Margalit Fox

Award-winning Journalist & Author

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • Death Becomes Her: The Art of the Obituary
  • Conan Doyle for the Defense
  • The Riddle of the Labyrinth
  • An Evening with Margalit Fox


“Fox has an eye for the telling detail, a forensic sense of evidence and a relish for research.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Fox does her own detective work in unpicking the opposing personalities and careers of her protagonists.” —The New York Times

“I would like to sing her praises as a writer who has, day in and day out, done yeoman’s work to inject subtle, deft works of cultural history into the paper of record. Through Fox’s writing, you get to find out about the kinds of stories that once made up the fabric of public life but that won’t otherwise appear in today’s Times—because, short of the death of someone involved, or maybe an anniversary, there’s no news peg to justify a revival.” —Slate

Considered one of the foremost explanatory writers and literary stylists in American journalism, Margalit Fox retired in June 2018 from a 24-year-career at the New York Times, where she was most recently a senior writer. As a member of the newspaper’s celebrated obituary news department, she has written the Page One sendoffs of some of the best-known cultural figures of our era, including the pioneering feminist Betty Friedan, the writer Maya Angelou, the poets Seamus Heaney and Adrienne Rich, the children’s author Maurice Sendak and the advice columnists Dear Abby and Ann Landers. She has also written the obituaries of many of the unsung heroes who have managed, quietly, to touch history, among them the inventors of the Frisbee, the crash-test dummy, the plastic lawn flamingo and the bar code.

Before joining the obituary department in 2004, she spent ten years as a staff editor at the New York Times Book Review. Fox received the Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York in 2011 for feature writing, and in 2015 for beat reporting. In 2016, the Poynter Institute named her one of the six best writers in the Times’s history.

She is the author of three books including Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals about the Mind (2007) and The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code (2013). The Riddle of the Labyrinth, a narrative nonfiction account of the decipherment of the Bronze Age Aegean script known as Linear B, was selected by the Times Book Review as one of the hundred best books of the year and received the 2014 William Saroyan Prize for International Writing. Her most recent book is Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer (2018). Rapturously reviewed, it tells the story of a wrongful conviction for a brutal Edwardian murder—overturned through the personal investigation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Originally trained as a cellist, Fox holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in linguistics from Stony Brook University and a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her work is prominently featured in The Sense of Style (2014), the best-selling guide to writing well by Steven Pinker, and Obit., the acclaimed 2017 documentary by Vanessa Gould. Fox lives in Manhattan with her husband, the writer and critic George Robinson.

Margalit Fox Website


Considered one of the foremost explanatory writers and literary stylists in American journalism, Margalit Fox retired in June 2018 from a 24-year-career at the New York Times, where she was most recently a senior writer. As a member of the newspaper’s celebrated obituary news department, she has written the Page One sendoffs of some of the best-known cultural figures of our era, including the pioneering feminist Betty Friedan, the writer Maya Angelou, the poets Seamus Heaney and Adrienne Rich, the children’s author Maurice Sendak and the advice columnists Dear Abby and Ann Landers. She has also written the obituaries of many of the unsung heroes who have managed, quietly, to touch history, among them the inventors of the Frisbee, the crash-test dummy, the plastic lawn flamingo and the bar code. She is the author of three books including, most recently, Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer. Before joining the obituary department at the Times in 2004, she spent ten years as a staff editor at the New York Times Book Review. Fox lives in Manhattan.


CONAN DOYLE FOR THE DEFENSE: THE TRUE STORY OF A SENSATIONAL BRITISH MURDER, A QUEST FOR JUSTICE, AND THE WORLD’S FAMOUS DETECTIVE WRITER (2018)

“ [Fox] is excellent in linking the 19th-century creation of policing and detection with the development of both detective fiction and the science of forensics—ballistics, fingerprints, toxicology and serology—as well as the quasi science of ‘criminal anthropology.’” —The New York Times Book Review

A sensational Edwardian murder. A scandalous wrongful conviction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the rescue. For all the scores of biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the most famous detective in the world, there is no recent book that tells this remarkable story—in which Conan Doyle becomes a real-life detective on an actual murder case. In Conan Doyle for the Defense, Margalit Fox takes us step by step inside Conan Doyle’s investigative process and illuminates a murder mystery that is also a morality play for our time—a story of ethnic, religious, and anti-immigrant bias. In 1908, a wealthy woman was brutally murdered in her Glasgow home. The police found a convenient suspect in Oscar Slater—an immigrant Jewish cardsharp—who, despite his obvious innocence, was tried, convicted, and consigned to life at hard labor in a brutal Scottish prison. Conan Doyle, already world famous as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was outraged by this injustice and became obsessed with the case. Using the methods of his most famous character, he scoured trial transcripts, newspaper accounts, and eyewitness statements, meticulously noting myriad holes, inconsistencies, and outright fabrications by police and prosecutors. Finally, in 1927, his work won Slater’s freedom. In Conan Doyle for the Defense, Fox immerses readers in the science of Edwardian crime detection and illuminates a watershed moment in the history of forensics, when reflexive prejudice began to be replaced by reason and the scientific method.

THE RIDDLE OF THE LABYRINTH: THE QUEST TO CRACK AN ANCIENT CODE (2013)

“Fox has cracked it, fashioning an intellectual puzzle into an engrossing detective story of driven personalities, hidden clues, perseverance and intuition. In the process, she has uncovered a remarkable woman who had been buried by history.” —Sunday Times UK

The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code tells one of the most intriguing stories in the history of language, masterfully blending history, linguistics, and cryptology with an elegantly wrought narrative. When famed archaeologist Arthur Evans unearthed the ruins of a sophisticated Bronze Age civilization that flowered on Crete 1,000 years before Greece’s Classical Age, he discovered a cache of ancient tablets, Europe’s earliest written records. For half a century, the meaning of the inscriptions, and even the language in which they were written, would remain a mystery. Fox’s riveting real-life intellectual detective story travels from the Bronze Age Aegean—the era of Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Helen—to the turn of the 20th century and the work of charismatic English archeologist Arthur Evans, to the colorful personal stories of the decipherers. These include Michael Ventris, the brilliant amateur who deciphered the script but met with a sudden, mysterious death that may have been a direct consequence of the deipherment; and Alice Kober, the unsung heroine of the story whose painstaking work allowed Ventris to crack the code.

TALKING HANDS: WHAT SIGN LANGUAGE REVEALS ABOUT THE MIND (2007)

“This is a captivating and important book, minutely researched and vividly narrated, about an isolated Bedouin village where hearing and deaf people alike communicate in sign language. Such situations are increasingly rare and precious. Fox’s book will be fascinating to anyone interested in the nature of human language or indeed in cognitive neuroscience.” —Oliver Sacks, M.D

Imagine a village where everyone “speaks” sign language. Just such a village — an isolated Bedouin community in Israel with an unusually high rate of deafness — is at the heart of Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind. There, an indigenous sign language has sprung up, used by deaf and hearing villagers alike. It is a language no outsider has been able to decode, until now. Because the sign language of the village has arisen completely on its own, outside the influence of any other language, it is a living demonstration of the “language instinct,” man’s inborn capacity to create language. If the researchers can decode this language, they will have helped isolate ingredients essential to all human language, signed and spoken. But as Talking Hands grippingly shows, their work in the village is also a race against time, because the unique language of the village may already be endangered.Talking Hands offers a fascinating introduction to the signed languages of the world — languages as beautiful, vital and emphatically human as any other — explaining why they are now furnishing cognitive scientists with long-sought keys to understanding how language works in the mind. Written in lyrical, accessible prose, Talking Hands will captivate anyone interested in language, the human mind and journeys to exotic places.