In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the founding tale of the mystery genre, Edgar Allan Poe planted the notion that asking “How was it done?” might be at least as powerful as asking that now-perennial question “Who done it?” Carr, fairly well known in his time (The New Yorker published a two-part profile of him) but largely forgotten today, took that idea and pursued it more prolifically and more inventively than any writer who came before or after him. This entry in the Dr. Gideon Fell series provides a well-turned sample of what an impossible-crime story can deliver. At a Saturday afternoon tennis party in Hampstead Heath, an insufferable youth named Frank Dorrance serves up to his fellow doubles players (and to others nearby) several good reasons for killing him. Soon after the party, his fiancée discovers his lifeless, contorted body in the middle of a tennis court and at the end of a lone trail of footprints—his own. Someone strangled him there, and did it without leaving any other prints on the wet, sandy court. The culprit’s identity isn’t hard to spot, since viable alternative suspects are practically nonexistent; Carr applies his ample powers of mystification not to the perpetrator of this “problem,” but to its logistics. The story progresses with Dr. Fell lobbing one possible solution after another at his official comrade, Inspector Hadley, until he finally scores a winner. So does Carr: This is a virtuoso display of pure plotting, with little of the overwrought Arabian Nights quality or the juvenile humor that mars some of his other work.
[ADDENDUM: Wire Cage is the first book by Carr that I read, and the first impossible-crime story that I read with full consciousness that I was reading an impossible-crime story. Thus, while it’s not a novel that has won much praise from critics (or, as far as I can tell, from ordinary readers), it holds a firm and cherished spot in my mystery-loving heart. That first encounter with this tale left me feeling as if my mind were on fire—as if a whole world of possibilities (or should I say “impossibilities”?) had opened up in my reading life. For days after I finished it, as I recall, I found myself trying to think up Carr-like tricks that might unfold in the suburban teenage wasteland where I then lived. A duffer stabbed while standing alone in the middle of a putting green! A shopper felled by a gunshot while trying on clothes inside a locked and carefully watched department-store fitting room! In any event, insofar as his book has major weak spots, I remain blind to them.]