Showing posts with label Calamity Town. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Calamity Town. Show all posts

29 November 2015

Ellery Queen in the Village of Good and Evil

by Dale C. Andrews (with much help from Kurt Sercu)
Escaping the glare and grime of summer in Manhattan, Ellery Queen, the celebrated novelist and gentleman detective, arrives in the small New England town of Wrightsville looking for a quiet place to write a new book . . . . 
                                       Playbill from Calamity Town 
                                       A theatrical presentation by Joseph Goodrich 
                                       New Dramatists New York City read-through
                                       January 29, 2013 
[Ellery's] exploits [in] Wrightsville [are always] likely to be the signal for the commission of one or more murders. 
                                        Julian Symons, 
                                        Bloody Murder (From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History) 
                                        1972 
[The book] is a story of an actual murder . . . . The cast includes . . . the author himself, transplanted temporarily from the Upper West Side to Savannah's gossipy historic quarter.. . . [T]he murder happens in the middle of the book.
                                        John Berendt, 
                                        describing his best seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil                                                       September 28, 1997 interview 

     I am writing this on board Amtrak’s Auto Train, heading home to Washington, D.C. And that seems only appropriate. Just over ten years ago I was excitedly preparing to leave by train for New York City to attend the Ellery Queen Centenary Symposium hosted by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Kurt Sercu, proprietor of the seminal Ellery Queen website, Ellery Queen: a Website on Deduction, had flown to Washington, D.C. from his native Belgium so that we could take the train up to New York together. So excitement was in the air -- I had known Kurt for some years on-line, but given the distances between the District of Columbia and Bruges, the Belgian city where Kurt and his wife Martine reside, we had (understandably) never met in person before that trip to the symposium.

Kurt Sercu and me -- a photo pastiche
       In anticipation of the trip I joined in on a discussion thread among those who intended to attend that was unfolding on the old Readers’ Forum that EQMM and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery magazines used to co-host. You know -- the online forum that, according to the EQMM website, has been “unavailable while we continue to address technical issues” for something like the last 7 years!

       Just before leaving for the train station I checked the thread one last time and found a question posed to Kurt and me by Doug Greene, well known to all of us as the brains (as well as brawn) behind Crippen & Landru, the preeminent publisher of all things mystery. Doug’s question was this: In the Ellery Queen novels we generally encounter Ellery feverishly working on his latest novel while he is also solving the mystery at hand. So, what were the books Ellery was writing? Were they other actual, i.e. published, Ellery Queen mysteries, or were these, perhaps, fictional references to works that do not, in fact, exist? 

Doug Greene, proprietor of Crippen & Landru
       At first blush I was surprised by the question. The issue had almost never occurred to me. To the extent that I had thought of it at all it seemed to me that Ellery must have been working on one of his actual novels, either previously or subsequently published, while he solved the mystery presented in the book I was then reading. This would pre-suppose that Ellery solved a mystery, wrote it up as a novel, and then moved on to solve the next mystery.

       But, as with all things Ellery Queen, the answer, on reflection, is not all that easy. Melodie Campbell's article yesterday focused on authors whose protagonist is modeled after themselves. Well, suffice it to say that things can get particularly complicated -- at times even surreal -- when the author’s name on the spine of the book and the detective solving the case between the covers are one and the same. In any event, I continued to ponder Doug’s question over the last ten years. 

       And as I pondered it became evident that no one answer is apparent. Ellery is often in the midst of writing a novel while he is solving a mystery, but rarely, if ever, are any clues given as to what novel our friend is in fact writing at the time. In fact, the Queen library contains very few references that even tie the various books together. There are, of course, shared characters -- Ellery, the Inspector, Sergeant Velie, Dr. Prouty, Djuna (early on), Nikki Porter (later) and Paula Paris (in Hollywood). Recurring characters are also and even more prevalent in the Wrightsville mysteries
-- Chief Dakin, and later Chief Anselm Newby, town gossip Emmeline DuPré, newspaper editor Frank Lloyd, to name a few. 

       While rarer, there are also instances where the Queen mysteries refer to earlier works -- The Finishing Stroke, for example, references The Roman Hat Mystery. And Last Woman in his Life begins precisely (same day, same locale) where the earlier Face to Face leaves off. Similarly, the Wrightsville books at times refer to previous mysteries solved by Ellery in that “calamitous” town. But these references, while tying books together, usually tell us nothing concerning the novels Ellery was working on while solving the depicted mystery. 

       In the 1975 NBC Ellery Queen series there are scattered references to Ellery Queen mysteries that do not in fact exist -- "The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party" episode, for example, references a non-existent Queen mystery entitled The Adventure of the Alabaster Apple, and "The Adventure of the Lover’s Leap" episode involves an equally non-existent Queen opus of the same name. But, again, all of these references, even those in the TV episodes drafted by others, are, in each instance, to already completed works, not to the works in progress, novels that Ellery is depicted as struggling to complete while he is also grappling with the mystery at hand. 

       Ellery Queen novels do, at times, refer to other cases solved by Ellery that have not appeared in print -- such as the reference in Ten Days Wonder to “the case of the spastic bryologist, in which Ellery made the definitive deduction -- from a dried mass of sphagnum no larger than his thumbnail
-- and reached into the surgery of one of New York’s most respectable hospitals to save a life and blast a reputation . . . .” Nowhere is that mystery set forth in published form. And Ten Days’ Wonder also contains a reference to “the case of Adelina Monquieux, [Ellery’s] remarkable solution of which cannot be revealed before 1972.” That mystery was never recorded in a Queen work, though it did provide the premise for Francis Nevin’s 1972 Ellery Queen pastiche “Open Letter to Survivors.” (In "Open Letter" Ellery is working on a novel that clearly is "Cat of Many Tails," but this does not progress our analysis here since the story was written by Mike Nevins, not by Dannay and Lee!)

       Similarly The French Powder Mystery and The Dutch Shoe Mystery mention, respectively, the Kingsley Arms Murder and The Murder of the Marionettes, and Dutch Shoe goes so far as to state that the latter mystery was recounted in a manuscript authored by Ellery. But none of these mysteries is in fact the basis of an Ellery Queen manuscript. Moreover, these references, again, are all to mysteries, or manuscripts, already completed, not to novels that are in the process of being drafted. 

       In an email exchange I had with Joe Goodrich, author of the theatrical version of Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Joe mentioned that from various clues in Ten Days’ Wonder one could conclude that the novel Ellery toiled on during the course of solving that mystery might well have been Cat of Many Tails, actually published two years later. But other than that one possible example, and it is premised on fairly obscure clues, there is nothing that directly answers Doug Greene’s question. 

       Nothing that directly answers. But what about indirectly? 

       After first despairing that there is no good answer to Doug’s question, I took another look at Calamity Town. And when I did so it struck me that this mystery’s structure is remarkably similar to John Berendt’s “true crime” bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The quote at the head of this article really says it all. 

        In Garden of Good and Evil the author, John Berendt, is a character in his own story. Berendt uproots himself from his hometown (New York City) to another locale (there, Savannah) for the sole purpose of secluding himself while writing a book about the characters that populate that locale. Berendt's tale purports to be written in real time, but the narration begins before the story itself has transpired.  Then, in mid-book, a murder takes place. And the murder -- seemingly unanticipated at the beginning of the book -- becomes the book’s backbone by mid-narrative. So, the surreal aspect of the book is that it’s narrative, based on actual events, begins before the crucial events of the story have even occurred. In other words, the book that John Berendt is “writing” during the narrative of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is in fact Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. And he is writing this as the story unfolds.
      
       With that in mind, and being careful, as always, to stear clear of “spoilers,” let's compare Calamity Town to Garden of Good and Evil.

       First, and most obvious, we are confronted with one of the stranger quirks of the Ellery Queen mysteries.  Ellery, like John Berendt, is both the author and the protagonist.  Each tale opens with the arrival of the author, in our case our friend Mr. Queen, in a town where the author intends to stay for a prolonged period. Thus, Calamity Town opens with Ellery disembarking from the train in Wrightsville. He immediately seeks rental accommodations and is asked: 
"[W]hat kind of work are you planning, . . ?” 
“A novel," said Ellery faintly. "A novel of particular sort, laid in a typical small city . . . ."
       Ellery then, like John Berendt, settles in, and waits for events to occur. And for Ellery that wait is not without a degree of impatience. When, at first, town life in Wrightsville proceeds without incident, that is, without murder, this coincides with grumblings on Ellery’s part that his novel is progressing slowly. Thus, a ways into the book we encounter the following: 
So Mr. Queen decided he had been an imaginative fool and that [any mystery in the town] was buried beyond resurrection. He began to make plans to invent a crime in his novel, since life was so uncooperative. And, because he liked all the characters, he was very glad.
       This, in itself, is an interesting (and doubtless tongue-in-cheek) aside by Ellery. There have been a lot of jokes over the years to the effect that if you value your life you shouldn’t hang around with Ellery Queen since someone in his immediate ambit always ends up murdered. And here we have it --  the proof: Ellery expects a murder in Wrightsville. And, while grumpy, he is also heartened since he likes the folks he has encountered in Wrightsville.   Important to our current analysis is the fact, then, that like John Berendt Ellery purports to be writing his book in anticipation of a murder happening. Also like Berendt he is not disappointed. 

Wrightsville as depicted in the front-piece of Calamity Town
       There are other similar references. Like this one, for example: 
"It’s a queer thing," grumbled Ellery, " . . . Something’s been annoying me for weeks. Flying around in my skull.  Can’t catch it… I thought it might be a fact—something trivial—that I’d overlooked. You know, I… well, I based my novel on you people—the facts, the events, the interrelationships. So everything’s in my notes that’s happened." He shook his head. "But I can’t put my finger on it.” 
       And finally, when the mystery of Calamity Town is ultimately solved, eo instante the novel Ellery has been drafting is also completed.  Listen to Ellery when he returns, to Wrightsville, in the final pages of Calamity Town
“But tell me! What brings you back to Wrightsville? It must be us—couldn’t be anyone else! How’s the novel!”
“Finished.”
"Oh, grand! Ellery, you never let me read a word of it. How does it end?” 
“That,” said Mr. Queen, “is one of my reasons for coming back to Wrightsville.” 
       So, if you are reading either Calamity Town or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and someone wanders over and poses that question Doug Greene asked Kurt and me ten years ago, specifically what is the book the author purports to be writing at the same time he is telling his story, the answer in each case is the same. Surreal as it may seem, the book each author was writing is the book that you are reading! 

 *     *     *    *     *     *     *     * 

        This winter is a great occasion to re-visit Calamity Town, Ellery Queen’s first Wrightsville tale and one of Ellery's greatest mysteries. As recounted earlier in the article and in previous posts, Joe Goodrich is the author of the new theatrical version of Calamity Town.

       The play had a public reading in New York in 2013, was first produced in 2014 in preview in Claremont, New Hampshire (a town that in all likelihood provided the model for Wrightsville) under the staging hand of Arthur Vidro.

       It will now have its official world premiere this coming January 23 through February 21 at the Vertigo Theatre in Calgary, Canada. If you are anywhere near Calgary, try to catch it. I only wish I could!
      

07 May 2013

Day Trip to New York, May 2, 2013

by Dale C. Andrews
On May 2, 1952, the era of commercial jet passenger service began as a BOAC de Havilland Comet carrying 36 passengers took off on a multi-stop flight from London to Johannesburg, South Africa. 
                              Associated Press
                              Today in History
                              May 2, 2013

           Fast Enough to get there,
           Slow enough to see,
           Moderation seems to be the key.

                              Jimmy Buffett
                              Barometer Soup
   
The reception:  Mystery writers everywhere!
     What better way to celebrate the anniversary of jet passenger service than to follow Mr. Buffett's advice and take a train trip?

    The beginning of May is many things to many people. To mystery writers there is a special anticipation that comes with the first Thursday in May, this year May second, since that is the day when the annual Edgars award celebration takes place in New York City. And for a smaller subset of mystery writers, those whose passion is the mystery short story, the day offers up a related treat -- the annual authors cocktail party hosted by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

     I’ve never been a fan of air transportation. it is a necessary evil when my family heads off to favorite vacation spots in the Caribbean, and sometimes one surrenders to the indignities of air transportation when held hostage by time constraints. But I fail to understand anyone who travels between Washington, D.C. (my home) and New York City by any means other than rail. And that is why this piece begins as I find myself  signed on to Amtrak’s wifi service, comfortably ensconced in a window seat and typing away on Amtrak’s Acela headed north. The trip is 2-1/2 hours each way, and deposits me a pleasant 30 minute walk from the Andrew Haskell Braile and Talking Books Library where the cocktail party takes place at 3:30.
  
Janet Hutchings
   Now that walk in Manhattan is not as easy as it sounds -- 14 Manhattan short blocks followed by 2-1/2 Manhattan long blocks is exercise, but it should otherwise be pretty simple.  New York City, however, has always been a little daunting fot me. So the walk is always just long enough to convince me that my chances are equally divided between finding the party and roaming forever on the streets of Manhattan. (At least Charlie got to sit down on the MTA.)
   
Janice, Liz, R.T.
     But, as always, I get there. And, also as always, the party makes up for all of the investment. The EQMM/AHMM pre-Edgars parties have descended a notch from the glory days of yore, when they were held at the Manhattan Club and other storied locales, with several full bars and waiters hovering with platters of shrimp. But the wine bar, served up by magazine employees, and the table of hors d'oeuvres is just fine.  And it is also not why we are here.  What this occasion offers is the opportunity to visit with those who share common interests in mystery short story writing, to connect with people who otherwise are known only on-line.   Janet Hutchings meets me at the door, and a few minutes visiting with her, and then with Linda Landrigan, is itself worth the price of admission.

      At last year’s reception SleuthSayers was represented by David Dean and me, but this year we are out in force. R.T. Lawton and his wife Kiti are standing near the window as I enter, and within a short time Janice Law Trecker, Liz Zelvin, David Dean, R.T. and me are together for the first time in the non-cyber real  world.
   
Liz, me, David and R.T.
     Another great thing about the reception is getting that first lead on  things mystery-related that are about to happen. This year Peter Kanter, who presides over Dell publications, announced a pending major re-vamp of the Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock websites, which promises a new level of interaction among writers and readers.  This could be fun!

     Awards, of course, were announced, including the second place Readers’ Choice award won this year by our own David Dean for his story Mariel, which appeared in the December issue of EQMM.   David also reports that he is making good progress on his new novel, which has kept him away from SleuthSayers for some time now.

  
Joe Goodrich
     Some of the best tidbits I picked up during this year's party were from Joe Goodrich, who, as SleuthSayer readers will recall, is the author/editor of Blood Relations, the recent volume collecting the letters of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee.  Joe recently adapted the first  Ellery Queen Wrightsville novel, Calamity Town, for the stage.  The work, as previously reported, had a read-through performance last January at the New Dramatists Playhouse in New York City.  This summer Joe reports that the play will have its first full-stage production, under the directorial hand of fellow Queen scholar Arthur Vidro.

     Equally interesting is the locale for that presentation:  the play will be performed by the Off Broad Street Players in Claremont, New Hampshire.  The Off Broad Street Players are no stranger to the works of Ellery.   In fact, beginning tomorrow the company is presenting an on-stage production of two classic Queen radio dramas.  But the claim to fame of Claremont itself runs even deeper. Those familiar with some of the more obscure clues in the Queen backstory may recall that Claremont has been rumored to be the model for Queen’s New England town of Wrightsville.  What better site for the world premier of Calamity Town? The troop's production of Calamity Town is likely to run only two nights, probably this coming September 7 and 8.

    On other fronts, Joe also spent time this last year adapting a Rex Stout mystery, The Red Box, for the stage.  The play has already been scheduled for an extended run next summer at the Park Square Theater in St. Paul.

     Oops.  It’s 5:00. Time for me to see if I can find my way back to the train station!

20 November 2012

Thanksgiving Ruminations


  by Dale C. Andrews
    Nora planned Thanksgiving with a sort of desperation --  a woman trying to hold on to her world as it growled and heaved about her.
  There were two of Wiley Gallimard's fanciest toms, and chestnuts to be grated in absurd quantities, and cranberries from Bald Mountain to be mashed, and turnips and pumpkins and goodies galore . . . all requiring preparation, fuss, work, with and without Alberta Manaska's help . . . all requiring concentration.  And while her house filled with savory odors, Nora would brook no assistance from Alberta -- not Pat, not Hermione, not even old Ludie, who went about muttering for days about "these snippy young know-it-all brides."  
    Hermy dabbed at her eyes.  "It's the first Thanksgiving since we were married, John, that I haven't made the family dinner.  Nora baby -- your table's beautiful!"
     "Maybe this time, : chuckled John F., "I won't have indigestion.  Bring on that turkey and stuffing!"
                                                                                               Ellery Queen
                                                                                               Calamity Town, 1942

    T. S. Eliot, in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock reflects on counting out one’s life in coffee spoons.  For me, more and more, I find myself counting out my life in Thanksgivings.  This is probably anchored in the fact that for the past thirty-some years Thanksgiving (by some thank-less tradition) has become my responsibility.  I cook the whole thing.  I used to have a real approach/avoidance conflict as the fateful day approached, but as the years have passed I seem to have fallen into a rhythm.  More often than not everything comes out fine in the end.

   The holiday hasn’t contributed a background to many mystery stories (although an internet search will reveal a fistful of cozies that use the day as backdrop).  A notable exception to this is Calamity Town, Ellery Queen's first Wrightsville mystery, published in 1942.  Calamity Town is the only Ellery Queen selected by H. R. F. Keating in his 100 Best Books of Crime and Mystery, and a poisonous (literally) Thanksgiving gathering figures prominently in the plot.

    As Ellery discovered when he found himself interjected into the midst of the Wrights' family holiday get together in Calamity Town, sometimes one of the less predictable aspects of Thanksgiving is the people who will in fact be in attendance.  One of the reasons Thanksgivings in our household are memorable is that they tend to have a completely different cast of characters each year, often comprised of folks who do not know each other, or who know each other just barely.  Throughout the years Thanksgiving has been a day when we “take in strays.”  We try to find acquaintances who otherwise have no one with whom to celebrate. 

    This year’s list of attendees has its own unique theme.  The usual core group will be present – Pat, me, our elder son Devon and our younger son Colin.  Colin’s significant other will also be dining with us, as usual on the holiday.  I am reflecting on Dixon’s column last week as I type this, particularly his discussion of the gay sheriff in the next county over. 


Kyle and Colin

   Funny how I tend to more easily describe our son’s partner Kyle as a significant other rather than as Colin’s boyfriend.  I think, and hope, that this is a word usage issue and nothing more, like masculine and feminine noun endings in the romance languages.  I say this because we are otherwise completely at home with Colin’s sexuality and with Kyle, who has become another member of the family.  What will be particularly interesting this year is that we will be joined at Thanksgiving by Kyle’s mother and sister, who will be driving in from Michigan, and will be staying with us a day or two on either side of the holiday.  We have met them only once before, so the anxious prospect of getting on with it is understandable.  (Could this have anything to do with the fact that we have just had our living room and dining room painted?)   Rounding out the table will be Deborah -- a friend going all the way back to Pat and my law school days when the three of us met for the first time at registration -- and Deborah’s fourteen year old daughter Bekah.  So who knows what anecdotes will be added to the family lore when this group in fact assembles?

    Anyway, all of the foregoing underscores what an important day Thanksgiving has become.  All of this preparation, all of this travel, all of this anticipation over a meal.  But the day-long preparation, coupled with throwing together people who often do not dine together at all except on that day, is bound to be the stuff of which family legends are made.  We have many.  Sometimes these have focused around mini-disasters, although none that can hold a candle to those experienced by Mr. Queen and the Wright clan in Calamity Town.  Over the years our calamities have been much more prosaic -- a garbage disposal that has not once, but twice, clogged completely on potato peels on Thanksgiving, once with an insidious blockage so far down the line that, unbeknownst to us, the water backed up through a drain in the lower level of our house, leaving us to discover the lower rooms awash with greasy garbage disposal water just about the time we were otherwise ready for pie.  And, again, not once, but twice, our refrigerator has gone out days before Thanksgiving. 

    But all Thanksgiving anecdotes in our family are not mini calamities.  Like all theatre, they seem to break also toward the comedic.  One of my favorite Thanksgiving yarns takes me back precisely 50 years, to 1962, when I was 13.  Other than my younger brother and me, everyone else at that long ago Thanksgiving dinner, served at my maternal grandparents’ home in Creve Coeur, Missouri, is now no longer with us.  But the memory lives.

   Assembled around the table fifty years ago were my father and mother, my mother’s parents, affectionately known as Pop and Grandma Moelling, my father’s mother, known always as Grandmother Andrews, my mother’s sister Eunice and a great aunt, Aunt Ava, from Vandalia Illinois.  My grandmothers, like many in-laws, smiled a lot but in fact grated a bit on each other.  Grandma Moelling was sweet but a bit scattery.  Grandmother Andrews, four foot eight when measured in any direction, had (it must be admitted) airs of pretension.  One would never refer to her as “Grandma,” only as “Grandmother.”  She aspired to matriarch but never could quite pull it off.

   After we had all taken our seats at the thanksgiving table that day in 1962, Grandmother Andrews, as she had every year within my memory, turned to me with the air of a director raising the  baton and said “Dale, say ‘Come Lord Jesus.’” 

   I squirmed in my chair.  As noted above, I was 13 years old on that November day in 1962, and had already begun my long journey into agnosticism.  But I had known what was coming, and I had a plan.  I was going to make my stand that Thanksgiving.  I cleared my throat and said “I don’t want to give the blessing this year.” 

   Grandmother Andrews gasped and stared across the table at me, eyes wide.  Stunned silence otherwise reigned.  Everyone looked at each other, uncertain how to proceed. 

   Finally my father cleared his throat, indicating that he was about to attempt a Deus ex Machina.  “I know what we can do,” he said eying the already unconvinced family members staring back at him.  “When we were at my boss’ house for dinner the other week we did something very special.  We all clasped hands under the table, bowed our heads and quietly to ourselves each of us said grace.” 

   Well we had to do something, so all nine of us clasped hands, bowed our heads, and looked down at our plates. 

   The silence was broken when Grandma Moelling said “Grace.” 

   No one at the table knew what to do except my brother and me.  We burst out laughing.  Grandma Moelling just sat there flustered, trying to work out what she had done wrong.   

   Grandmother Andrews looked up, turned to my father, her son, and said “Wallace, that was nice.”  Then she glared across the table at me and said “Now Dale, say ‘Come Lord Jesus.’”

    Happy Thanksgiving to all.