The Murderer is a Fox (Ellery Queen)

  • By Ellery Queen
  • First published: US: Little Brown, 1945; UK: Gollancz, 1945

So back they went, in the soft Wrightsville evening, to the house of Bayard Fox. It looked unreal in the waves of the swimming moon, a dark house growing out of dark rank vegetation, and all as if suspended – an unknown world at the bottom of an alien sea.

The night and death are brothers; and this was where both had dwelt for a dozen years.

The group carried flashlights, silent.

Chapter 18

Ellery Queen gives us detection as therapy. Davy Fox returns to Wrightsville a war hero, but he’s suffering from PTSD. His father went to prison 12 years ago for murdering his mother; Davy grew up frightened he would become a murderer, and after the war, he considers himself a born killer. One night, he finds himself strangling his wife… To save Linda Fox, Ellery Queen must prove Bayard Fox’s innocence. And so he returns to Wrightsville.

The Murderer is a Fox is in the vein of Calamity Town: an insoluble poisoning and renewed attention to characterization. Here, everything seems smaller and tighter; because the crime took place a dozen years ago, we are less concerned with the Wrightsville of today. Instead, the advance in Queen’s novelistic technique is stream-of-consciousness; Davy sits on a train, another passenger asking well-meant but irritating questions, which trigger flashbacks to the war. War changes people, Davy reflects, and for the worse; his comrade wanted to die, “scared of what the War had made him learn about himself”.

The murder has even less wriggle room than Calamity Town; there, the case was based on motive / circumstantial evidence (Jim Haight’s letters and need for money) and opportunity. Here, the case seems boxed-in, because Ellery goes step by step through the morning, eliminating all the possible avenues (the fruit juice, the pitcher, the tumbler, the tap.)

To find a new angle after more than a decade is nothing short of brilliant.

There’s a scene in Chapter 18 where Ellery pours glasses of water into and out of a pitcher that confused me; I read and reread it for 10 minutes, and drew diagrams, trying to work out where the fifth glass of water came from, until I realized it was 4 – 1 – 1 (=-2). Those of you with math degrees (as half the detective fiction web community seems to be – Mike Grost, J.J., Steve Barge) are shaking their heads in pity. Ha! I consider John Dickson Carr a gifted mathematician.

Anyway, the sediment line on the pitcher leads to the deduction ROT13: gung fbzrbar sebz Zbagerny ivfvgrq Wrffvpn gung zbeavat. It’s almost Holmesian – the depth the parsley sank into the butter, and all that – and is one of the cleverest pieces of reasoning outside Harry Kemelman’s “Nine Mile Walk”. The major clue (ROT13: gur tynff jnfa’g evafrq) is hidden the first time, but stands out on rereading.

For all its impressive reasoning, I can’t quite warm to The Murderer is a Fox. The explanation is novel (although Queen have given us this ‘culprit’ before), but it’s not altogether satisfying. I prefer active malignancy in my detective stories. And it seems rather hard on everybody involved.

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CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS

Kirkus (22 May 1945):

Practised, popular entertainment, in a novel of murder, as Ellery Queen returns to Calamity Town to help Davy Fox, Pacific war ace and now a psychoneurotic casualty, obsessed by the long ago conviction of his father as the murderer of his mother – and sure that he will follow in his father’s footsteps and murder his young wife, Linny. To rid Davy of his obsession, Ellery re-opens the old case, re-examines evidence which once had seemed to make Davy’s father the only possible suspect, revives the hope of another culprit, and with some pretty lightning longshots, clears Davy’s father and dismisses the case as suicide. Somewhat out of the Ellery Queen groove – but interesting.

San Francisco Chronicle (Anthony Boucher, 27 May 1945):

Ellery Queen returns not only to the scene but to the mood and manner of Calamity Town when he revisits Wrightsville to save the sanity of a veteran by cracking a 12-year-old closed murder case. Highly satisfactory combination of astonishing technical tour de force with warmly human novel.

Syndicated review (Charles E. Honce):

Ellery Queen rapidly is (or should I say “are” in view of the fact that he is two persons?) becoming one of the most prolific modern writers. The bibliograph of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee (who collectively coalesce as Ellery Queen) now numbers 39 volumes in almost every form of writing – except poetry (and privately it might be mentioned that one of the boys turns that out too).

This record of a comparatively short literary life fills the page opposite the title-page of their newest detective tale, The Murderer is a Fox, the 17th yarn in which that erudite and suave solver of mysteries – Ellery Queen – has appeared.

Before going into the plot – but not too deeply, since no reviewer wants to give away a detective tale – it might be worth while to look over that bibliography. In addition to the Queen novels, there are three volumes of short stories about the same detective, six anthologies of sleuth tales from the doings of lady dicks to the activities of flatfeet in the field of sports, an amazingly complete and amazingly interesting bibliography of the detective short story, four additional detective tales under the pseudonym of Barnaby Ross, three stories using the pseudonym of Ellery Queen Jr., and a growing list of “Junior Mysteries.”

As if that weren’t activity enough, there are Ellery Queen radio plays and an “Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine,” which means positively that there is no loafing in the Queen household – either one.

Oh, yes, the plot: Well, in this latest tale Ellery returns to Wrightsville, a small town that was the scene of a previous novel, Calamity Town. Here he unravels the mystery surrounding a death 12 years before, clears a man serving a life term for the supposed murder of his wife, and dissipates the neuroses of a returned war hero and unites him happily with his wife – largely, mind you, through the ring left in a glass a dozen years ago.

The plot is simpler than that of other recent Queen mysteries, which is all to the good, and there is an unexpected kick at the end which probably will startle you but also leave you somewhat artistically bemused.

The Observer (Maurice Richardson, 26 August 1945):

I wonder what Gaboriau’s reaction would be to some modern detective stories. I’d be afraid to give him the new Ellery Queen; he might shrug his shoulders so hard he’d dislocate his neck. For in The Murderer Is a Fox old “Greenery Yallery” has taken the fountain pen between his dentures and galloped away with himself. Keep calm while I tell you the plot. War-shocked pilot, whose father was life-sentenced for wife-poisoning, is obsessed with homicidal tendencies; the only thing that can save his reason and his wife is the reinvestigation of his dad’s case. Ellery obliges, and things begin to get really tense. But an anti-climax solution, however ingenious, never satisfies me.

The Manchester Guardian (I’A. Fausset, 7th September 1945):

Those who can swallow the cruder kind of American slang and sentiment will find The Murderer is a Fox, by Ellery Queen, a good example of ingenuity in the spinning and unravelling of a plot.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 15th September 1945):

Several authors since 1918 have written about the return of a hero. The Murderer is a Fox takes the familiar situation and commands interest in it afresh by making us feel we are members of the Wrightsville Committee on Welcomes.

6 thoughts on “The Murderer is a Fox (Ellery Queen)

  1. Great – and eminently fair – review, Nick, as was your write-up on Calamity Town. In every way, this one seems smaller than CT, and when I re-read it a year or so ago, I have to admit I grew impatient during Ellery’s exhaustive pondering and experiments with grape juice. And maybe because I expected the ending this time, it felt less like a quietly devastating sucker punch than a punch line without a joke. I knew we were back in Wrightsville but I missed the town. I don’t recall that happening in Ten Days Wonder, which admittedly I haven’t read in years: on the surface, that case is small, too, but the thing it’s going for is so . . . HUGE and will inform much of Queen’s writing for the rest of his career. Even his ghost writers will take it on!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Brad! Yeah, Murderer is a Fox seems to be about one family and one house, and what happened 12 years before, rather than about their place in the town. You might say it extends vertically rather than horizontally. And Ten Days’ Wonder is cosmic and metaphysical!

      Liked by 1 person

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