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Nathanael T. Booth

Nathanael T. BoothAs we have already discussed elsewhere in the pages of this website, Ellery Queen's popularity is world wide. While it has ebbed in some parts of the globe, it remains perhaps at its highest among the mystery readers of China and Japan. It is therefore fitting that our next inductee into the fraternity of the West 87th Street Irregulars is Nathanael T. Booth, Associate Professor in the School of Foreign Languages at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China.

"God and the Great Detective: Ellery Queen's Struggle with the Divine, 1945-1965" (McFarland, 2023).Nathanael is not only an avid reader of the Queen oeuvre, he is also truly a scholar of those works. His relationship with Ellery Queen has been a long one, stretching back to the time when, as a teenager, he discovered The Dutch Shoe Mystery at a library book sale. He has written extensively about Ellery Queen in both of his books: American Small-Town Fiction, 1940-1960: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2019) and recently God and the Great Detective: Ellery Queen's Struggle with the Divine, 1945-1965 (McFarland, 2023).

As the newest member of the West 87th Street Irregulars, Nathanael introduces himself with an essay -- in this case his scholarly analysis of the transformation and humanizing of Ellery that began with the introduction of the small New England town of Wrightsville.

Somehow, we suspect that Nathanael is not done with Ellery yet.

Welcome to our latest West 87th Street Irregular!

art Pauline Jackson

Spoiler Warning -- To those who may not, as yet, have read the Wrightsville works -- there are some minor spoilers contained in the essay.


In 1942, Calamity Town introduced Ellery Queen to the world of Wrightsville, a small town that would return in several subsequent books and short stories. Ellery, heretofore a primarily urban character, was thrown into the more limited world of main street America. This introduction coincided with another significant alteration in the Queen canon: the humanization of Ellery Queen. It is not insignificant that, when the Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee decided to humanize Ellery, they sent him to an American small town. In the short-term, the move helped symbolically ground Ellery in the "real world" (whatever that is when talking about a highly artificial form such as the detective story). Taking a long view, however, we can see something else at work: as the Queen novels were to become increasingly metaphysical, it was necessary to begin Ellery's evolution at the most symbolically rich location possible. In an American context, that location is the small town.
I am basing these observations on a simple proposition: in the American literary canon, the small town almost inevitably mirrors the nation itself. That is to say, it is a smaller version, a model, of the whole. As such, to represent the small town is to represent the nation; “This," as Sinclair Lewis says in the prologue to Main Street, “is America.”(1) Ryan Poll, author of Main Street and Empire, one of the definitive works on the subject of small towns and America (albeit one with which I disagree as much as I agree), calls the American small town “a reified national imaginary that is pervasive throughout U.S. literary and cultural production.(2) That is to say, the small town is a consistent symbol that is always assumed to mean more or less the same thing. Thus, the small town becomes a kind of container for the American imagination:

The small town ideologically stages an authentic and autonomous American space, culture, history, and identity. This nation form instantiates a cultural logic in which a small town's community is the nation's community, a small town's history is the nation's history, and a small town's epistemic regime is the nation's epistemic regime.(3)

In literature, one should resist rules, but this is as close to a rule as it gets: if an author introduces a small town, they mean the small town to symbolize something key about America itself. A small-town narrative is part of national identity-formation.
Trace small towns in American literature as far back as you like, to Winthrop's "Model of Christian Charity," and this remains the case: the small community, which would become in time the small town, is symbolic of a higher reality. In the years 1915-1930 (that is, in the fifteen years preceding Ellery Queen's creation), the movement known as the "revolt from the village" used the small town to critique the perceived provincialism and backwardness of the United States. The small town embodies a kind of double-vision: both the promise and the perils of the American experiment are seen in it.
Thus, the decision to reinvent Ellery by sending him to an American small town is symbolic. The first chapter of Calamity Town is titled "Mr. Queen Discovers America." The implication is clear: Ellery, an urban New York character, is now coming face to face with the "real" America, Main Street America. By casting himself as Columbus, Ellery posits Wrightsville as an unfallen Eden. But, of course, this Eden is not unfallen; as Ellery discovers, there are dark secrets at the heart of Wrightsville, old sins long dormant. Contra Auden's assertion that the murder mystery occurs when an evil is visited on some Great Good Place, what Ellery discovers is that the Great Good Place is neither great nor good.(4) What he discovers in Wrightsville is a flaw at the heart of the American experiment.
Francis Nevins argues that the cousins grew, over the course of the 1930s, increasingly dissatisfied with Ellery. Part of this anxiety was connected to the demands of the market; as their primary audience shifted toward “slick” magazines, readers responded better to novels of character rather than pure puzzle. The slipping popularity of the radio show also bothered them; in one letter in 1948 (after the first trips to Wrightsville), Dannay complains of Ellery that "by comparison [to other radio sleuths], he's weak, colorless, deliberately understated, and so on and so on."(5) Ellery lacked both the outrageous eccentricity of his predecessor Philo Vance and the downtrodden humanity of Philip Marlowe. The comments just quoted were late in the game, in terms of developing Ellery's character. The cousins began, even as early as Halfway House, to transform the character, to give him more flaws and more human responses. They even introduced a brief love interest in Paula Paris. But it was with the Wrightsville novels, beginning with Calamity Town, that they made a concerted effort to flesh out, break down, and rebuild the character into something more approachable.
In Calamity Town, Ellery makes mistakes. He falls in love. He is frustrated and anxious and regretful. And so he embarks upon a transformation that will last for most of what is generally considered his third period. He will need the disaster of Ten Days Wonder (1948) to destroy him before he can begin rebuilding in subsequent novels. Calamity Town is nevertheless a novel of self-discovery, and so it stands to reason that Ellery must begin by discovering the America in which he lives.
Ellery's America is fraught with contradictions. The novel opens with Ellery at the entry-point to the small town: the train station. Trains, as Ryan Poll reminds us, connect the small town to the larger world. They are the ultimate negation of the idea that the small town is an island-community. They bring people and commerce to the town. They bring outsiders like Ellery. And it is here that Ellery first “discovers America" in a rustic train station with lounging boys and the “fat behind of a retreating bus.” From there he moves to the town square (which is, in a delightful note, roundsymbolically significant, given the novels interest in cycles) and observes:

"At the horse trough in the center of the Square, Mr. Queen paused to admire Founder Wright. Founder Wright had once been a bronze, but he now looked mossy, and the stone trough on which he stood had obviously been unused for years. There were crusty bird droppings on the Founder’s Yankee nose. Words on a plaque said that Jezreel Wright had founded Wrightsville when it was an abandoned Indian site, in the Year of Our Lord 1701, had tilled the land, started a farm, and prospered. The chaste windows of the Wrightsville National Bank, John F. Wright, Pres, smiled at Mr. Queen from across the Square, and Mr. Queen smiled back: O Pioneers!"(6)

In this moment, crystallized, is a central irony of American history, made explicit in Ellery’s mental quotation “O Pioneers,” a double-reference to Willa Cather and to Walt Whitman, who will return in the final chapter of the novel. This is the mythical America, an unclaimed frontier, settled by hardy individualists who rose through merit rather than birth. And yet this iconthe bronze statue of Founder Wrightis mossy, coated in bird droppings. The stone trough he overlooks is unused, and has been for years. Modernity has already begun to move Wrightsville toward the neon signs of Double, Double (1950).
But there’s a deeper irony here; the town is founded on “an abandoned Indian site,” but no word is said of the circumstances of that abandonment. We readers know that these sites were never simply abandoned; when the Puritans first found empty villages in the New World, they were walking upon the blasted aftermath of an epidemic. Even if no actual genocide has occurred in Wrightsville, the good land was made acceptable by the death of innocents. And then, facing the statue, Ellery sees the ultimate denial of the American myth of merit: John F. Wright, descendant of the town’s founder, still controls the money in the town. He is of the ruling class. And that reality of classanathema to the democratically-minded American mythis the subtext, not only of Calamity Town, but of the entire Wrightsville saga.
As Double, Double shows, there is a class division within Wrightsville. The (white, affluent) citizens of Wrightsville proper are Ellery’s primary cohort, but in the Low Village live the ethnic and racial minorities, and the poor. This is a subtext rarely examined in the Wrightsville books, but it remains there, waiting for readers to see it.

Wrightsville is not an idyll. Wrightsville is a trap.


Ellery Queen goes to Wrightsville to discover himself. The cousins send him there to humanize him. And part of that process involves giving him a love interest in Pat Wright, the daughter of John F. Wright. This romance is significant in a couple of ways. One has to do with a typically heterosexist assumption that to be fully human one must be fully heterosexual. Dashiell Hammett’s famous question about Ellery’s love life is significant here: Hammett assumes that, to be realistic, a detective must be sexual. Implicitly, he must be heterosexual.

At the time the question was raised, the cousins dodged the question by making a sly reference to The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles. But in Calamity Town they attempt to remedy the purported lapse in heterosexual masculinity by giving Ellery a love interest (his second, admittedly). However, the structure of a traditional detective story cannot handle this, because the detective must always remain unattached, queer, and liminal. And so the romance does not work for the character. It does, however, work symbolically.

The second reason Ellery's romance with Pat Wright is significant has to do with symbolism. It represents a rejection of the core identity of the classical detective. And here I have to delve again into the past, into the prehistory of the genre. Edgar Allan Poe is often credited with inventing the detective story, but its roots go far deeper. I will not take the figure as far back as Oedipus, but I do suggest that the detective shares common roots with the tracker.

Put more directly, the first American detective was not Auguste Dupin but Natty Bumppo. Natty Bumppo, or Hawkeye, or Leatherstocking, was James Fenimore Cooper's protagonist in a series of novels charting the expansion of the frontier in North America. He is, in some ways, the archetypal American hero: a rugged loner, out on the fringes of what was called civilization, a mixture between the Native and the European. He brags that he has "no cross in his blood," that is, that he is not mixed race.(7) But his entire person is a cross, a mixture, a frontier. As such, he cannot exist within society; he aids it from the outside, along with his lifetime companion Chingachgook, the titular Last of the Mohicans. What Poe accomplishes in the Dupin stories is to bring this liminal figure into the heart of the city, the heart of civilization, while preserving his liminality. Dupin is of necessity outside. All of this is pretty standard for discussions of the classical detective; he or she must be an outsider to whatever story they are invoked to solve.

It is precisely this outsider status that the classical detective preserves by remaining celibate. Sherlock Holmes may never fall in love; Poirot must remain unattached. Even detectives with, by all evidence, a voracious sexual appetite (think of Charlie Chan, particularly in the films, and his enormous brood of youngsters) must maintain at his core a certain queer detachment from the circuit of marriage and reproduction. Similarly, the detective must remain at a certain remove from national considerations. Poirot and Charlie Chan are both immigrants, after all; Holmes is jingoistic in his own way, but his relationship to the process of empire-building is seldom straightforward. These detectives, who form the family-tree of which Ellery is a part, must remain on the fringes of the civilization they protect.

The romance with Pat Wright, then, is a double challenge to Ellery's function as a detective. It is personal, romantic involvement which, while not wholly anathema to the classical detective, is at least not typical. It is also symbolic involvement with the country represented by the small town of Wrightsville. By romancing Pat Wright, Ellery is romancing America itself.

But he rejects her in the end, hands her off (despite her protests) to a more suitable character. We must not take this as an outright rejection of America itself, but rather as a rejection of the symbolic identification with the mythological America represented by Wrightsville. In an ironic way, this most provincially American of the Ellery Queen books (outside of something like The American Gun Mystery) is finally a reaffirmation of the fundamentally cosmopolitan nature of the detective.

Indeed, Ellery must become cosmopolitan in its most extreme form. At the end of the novel, when Ellery is explaining his conclusions to Pat and her new beau Carter, the discussion is counterpointed by the old drunk Anderson (a figure whose daughter, the bird-girl Rima, will appear in Double, Double) reciting poetry. And the poetry he is reciting? Walt Whitman:

"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven

Like Ellery, Whitman is inescapably American. But, like Ellery, Whitman rejects provincial attachments and reaches upward, outward, to the universe itself. He is "an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos."(9) Kosmos-politan, he finds his final home within himself, much as the detective does and must. Whitman is thus closely aligned to the detective. Both are both Romantic figures on a Gnostic quest for the truth at the heart of the human.

What can it mean that Ellery Queen, at this precise moment in history, just on the brink of one of the worst cataclysms of the Twentieth Century, should seek his roots in the American small town, find them, and then find in them the grounds by which to transcend them? Surely this is not without its own significance.

Nevins suggests that the evolution of Ellery Queen is designed to make him more human, more (in today's argot) "relatable." And certainly that is part of the project here. An Ellery who falls in love, who makes mistakes and regrets them, who fails, ultimately, to publicly resolve the mystery (all of his Wrightsville adventures save one remain cloaked in secrecy, giving them an air of public failure even as he resolves the mysteries). But if we look forward, through the remarkably coherent sequence of books that make up the 1940s Queen output, we see another purpose, one of which the cousins themselves may have been only dimly aware. Consider:

    There Was an Old Woman (1943): a warped fantasy among the rich, the first refutation of Symons' claim that what Queen was after in this period was realism.

    The Murderer is a Fox (1945): Ellery returns to Wrightsville at the behest of a traumatized veteran. The American family is revealed to be dissolved, not through malice, but through blind chance.

    Ten Days' Wonder (1948): In one of the strangest of all Queen novels, Ellery confronts a demonic-divine father who preys upon his own children. A novel structured around the Biblical Ten Commandments, this book suggests that the Lawgiver and the law-breaker are one and the same; the very God who gives the Covenant to his adopted people is responsible for their destruction. Ellery is broken by his failure here. This is a post-WWII novel. The cousins were Jewish. Again, this is not insignificant.

    Cat of Many Tails (1949): Ellery returns to New York to confront the specter of an unaccountable evil, a serial killer who strikes seemingly without purpose or logic. In a postwar setting, this is especially significant. As Norman Mailer observes, the postwar view of death emphasizes its random nature, its blind malice. Ellery solves the case, recognizes that he is not God, is reborn.

    Double, Double (1950): Ellery ventures back to Wrightsville and confronts it at its most Edenic in the figure of Rima, the daughter of the town drunk. This adventure is deliberately light and avoids most of the metaphysical speculation that characterizes other novels of this period.

    The Origin of Evil (1951): Ellery returns to Hollywood, where he enters an obscene garden ruled by a crippled demiurge. The problem he faces here is the same problem that confronts him in Ten Days Wonder: the true killer is a mastermind who cannot be brought to justice in any meaningful way. In the older novel, Ellery forced him to commit suicide; as his equivalent Paul Regis says in Chabrol's masterful film adaptation, "There is not place in this world for gods like you." But the killer in Evil is not God. It is Adam, the symbolically-named figure who stands, not for an external divinity, but for the evil in the human heart. Ellery cannot kill him because they are peers; he can only sit with him, just as a new war breaks out in Korea.

What is the significance of this sequence? Is it not that Ellery, having humanized, is now made fit to deal with the true evils of the world? Not only blackmailers and grifters, but the gods and monsters who inhabit the human heart. His journey to Wrightsville was a temptation to normalcy, to a rejection of the cosmic. He persevered, he triumphed, he grew beyond mere parochialism and now stands ready to battle with the very gods themselves.
Ellery would return to the area surrounding Wrightsville only twice more in the novels, and only briefly: once, in The King is Dead, to investigate the origins of the military-industrial complex, and once in The Last Woman in His Life to battle (perhaps) with his own queer origins. Wrightsville becomes a place of rest, of renewal, and of self-investigation. But it will never again occupy a central spot in the narrative.

My contention here, and it really becomes clear only here, is that in his most grounded, his most rooted (as Symons would have it), Ellery finds the launchpoint for the wild phantasmagoria that is introduced in Ten Days' Wonder, in which Ellery consorts with gods and devils. His metaphysical inquiries are rooted in the soil of the symbolic American small town. This essay may strike some as an absurd over-reading. So be it. No book exists worth reading that is not also worthy of over-reading. But in fact Ellery Queen is a bizarre invention, the creation of two fractious men with competing aesthetic aims. He takes onto himself the entire history of the detective story and reaches toward the cosmic (of course, the cosmic was always what the detective was really seeking out). Without the superficial realism of Calamity Town there could be no And on the Eighth Day, no The Player on the Other Side.

Detective stories do not exist in the real world. They occupy an imaginative space, a symbolic space, and the detectives within them interact with symbolic truths rather than literal ones. When the cousins sent Ellery to Wrightsville, though it may seem that they were tending toward realism, they really were setting him on a journey into the realm of the metaphysical. By becoming more human, Ellery was simultaneously growing more heroic.

Nathanael T. Booth


1. Sinclair Lewis, Main Street.

2. Ryan Poll, Main Street and Empire: The Fictional Small Town in the Age of Globalization. Rutgers UP, 2012. Kindle edition Loc 105.

3. Poll Loc 141-143.

4. W.H. Auden, “The Guilty Vicarage,” Harpers (May 1948): 406–412, 408, column 2.

5. Goodrich, Joseph. Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen 1947–1950. Perfect Crime, 2012. 38.

6. Ellery Queen, Calamity Town. In Wrightsville Murders. Little, Brown, 1956. 10.

7. James Fenimore Cooper. The Last of the Mohicans. In The Leatherstocking Tales Volume Two. Library of America,1984. 507.

8. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855). In Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, Library of America, 1982. 57.

9. Whitman 50.


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Other articles by this West 87nd Street Irregular
(1) Rise Up Daily

(2) The Other Journal
(3) Nathanael T. Booth, his website

Additional References
God and the Great Detective: Ellery Queen's Struggle with the Divine, 1945-1965
    (McFarland, 2023)

American Small-Town Fiction, 1940-1960: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2019)


Page first published on Feb 25. 2024 
Last updated Feb 25. 2024


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