends who stand by them through the ordeal. Frequent sarcastic humor is used as a defense mechanism or taunt; lighthearted humor in attempts to ease frequently depressing atmosphere.

Subject Headings

Authors/ Blackmail/ Murder