Ellery 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.
An 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.
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.