I am really looking forward to this Saturday.
A couple of months ago JJ announced that he and Ben would be reading The Problem of the Wire Cage for an in-depth, spoiler-filled discussion on their podcast. This weekend it should be going live and I am really interested to hear what each made of it.
The novel concerns a seemingly impossible murder taking place on a clay tennis court. Frank is a rather odious young man who seems destined to marry Brenda. Doing so will meet the terms of a will which would make the pair tremendously wealthy. Unfortunately young lawyer Hugh is in love with Brenda and is seeking to convince her to abandon talk of an engagement to be with him instead.
There is plenty more background but let’s skip ahead to the details of the impossibility. After a doubles game of tennis the players go their separate ways but Hugh returns later that night to find the court open and, on investigating, finds that Frank is dead, strangled by his own scarf, on the court while Brenda is nearby. Her footprints are the only ones other than the victim’s on the clay yet she insists that he was already dead when she ran to investigate his body. In other words, we have a dead body on a surface that would show footprints yet, if we believe Brenda, there are no signs that anyone else stepped foot on the court.
Much of what follows seems absolutely tailored to my taste, not because this is actually an inverted crime but because structurally it plays out similarly. If Brenda and Hugh did not have committed the crime, the natural evidence of the scene points squarely at their culpability and so they try to manage the evidence and stage the crime scene. While we will see the Police investigation at work and hear some of the deliberations, most of those moments take place from their perspective.
This sequence of the book is not only entertaining, I felt it was really very cleverly constructed. The pair works under considerable pressure to explain themselves, particularly once a character notices one of the things they are up to, and they find themselves needing to make decisions in the moment that they will then need to weave together into a convincing story. They do so incredibly well, casting evidence in a different light. When they realize that another person will be blamed for the murder based on the facts they have suggested they must conduct their own shadow investigation to confirm that those facts are accurate.
In short, what we have here is a case of two groups of characters responding to these events. The actions of the first group are to minimize their own involvement while seeking to find the real culprit (assuming it is not one of them). In doing so however they present the second group with a tampered field of evidence. This not only produces some wonderful tension and a few glorious comedic moments such as the tennis net testing sequence, the need to find a way to the real murderer that might fit with the tampered evidence is itself an intriguingly different take on the mystery story.
In addition to its strong structure, I also appreciated the characterization in these early chapters. There is no doubt that Frank is a pretty unpleasant guy and would make a poor match for Brenda. Given we share Hugh’s perspective as he comes across the body we can dismiss him from consideration yet I think Carr does a wonderful job of making Brenda someone we can believe and yet still harbor some doubts about. Not to mention the handful of other suspects we may consider. For what it’s worth, I settled on the wrong person far too early and was so certain that I was right I overlooked a little evidence that should have pushed me in a different direction.
The question of how the murder was carried out is even more important to the story than the identity of the killer. Here I think the ground becomes a little shakier because, as Puzzle Doctor points out, the method utilized requires us to accept an unusual level of stupidity on the part of the victim. While Carr attempts to convince us with a little harrumphing from Fell that we ought to consider the sequence of events credible because of the personalities of the people involved, I struggled a little with believing that although I did appreciate the mechanical cleverness of the solution.
On the other hand, things take an unfortunate turn in the final third of the novel with the introduction of a half-baked secondary murder that feels both insufficiently clued and explained. While I would agree with some who say that this part of the novel feels clumsily grafted on to the plot, the bigger problem to me is that the method by which the victim is despatched feels ludicrously unlikely and dramatic. I simply could not buy that the person who performed the killing would have conceived of or executed that plan, nor did I feel that the solution to it was fairly clued. In short, this whole sequence derails an otherwise tight, if extremely contrived, crime with little benefit beyond boosting the page count.
Finally I should mention the role, or rather the lack of one, provided for Dr. Fell. I have read some comments that the character really is treated as an afterthought here and that Hugh is intended to be the real sleuth. While I acknowledge that the character’s role is certainly limited, I strongly disagree with the inference. In my opinion, Fell is given a limited role because he is there to explain the impossibility and he gives instant credibility to that solution. I believe his limited role reflects that the impossibility, while serving as the hook for the novel, is not actually the author’s focus.
It seems to me that Carr’s interest here lies in playing with the manipulation of the crime scene and how those manipulations affect the police investigation. Fell cannot be the focus because we have to believe that he can see through Hugh and Brenda’s actions and so he falls into the background while the less rigorous Hadley takes the lead. In short, I think if Carr had made Fell a greater focus in the novel then it would have either made Hugh and Brenda’s initial successes unbelievable or been to the long-term detriment of the sleuth’s character.
So, where does that leave me overall?
I found The Problem of the Wire Cage to be a highly enjoyable read in spite of the flaws in its final third. There are some good ideas here but, more importantly for me, the characterization really sells the story and its structure. Carr provides us with some wonderful moments, some of them funny like Hugh’s conversation with his father, while there is a rather special surprise reveal at the end of Chapter Eleven that really came out of the blue for me.
Unfortunately I cannot judge the novel against Carr’s other works – I have read far too little, though I hope to rectify that in the next few months – but I think it is of interest in its own right and I look forward to reading what others made of it over the next few days.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by strangulation (How)