Ellery Queen – The Murderer is a Fox (1945)

MurdererIsAFox2Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town (1942) was a turning point for me with the author.  Up until then I had suffered through the early era works (1929-1932) with little to indicate why Queen is held in regard as a top author of the golden age.  The Four of Hearts had some promising bits, but besides that, Queen had been a desert of boredom.

Calamity Town was different.  The series shifted from NYC detective fiction heavy on investigative footwork to a cozy small town New England murder.  Gone were the heavy police procedurals, the dense chapters chronicling every last detail of the hunt for evidence.  Gone was the privileged son of Inspector Queen, smugly weaving teetering towers of filament-thin brittle logic to snare the killer.  In its place we got a slice of Americana that lived and breathed.  Wrightsville, a town that was brought to life by its own citizens.  A town where as a reader you got to know the butcher, not because he could provide evidence relating to the story’s crime, but because he was part of the fabric of the community.  The characters actually live lives and carry out actions that aren’t directly related to the mystery, and the story benefits from it.

The Murderer is a Fox finds us back in Wrightsville, witnessing the return of war hero Captain Davy Fox.  Fox is suffering from post-traumatic stress following his stint in the war, although it quickly becomes apparent that there is something else in his past that is fraying even more on his nerves.  When Davy was a young boy, his father murdered his mother and was sent to prison for life.  This being a golden age book, Davy naturally assumes that being a killer is in his blood and he’ll follow in his father’s footsteps.

Davy’s return to Wrightsville triggers a series of sleepless nights, where he lies awake fighting the urge to kill his wife.  He finally succumbs to temptation and attempts to strangle her while she’s sleeping.  What does his wife do?  She writes a letter to Ellery Queen asking for help.  You see, if Queen can prove that Davy’s father didn’t kill his mother, then it follows that Davy isn’t predestined to be a killer.  Davy’s stress will go away and they can live happy lives.

Uh, yeah… so you just kind of have to ignore that whole angle of the story.  I mean, nobody ever seemed to doubt that the father was guilty, but it’s up for grabs all of a sudden?  Plus, Queen convinces the state penitentiary to actually release the father from prison so that he can be part of an attempt to recreate the events of what happened a decade earlier.  Yeah…

The ridiculousness somewhat fades into the background as Queen gets down to business investigating the mother’s murder.  Of course you’ll have to wait 70 pages for that.  It’s not a bad 70 pages though – we take a nice slow stroll through Wrightsville and become reacquainted with the town.  It reads like “the great American novel” in some sense and is enjoyable enough without a mystery even working its way into the picture.

Queen finally shows up and starts to investigate the past crime.  You don’t get any details on what actually happened until nearly the halfway mark, but it boils down to a semi-impossible poisoning (I seem to be encountering more and more of these lately).  Bayard Fox (Davy’s father) prepared a pitcher of grape juice for his wife and then poured her a glass.  She was found dead several hours later, poisoned by an overdose of her medicine.  We’re in semi-impossible poisoning territory here, because as we learn over the course of many chapters, the grape juice, the pitcher, and the glass were under observation by multiple witnesses the entire time, and there was never an opportunity to introduce the poison.  Bayard Fox was found guilty merely because he was the only one to actually handle the drink besides his wife.

Queen’s investigation is thorough but never boring.  Over the final two thirds of the book, we’re presented with every conceivable way in which the grape juice could have been poisoned.  Like, every conceivable way.  Was the juice already poisoned before it was purchased?  Was the poison in the pitcher?  Was the poison in the faucet?  Was the poison… well, it goes on and on, but somehow it never slides into monotony.

TheMurdererIsAFoxAn interesting challenge is raised by the authors through the very title of the book, which implies that the guilty party will end up being one of the members of the Fox family.  It’s a gutsy play, given that it whittles the number of suspects down significantly, especially since this isn’t a large family.  I’ve always been a fan of the small cast of suspects if it’s pulled off well, as you’re given an opportunity to suspect everyone, and yet somehow you still get surprised in the end.

The end didn’t really do it for me though this time.  I realize that many consider this book to have a monstrous twist, but it was the sort that fell flat.  Most interestingly, Queen’s solution was built on 100% conjecture, with none of his typical train of logic to attempt to justify anything.

It’s a good read though – very much a continuation of Calamity Town.  Don’t read these books so much for the mysteries – a ten year old could spot the solution to Calamity Town and The Murderer is a Fox has holes that you could pilot a barge through.  You’ll enjoy them though.  They just read so well, like the American counterpoint to a well executed British village mystery.  I’ll be looking forward to my return to Wrightsville with Ten Days’ Wonder.

One striking takeaway is just how out of place There Was an Old Woman is in the Queen library.  Released in between Calamity Town and The Murderer is a Fox, it couldn’t be more different from its siblings.  I know it’s a hold over of an earlier story, but the stark difference is amazing if you read the three books in order.

My editions

I ended up with two copies of The Murderer is a Fox due to filling in my Ellery Queen library with bulk purchases.  I ended up reading the 1956 Pocket Books edition simply because I liked the cover a bit more.  It differed from my 1966 Dell edition in that it featured a dramatis personae in the front of the book – always a nice touch, although I’ve stopped bothering to read them for most books.

13 thoughts on “Ellery Queen – The Murderer is a Fox (1945)”

  1. I reread this recently and agree with everything you say, Ben. As a kid, the ending gave me a nice little shock, but this time it feels sort of tacked on at the very end. What is more interesting is the family dynamic and Ellery’s continuing relationship with Wrightsville. I will be very interested in what you think of Ten Days Wonder, since it is the epitome of a theme Queen loved and would return to again and again. And after that . . . Cat of Many Tails!!!!!

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  2. I read all of Queen as a teen and this was one of my favorites! But then I am also a huge fan of Period One so I doubt if you’ll care for my opinion…..

    Like Brad, I’m looking forward to what you make of TDW as that is very….interesting. Cat of Many Tails, though, is arguably Queen’s best and one of the very few books that almost everybody considers to be a classic.

    Overall, it’s nice to see that both you and Aidan have finally started enjoying Queen…….unlike another (in)famous blogger. 😉

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    1. I’ve finally found something to enjoy in Queen, although he’s still eluding me as a top notch author. The Tragedy of Y is the only story that has really blown me away. Calamity Town was a better read overall, but it was missing a first class mystery. Combine the storytelling with the misdirection from The Dutch Shoe Mystery and I think you have a hit. Still, I’m enjoying this era of Queen. I imagine I’ll make it to Ten Days’ Wonder by the end of the year, perhaps with The Tragedy of Z in between.

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  3. I can’t imagine that you will love The Tragedy of Z!! It has its points but, IMHO, not enough of them.

    TDW is definitely Queen’s most ambitious Wrightsville novel, but I have to wonder at your suspension of disbelief. I predict you’ll either love his chutzpah or throw the book against the wall in disgust. Then comes Double, Double, the fourth Wrightsville novel but very different from the others. When and if you read it, we will finally get to talk about something involving the ending that I REALLY want to discuss!!!

    Oh, and I’m with Neil on Cats: a brilliant novel and a great mystery. Not Queen’s usual thing, but here I think he reaches for the stars.

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  4. “One striking takeaway is just how out of place There Was an Old Woman is in the Queen library. Released in between Calamity Town and The Murderer is a Fox, it couldn’t be more different from its siblings. I know it’s a hold over of an earlier story, but the stark difference is amazing if you read the three books in order.”

    Do we really know that? I’ve assumed that it might be, and we do know that the EQ cousins wanted a “safe card” to play after their digression into Wrightsville with “Calamity Town”, but do we actually know that it’s an older story?

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    1. You’re right, I don’t know for sure that is the case. I’ve just seen it repeated in these boards enough that I assumed someone better informed had read it in a biography or something.

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  5. Hi, Rusty from Justice for the Corpse here. I tried to enter a comment using my WordPress credentials but for whatever reason, things kept goofing up. So I’m trying another way!

    Nevins says that the solution to Fox is more reminiscent of Maigret than of the earlier Ellery. I agree – the killing of Jessica could have happened the way Ellery says, but I’m not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.

    If you experience whiplash going from Calamity Town to Old Woman to Fox, be prepared to have that kind of experience a few more times if you keep reading Queen in order. I have a feeling Dannay and Lee generally did their best to put previous books out of their mind when working on a new one.

    I’ve always been perplexed by Sergeant Howie’s use of the term “jail bait” to mean “a guy who’s going to spend the rest of his life behind bars.” I’ve always understood it to mean “a girl under the age of consent.”

    I can’t wait for you to get to Ten Days’ Wonder – Nevins considers it Queen’s masterpiece and I, well, don’t. I think you’ll find it’s another one that you have to do a spoiler post for – if you really want to sink your teeth into what is right and wrong with it.

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    1. I definitely raised my eyebrows at the “jail bate” comment and considered quoting it in my review – it’s funny that you remembered it. I’m not sure to what degree consent laws existed back in the 40s though, at least as long as people were married. I kind of assumed it was a newer term.

      There are enough intriguing comments about Ten Days’ Wonder that I may have to accelerate plans for my next Queen read. Not too soon of course, I have some Carr and Brand I’ve been meaning to get to.

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      1. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang dates the conventional definition of “jail bait” to the 1930s. It also mentions a broader definition of “attractive but dangerous” to the 1950s… no mention of the sense in which Queen used it here.

        Since the expression had not been around all that long when Fox was written, I wonder if either Dannay or Lee saw it somewhere and misunderstood what it meant?

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