Before you read any further, please note that if I had any trouble with today’s mystery novel, it had more to do with me than with the book itself. You see, the school term finally came to an end on Friday, and I have to say that if someone had rung my doorbell two weeks ago and handed me my own personalized copy of a heretofore unknown Agatha Christie novel featuring a pairing up of Hercule Poirot with Miss Marple, I would probably still have dragged my feet through it. If you know me at all, you understand how overworked I feel!
Still, despite the horrendous schedule of classes and rehearsals, I have been on something of a reading roll. Fresh from The Howling Beast and Two Thirds of a Ghost, I knew that my next pick would be a John Dickson Carr title – and it needed to be this title, for reasons that will be revealed anon.
Now Carr is my second favorite mystery writer of all time, right after Agatha Christie. Much of the reason for this has to do with timing, with where Christie is placed in my own personal history. You could call my preference a matter of taste, but it’s really more a matter of emotional resonance. I discovered her at a crucial point in my development, and she got me through some, shall we say, interesting times. I will never argue that Christie plotted better, or even wrote better, than Carr, but for me there’s something about her work – the puzzles, the characters, the presentation of life in her era – that fills my heart with joy. With Carr, it’s almost always completely about the puzzle for me, and on that score he had no equal.
And, like Avis Rent-a-Car, the number two company behind Hertz throughout my formative years, Carr always tried harder. For example, in 1929 Christie marked her ninth year as an author by publishing her ninth book. 1939 was the ninth year Carr had been writing, and today’s title, The Problem of the Wire Cage, was Carr’s twenty-fifth published novel! Or maybe it was his twenty-sixth! For, you see, it was one of three Carr titles that came out that year. One of the others, The Problem of the Green Capsule, is an acknowledged classic, easily one of his best. Both novels are prime examples of Carr writing a modern-day malice domestic, something of a far cry from the Grand Guignol-esque adventures of Henri Bencolin, the Satanic-looking Parisian huge d’instruction that marked his debut.
Those first novels are awash in melodrama and bathed in a noirish glow. Even with the introduction of Dr. Gideon Fell in 1933’s Hag’s Nook, one finds many of the trappings of a horror novel, those atmospheric hijinks that would crop up over and over again throughout Carr’s career. But by the end of his first decade, Carr was trading just as frequently in malice domestic as in tales tinged with the supernatural. The dark chalets and winding dungeons of Bencolin’s era were replaced by sun-dappled country homes and stylish cityscapes. And while Carr is virtually unsurpassed in casting an opening hook to waylay his readers, the fantastical lures of cursed towers, serial hat thieves, and vampire killers began to make way for more prosaic events, like a tennis game.
I played tennis for exactly six weeks of my life. Well “played” is something of a misnomer. My parents, wanting me to find something – anything – that would cast the life I had chosen for myself in a more athletic glow, insisted I take lessons. Alas, it was not to be. The tennis pro they hired was a handsome chap, but even that was not enough bait to get me to stick it out. That, and my singular ability to make any racket I held repel balls, put a swift end to my non-existent dream of becoming the next Roger Federer.
The Problem of the Wire Cage is a neat little problem that begins with a tennis game. One Saturday afternoon at the lovely country home of Dr. Nicholas Young, four people set out to play a set of mixed doubles. An encroaching storm forces them to abandon their game and seek shelter in the adjoining pavilion, where they while away the time discussing murder. (Well, what did you expect them to talk about in a mystery novel – vegetable marrows?) This is a tense little quartet, who all have some connection to death. There’s Frank Dorrance, Dr. Nick’s ward, who is as handsome and charming as he is selfish and loathsome. He is partered with Brenda White, who also lives with Dr. Nick ever since both her parents have died in separate but tragic circumstances. Brenda is engaged to Frank, primarily to secure for him an inheritance. Meanwhile, Frank has secretly dallied with another woman who, upon his rejection, has attempted suicide.
On the opposing team we have Hugh Rowland, a solicitor whose firm specializes in getting accused murderers acquitted. He is passionately in love with Brenda and thus despises Frank. He is partnered with Kitty Bancroft, the charming older neighbor who has a crush on Frank and a dead, possibly murdered, husband in her past. These four people have a lively, loaded discussion, after which they all go their separate ways. The next time we come upon the tennis court, Frank Dorrance will be lying, strangled to death, in the middle of the wet clay, with only one set of footprints going to his body and away. The footprints belong to Brenda, and yet she insists that she is innocent . . .
As is usual in a Carr novel, the list of suspects is small. Aside from Frank’s three tennis mates, we have Dr. Nick, who through a recent auto accident, wound up breaking his right arm, his left leg, and his collarbone. (Even Dr. Nick is sanguine enough to remark that this condition makes him Suspect Number One!) And then there’s the boyfriend of Frank’s suicidal dalliance, who happens to be an acrobat, which seems to be exactly what this sort of murderer ought to be! Carr is always a master at focusing our suspicions on one suspect after another. Just when you are convinced that X has to be the killer, something happens to make you just as likely to cross that person off your list. The people we meet in this novel, except for the victim, all seem essentially likeable; they are just in desperate emotional straits. Eventually, Carr will turn the tables on our expectations of at least one of these characters, and it is a pretty delicious experience rereading certain passages to witness what the author had laid out before our very eyes.
To my mind, Wire Cage is a fairly minor title for Carr, especially if you compare it to Green Capsule or The Reader Is Warned, the Carter Dickson novel that came out that same year. But there is a somewhat experimental structure here: the first thirteen out of twenty chapters take place virtually in real time and are told very much from the point of view of Hugh and Brenda, our nominal heroes (unless, of course, one or both of them dun it!) Clearly, the footprints seem to indicate Brenda as the killer, and the novel takes on a very Columbo-like tone, as the hapless duo seek to match wits with those in charge of the case in order to keep Brenda free of suspicion. Unfortunately for Hugh and Brenda, those in charge include Superintendent Hadley of Scotland Yard . . . and Dr. Fell.
The problem with problems presented in “real time” is that they are best served when you can just sit down and read them. But my work kept interfering, and days stretched out into weeks as I sought a moment here or there to plod forward. And to be honest, it didn’t help that Hugh’s point of view had none of the humor that one finds when we are riding along with Dr. Fell. The sleuth unfortunately speaks barely a word until the final act! However, things take a brighter turn by Chapter 14. Then we are introduced to Hugh’s father, a cunning lawyer with a Polonious-like outer mask. We witness a fine lunch between Hugh and Brenda, where we learn just what Dr. Fell’s antics look like to the suspects in a case. And there’s a wonderful turn at a music hall, where we meet all sorts of theatrical types, some of them rendered in gross (but funny) stereotypes, all leading up to a second impossible crime that’s much more dramatic than the first!
Finally, we return to the scene of the crime, where Dr. Fell and Hadley gather the suspects together and reveal the “who, how, when and why” of the matter. Part of the reason Carr is the master of this game is the fun he has presenting credible but utterly false solutions along the way. These are strewn about Wire Cage with great cleverness, along with the certainty that the real solution will be even more interesting. Honestly, the explanation for the impossibility here will never go down as one of my favorites, and man, woman or child who tells me they figured this one out is, excuse my French, an out-and-out liar!
So, if your mind isn’t distracted by entitled youngsters flinging about crazy excuses as to why they didn’t get any of their work done and then demanding extra credit assignments from you so that they can improve their grade, I think you’ll become engrossed in the wonderful, awful day and a half chronicled here. I might suggest you find a copy of this one and read it now, for next month, there’s going to be a fine deconstruction of The Problem of the Wire Cage, complete with spoilers, over at JJ’s place, The Invisible Event. He and Ben from The Green Capsule, two of the sharpest Carr fans I know, will discuss the novel at length and invite comments afterward. I will be there to serve up my own thoughts, fashionably dressed in my tennis whites. I will be sure to leave behind no footprints.
For now, I wish every one of you the happiest of holidays. Whether you just finished celebrating Hanukkah, or have your Christmas prime rib slowly roasting in the oven, or if you are in the midst of a joyous Kwanzaa, I wish you all peace and joy.