Originally published in 1939, The Problem of the Wire Cage has a surprising sort of insouciance to it, the kind of lightness about it that makes one think that Carr wasn’t watching the world situation too closely, or, perhaps, that he just didn’t want to know. It is an unusual tale which, despite being the eleventh featuring Dr Gideon Fell, doesn’t see Fell appear until a third of the book has already passed. But the book is full of those classic Carr touches which will make any fan rejoice.
The tale begins with a quartet out for a game of tennis: two rivals for the affection of young Brenda White, and Kitty Bancroft, and older widow (though perhaps only in her thirties. Of the rivals, Hugh Rowland has just made his case for Brenda, although she is engaged as part of an inheritance plan to the unpleasant Frank Dorrance. The tennis game is played in the grounds of the home of the dangerously impecunious and badly crippled Nicholas Young, who is legal guardian over Brenda and is deeply invested in her marriage to Dorrance. The court itself rests at the centre of the titular “wire cage” (misleadingly, I assumed this was to be a book about birds). When a storm breaks and forces the quartet to shelter, they spend their time discussing how they might commit a murder.
When murders begin to happen, therefore, suspicions run wild, and it is down to Dr Fell to see through the lies told him not only by the guilty, but by the innocent. There are moments in the books which seem more in the vein of Carter Dickson, Carr’s alter-ego (as when Hugh and his father discuss his plight, and scenes involving an amorous Texan with a whip), and the plot, as mentioned, is oddly constructed. The elusive Mrs Fell is even mentioned (once), during a tangential discussion of Dr Fell having recently moved house.
With a solution that makes surprisingly good sense (Carr’s solutions are sometimes difficult to visualize), this is one of Carr’s better books. I’m still not certain if there is anything to be gained by reading the Fell stories in order, but if readers have that luxury, it might not do any harm. By no means a slouch, The Problem of the Wire Cage is a quick, puzzling, and entertaining read. Four stars.
Originally reviewed 28 June 2015.
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