“Ellery, this is killing for the sake of killing. The Cat’s enemies are the human race. Anybody on two legs will do. If you ask me, that’s what’s really cooking in New York. And unless we clamp the lid on this—this homicide, it’s going to boil over.”
Forget the dog days of August. In New York City, summer is the season of the Cat. A killer who “comes and goes like a breeze,” the Cat has brought the entire city to the edge of hysteria. There have been five victims so far, with nothing in common except their terrible ends, strangled to death with silk cords. No one is safe anywhere: not in the subway, not in the park, not even in their own beds.
Ellery Queen retired from detection after his last case went wrong, resulting in the deaths of innocent victims. Solving the Cat murders could lead to his redemption…unless failing to solve them becomes his downfall.
Cat of Many Tails is the quintessential New York mystery, with the sizzle of hot city streets permeating every page. The Cat prowls for victims all over Manhattan, from Harlem to Greenwich Village, targeting socialites, social workers, and shoe salesmen alike. One of the greatest pleasures of urban life, the way all kinds of people jostle together, individual yet part of a greater whole, has been weaponized into its most terrifying threat. It’s this sense of free-floating fear, the exhaustion of living constantly on the brink of a disaster beyond one’s control, that makes Cat of Many Tails so resonant today.
The idea of a random killer stalking total strangers is less novel now than it would have been in 1949. Ironically, however, it’s the old-fashioned nature of the investigation that keeps the story fresh. Ellery makes a stab at psychological profiling, but this is a proper, evidence-based whodunnit, full of twists and turns. Finding and interpreting that evidence involves pounding miles of pavement and sorting through reams of paper records. One city clerk having a bad day could derail the whole case. The Cat is one needle in a haystack of eight million. The details of the search, in an era when only one third of New Yorkers even have home phones, are fascinating.
If the detection is old-school, it plays out against a modern backdrop of shady politics and fake news that are keeping the city in a panic. Richard Queen blames the media for inciting hysteria, especially one cartoonist who “should get the Pulitzer prize for Satanism.” The Mayor and the Police Commissioner are more worried about their approval ratings than capturing the killer. Ellery knows why they’ve appointed him as head of the Cat task force. He’s “a fall guy to absorb all the heat and take all the raps, while you and the Department get off the spot.” Meanwhile, the city edges closer and closer to its breaking point. A population that believes it’s in danger and being lied to may prove even more dangerous than the Cat.
The serial killer mystery, elegantly constructed as it is, can’t help but pale beside the book’s portrait of a city, and a detective, in crisis. Ellery is very much in his own head here, doubting his own conclusions and holding back from sharing his deductions. This story is just as much about Ellery getting his confidence back as it is about the capture of one particular individual. Having begun his detecting career on a lark, he finally realizes how presumptuous it was to meddle with matters of life and death. Now he finds himself paralyzed by that burden.
Talk about delusions of grandeur! I’ve given pronunciamentos on law to lawyers, on chemistry to chemists, on ballistics to ballistics experts, on fingerprints to men who’ve made the study of fingerprints their lifework. I’ve issued my imperial decrees on criminal investigation methods to police officers with thirty years’ training, delivered definitive psychiatric analyses for the benefit of qualified psychiatrists. I’ve made Napoleon look like a men’s room attendant. And all the while I’ve been running amok among the innocent like Gabriel on a bender.
These are some heavy themes, not much lightened by the presence of our alleged comic relief. Ellery Queen is often hysterically funny, with an understated, self-deprecating wit, but for some reason subplots that are specifically earmarked as comedy or romance always go too broad and fall flat. You would think that neither of the authors had ever heard a joke or talked to a girl in their lives. Here, Celeste and Jimmy are the siblings of two victims, strangers to each other until the Cat struck their families. Eager to catch their sisters’ killer, they volunteer as “87th Street Irregulars,” falling in love along the way. While their high spirits cheer up the Queens, Ellery can’t forget that one of these charming young people might be the murderer. The possibility of seeing the horrid Jimmy get the chair was the only thing that sustained me during his scenes.
The solution to the mystery is very, very neatly done. Yet, a serial killer solution will always be somewhat dissatisfying. If the killer is an unknown person then seeing them unmasked carries the same emotional charge as watching a stranger win a raffle. And if the murderer is a known character, it makes the detective look rather silly for not spotting them sooner. Cat of Many Tails brilliantly sidesteps this dilemma by making the conclusion about more than simply finding the killer. It’s not only about the Cat, or even about saving all those faceless New Yorkers from peril. It’s also about one New Yorker in particular: Ellery Queen, why he needs to keep detecting, and how he can be okay with that.
Cat starts big and stays big. Queen does offer us a whodunnit, but the book is about more than the unmasking of the Cat. Where A.B.C. ends in Poirot’s flat, with the detective gathering the suspects together for the ritual reveal, Cat ends in a darkened parlor in Vienna, where a broken man haltingly exposes a killer before his potential savior. The idea that the villain and the hero are both psychologically damaged by the case provides a visceral emotional thrill, as well as the template for countless crime authors to come.
At the Scene of the Crime & In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel Double-Header
First off, let me say that I consider this one of the finest mysteries ever written. I love the plot idea of the serial killer story, where everything is explained through fair clueing. It isn’t often that we see it done this way—especially nowadays, authors tend to explore the killer’s psychology instead of making it into a traditional mystery.
A decent thriller, one of the best written Queen novels, but as a mystery, it’s weak – too few suspects and once the first reveal occurs, the second is predictable and takes an age to occur. There’s some lovely post-reveal deductions but they can only be made once you know who the killer is. An atypical outing for Ellery and still not one of my favourites.
I see many, many positive reviews of Cat of Many Tails, but I am not as enthousaistic about it as other, I think. It just feels too different from classic Queen. By the time you reach the plot-twist near the middle of the book, it’s way too easy to see who the Cat is going to be and it’s annoying to see post-Wrightsville!Queen angsting over everything, while we know that classic!Queen wouldn’t have been so slow in getting to the truth. Seriously, it might be cool and post-modern and I don’t know what for a detective to angst over his abilities to save mankind or something like that, but I sure don’t like it.
Cat of Many Tails is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press.
6 thoughts on “Cat of Many Tails (1949) by Ellery Queen”
I found the comment you included by Ho Ling fascinating – not because we disagree about the book (great minds most definitely do NOT always think alike!) but because I disagree so strongly with his assessment of how Ellery would behave. One of the best aspects of the Queen canon is how Dannay and Lee never froze the character. Ellery is profoundly changed by his Wrightsville experiences because, at last, he is not the total outsider, removed even beyond the police in his relationship to the case. He lives with these villagers; he falls in love with more than one of them. I imagine he can’t think as clearly in that August heat after flubbing the Van Horn case as he did during Period One.
That said, I agree that the mystery itself is far from the complex puzzles Ellery faced earlier in his career (and will face again at the end). But you pointed out all the other wonderful things to enjoy about it. Oh, and like you, I would have given anything if the Cat had returned and strangled Jimmy. Every line of his made
Me grit my teeth.
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I understand where Ho-Ling is coming from, because one of the nice things about GAD is the relative lack of drama from the detectives. Ellery has grown and changed almost from the beginning, however, and not just because the authors changed styles. I read the first Queen book, The Roman Hat Mystery, fairly recently. That Ellery is so flippant he even takes a vacation before the case is concluded, leaving his father to wrap it up. Just a few books later, however, he’s making mistakes, growing humbler, and learning to take the work more seriously–and that’s still in Period One. So a crisis of conscience is not out of character even during Queen’s most puzzle-oriented period.
If only the Cat could have strangled Jimmy and let his sister Monica live. She sounded like a blast.
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I fully agree with the comment you included by Patrick above. In my opinion, this is the greatest Queen and easily one of the ten finest mysteries ever.
As much as I love ABC murders, which was the first Poirot I ever read, I think this edges that as the best serial killer mystery ever.
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What a great Poirot to start with! If I HAD to choose, The ABC Murders slightly wins out, but there are several areas where Cat of Many Tails surpasses it. One is the portrait of a fearful city clamoring for justice. Keeping all of the murders in New York was very smart of Queen, as it allows so much drama to build up. The other is the level of emotion. I don’t recall much grief or fear in ABC. It wouldn’t feel right for Poirot to experience the same doubts as Ellery, but it’s in character that Ellery does and this adds a lot of depth to the story. We’re very fortunate that both of these wonderful books exist.
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