The Cage by Bonnie Kistler
Originally published in 2022
On a cold, misty Sunday night, two women are alone in the offices of fashion conglomerate Claudine de Martineau International. One is the company’s human resources director. Impeccably dressed and perfectly coiffed, she sits at her desk and stares somberly out the window. Down the hall, her colleague, one of the company’s lawyers, is buried under a pile of paperwork, frantically rushing to finish.
Leaving at the same time, the two women, each preoccupied by her own thoughts, enter the elevator that will take them down from the 30th floor.
When they arrive at the lobby, one of the women is dead. Was it murder or suicide?
I have been eagerly awaiting the publication of The Cage since I first read the plot synopsis a few months ago. I was immediately grabbed by the boldness of its central idea – that two women enter an elevator and that when it completes its descent one of the two is dead. This is about as extreme a closed circle murder as I can think of and I was really curious to see where Kistler took the story from there.
Perhaps the first thing to note about the book is that while there are things to deduce (some of which are clued and foreshadowed very effectively), this book is first and foremost a legal thriller in the vein of Grisham’s The Firm or the TV series Damages. The book certainly concerns the investigation into that death in the elevator and the question of whether Lucy Barton-Jones committed suicide or Shay Lambert shot her but once we are past the opening chapters the story style transforms into something a little different.
Kistler divides the story into chapters narrated by Shay recounting her story and third person chapters written from the perspective of one of the senior executives at Claudine de Martineau International (CDMI). These figures soon become oppositional to one another, each presenting a different story about what happened that night. In theory this approach should present the reader with a binary choice between the two different stories and yet, while neither side tells the whole truth, the reader will likely quickly establish who the villain will be.
Rather than focus on the guessing game of who to believe, instead the reader is drawn into the game of seeing how each side will try to convince the police investigators of their case. It is here that I think the decision to provide us with a first person account for Shay really works as we share in her sense of disorientation as pieces of unhelpful information are presented to the police. It is less a matter of whether we think she is innocent as how she will be able to convince the investigators of her arguments.
The true focus of the book is not whether Shay is innocent but on the question of why the executives at CDMI would want her to be arrested for the murder. It’s an intriguing problem and I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Kistler clues the answer to this quite well, providing the reader with lots of small hints to piece together.
I found the first half of the book as we wrestle with that question to be really engaging. For instance I think Kistler uses flashback very effectively, dropping hints about an event in the past but making us wait to go back and show us what occurred. These small reveals are spaced out well with each chapter seeming to turn up some new idea or information that helps us better understand Shay and the situation she has found herself in.
The reader will have most of the answers to what happened by the midpoint of the novel at which point the thriller aspects of the story are amplified. In this latter half of the novel Shay finds herself in danger and has to use her brain and legal skills to work out what is going on and to turn the situation around. This material is also quite entertaining and engaging, especially as we near the end and some of the plot threads start to get wrapped up.
The acceleration of the storytelling though does coincide with a slight distancing between Shay and the reader. While we still observe her actions in these chapters, there is less dwelling on the reasons or meaning behind them. One consequence of this is that I became a little less emotionally involved with her fate in that second half of the story. Another is that I felt that the second half of the book lacked a central question that tied everything together and provide the same sort of focus as the police investigation had done in the first.
The other problem is that I felt the antagonist was not a particularly striking character. While they are clearly monstrous, the book never quite delves deeply enough into the question of how they justify their actions. Nor do they share many scenes with Shay, giving little opportunity for the sort of conflict that helps sharpen the presentation of their character. That seems a shame to me as I think a stronger antagonist could have provided some of the focus that I felt the plot needed towards the end.
The Verdict: This entertaining corporate legal thriller is good fun in the best traditions of early Grisham. Do not come to this expecting a mystery novel (particularly a locked room puzzle) and you won’t be disappointed.