The Problem of the Wire Cage – John Dickson Carr (1939)

“This is the only case I have ever tackled in which I solved the problem before I knew what the problem was.”

problemofwirecageFrank Dorrance is the type of guy who ends up dead in this sort of mystery novel.  He’s arrogant, smug, and rumor has it that he’s brushing up with the wrong side of the law.  It’s a wonder that a catch like Brenda White would agree to marry him.  Well, there is the money – a sizable inheritance on the condition that the two wed.  The problem is that Brenda is in love with Hugh Rowland, a clever young lawyer and our point of view character for the novel.

It’s no surprise when Frank winds up strangled to death.  What is surprising are the circumstances of the crime.  He lays sprawled out towards the center of a clay tennis court.  Two sets of footprints in the wet clay lead out to the spot of the crime – Frank’s and Brenda’s.  Only Brenda’s come back.  This is the scene as Hugh Rowland discovers it.  Brenda swears that Frank was dead when she found him, lying on a bare court with the exception of his solitary footprints.  To accept her story creates an impossibility – how could a man be strangled to death without the killer leaving a mark in a twenty foot expanse of sand in all directions?

Hugh not only spots the incredible nature of the puzzle, but his legal mind seizes on the peril that Brenda is in.  For all appearances, only she could have approached Frank and committed the murder.  Hugh and Brenda realize that the only way out is to deceive the police into thinking that Brenda didn’t leave the footprints – an argument that good fortune has made plausible.  Brenda had been carrying a heavy picnic hamper when she ran out onto the court, and so the tracks that she left are oddly deep given her small size.

Thus begins The Problem of the Wire Cage, and with it, a series of lies that will build until they topple out of control.  In attempting to evade suspicion, Hugh and Brenda have created a very different puzzle – given Brenda’s unusually small shoe size, how did someone considerably heavier make the tracks?  Superintendent Hadley is on the scene, and he’s brought along someone who makes Hugh’s heart stop – Gideon Fell.

Carr takes an interesting turn with this story.  We typically observe the plot unfold via a point of view character that happens to be lucky enough to tag along with Hadley/Fell/Masters/Merrivale for one reason or another.  Like the reader, the observer puzzles over the clues, marvels while the detective works, and then is floored by the final reveal.  The Problem of the Wire Cage turns things around considerably.  Here, the point of view character (Hugh) is actively attempting to thwart the investigators, a mission that becomes exceedingly difficult given the powers he’s up against – not only Fell and Hadley, but the killer is actively working against him behind the scenes.

The book moves quickly through a series of chapters, the titles each describing the overall theme of what is to transpire – Bewilderment, Irony, and Malice, to name a few.  We’re dealing with Carr at peak career here.  Published in 1939, The Problem of the Wire Cage inhabits a two year stretch that also gave us The Four False Weapons, The Crooked Hinge, The Judas Window, Death in Five Boxes, The Problem of the Green Capsule, and The Reader is Warned – and that’s just listing the marquee titles.  Almost every chapter contains a jarring conclusion as the pendulum swings perilously between innocence and a trip to the gallows.

Even with a fast pace and many twists and turns, Carr never loses sight of the impossibility of the crime.  It haunts each chapter, taunting the reader to grasp for possible solutions.  Similar to The White Priory Murders and She Died a Lady, many potential explanations are trotted out, all to be dashed just when you think you’ve seen a glimmer of the truth.

Plainly speaking, this book is just fun.  I realize I’m in the minority for what I’m about to say, but I could imagine this book contending for a spot when I one day create my Top 10 Carr list.

 

Ok, now that I’ve lost about 2/3 of the readers and even more of my credibility, let me explain.

 

This is a heavily criticized book – that I knew coming in.  Having reviewed several… er… reviews upon finishing The Problem of the Wire Cage, it’s safe to say that the majority of the complaints have to do with the solution.  Well, solutions.  You see, there is actually a second “impossible” murder that occurs towards the end of the book, and yes, both the set up and resolution of that crime are rotten.  The second crime occurs late enough in the story that I’ll avoid going into detail, but there are several remarkable weaknesses.  First, there is nothing remotely impossible or clever about what happens, other than Hadley simply declaring it as impossible.  Second, the actual logistics of the crime make no sense – not just the killer evading detection but the actual murder that was carried out.  Together, this arguably comes together to form Carr’s single worst crime of the impossible variety.

…buuuuuut, it kind of just feels thrown into the story as an aside.  Similar to the awful red herring towards the end of the otherwise brilliant The Problem of the Green Capsule, I can overlook this mistake because the rest of the story is just that good.  Yeah, the solution to the main tennis court puzzle isn’t Carr’s strongest – in fact, it was one of the first techniques that came to mind – but the author executes on a strong story despite the wrap up not being air tight.

I offer Till Death Do Us Part as a comparison.  Absolutely brilliant read, but I can’t imagine that many people find the solution to be that dazzling.  It’s good… but not incredible.  Or take The Problem of the Green Capsule – probably his finest work, but again, the actual “how” isn’t on the level as, say, The Judas Window.  In other words, Carr can give a strong performance without relying solely on the brilliance of the solution.

In a way, my experience with Carr, or even impossible crimes, is split on a number of levels.  The first thing that I’m looking for is a vexing impossibility combined with a walloping solution – the kind you find in The White Priory Murders.  While that satisfies, it’s not the only dimension to be enjoyed.  There’s the atmosphere of a title like The Plague Court Murders, the comedy of The Case of the Constant Suicides, or a story that flat out envelops you like Fire, Burn.

The Problem of the Wire Cage is by no means perfect, but it balances a narrow path of what draws me to this type of story.  Carr gives us a bewildering puzzle, dire straits, and a fast paced read that all combines for a simple sensation – fun.  In that sense, it straddles multiple dimensions of Carr’s strengths to provide a truly enjoyable read.  I find this characteristic in his top titles, such as The Crooked Hinge, Till Death Do Us Part, or The Burning Court.  All of these titles balance different elements, but it’s that blend of strengths, and more importantly, the sense of fun that elevate these all to the top.

So, call me a Carr apologist if you want.  I understand.  The problem of The Wire Cage (see what I did there…?) is a clear folly on Carr’s part – the inclusion of an unnecessarily weak secondary impossible crime that serves to tackle one element of the plot that had to be dealt with.  I enjoyed the rest of the read enough to glance past a short section of the book that stumbled.

I think that my 1948 Bantam edition, pictured at the top, is my favorite Carr book cover in my possession.  Unlike 80% of other covers, it convincingly captures the book, and goes beyond by depicting a key scene.  Plus, it’s all about the art style – this one captures exactly what I look for in a GAD cover.

And now to spoilers.  I’ll discuss the controversies in more detail here, so you should avoid this if you haven’t read the book.  If commenting below (to mock me for liking the book, for sure) please keep your comments general enough to avoid spoiling the ending for others.

Spoilers

First, I’ll defend the solution to the tennis court crime.  It’s not Carr’s most brilliant, but I think it is decent enough.  The criticisms that I’ve read deal primarily with the fact that the victim must have been a complete idiot.  Yeah, maybe he was, but I’ll counter that on two points:

1.  Remember that we’re back in the 1930’s.  When the concept of a tennis playing robot is brought up, I don’t think that it is meant to be what we today might interpret it as.  I more take this as “a contraption that can return balls hit at it” – kind of the opposite of a tennis ball machine that automates serving – as opposed to the concept of a robot that was popularized in later decades.

2.  Assuming that said robot needed to hang from a rope, it isn’t entirely stupid to take the action that the victim was asked to do.  Well, it is if you’re concerned that the other person is going to try to kill you, but, I mean, do you really think your friends and family would do something like that?

Again, not a top solution, but it doesn’t drag the book down that much given how strong the rest of it was.

Now, the second impossible crime…yeah, that should have been edited out.  I can see the corner that Carr had painted himself into, given that the witness had to be killed, but, mmm…he could have just dropped the whole witness angle without much affect on the story.

End Spoilers

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14 thoughts on “The Problem of the Wire Cage – John Dickson Carr (1939)”

  1. This is — in my occasional desire to read Carr chronologically, which is frequently hampered by my inability to actually buy all the books — something like the third-next Carr for me. The good news here is that I finally have a copy of The Burning Court, so there are a couple of divisive Carrs on the horizon…with The Arabian Nights Murder due first.

    I’m pleased to see that you rate this one since, as you’re aware, I’m a proponent of actually taking a book on its merits and I think a certain amount of received wisdom has got around regarding the “badness” Wire Cage. I’m now even more curious about it seeing that you mark down the impossibility but still consider it a strong book — and I’m delighted to see someone address that separation of the two: just because one fails, it doesn’t ruin everything. Carr was a fine writer by this stage of his career, and I can believe his interesting failures still have a hell of a lot to offer.

    I love that cover, though I think my favourite is one of the editions I have — this one from Bantam. I also have this deeply terrible Berkley edition, which sort of defies belief in the sheer badness of its attempted grotesquery. The mind boggles at exactly how high the publishers must have been to go “That’s the look we want! Decapitated Smurfs!”

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    1. I do like that Bantam cover, it captures the crime scene well. That Berkley edition is, errr, disgraceful. It looks like the victim was buried to his neck in sand and then the killer famed his face with a basketball net.

      As for still rating the book even though the solution isn’t the best – I wonder how much I’ve been swayed by existing opinions of the solution. When you see a bunch of other people point out faults in a solution, it’s hard not to be influenced. In a similar way, I had no qualms with the solution for The Ten Teacups, but I now find myself saying that it is kind of weak just because I’ve been convinced by the critics.

      It looks like you have some really solid reads ahead of you. I’m really curious about The Arabian Nights Murder. I’ve seen it grace a few top 10 lists and I’m saving it for later in my stack as one of the final “classics”.

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  2. Oh, look, someone else who enjoyed this book! I mentioned in your previous blog-post I really liked this one, even though I had to admit that the plot was bad, which, in spite of your defense, is the case. The stumbling point is not so much the nature of the (technical) trick, but the idiotic victim who went along with this ridiculous plan. Similar complaints have been lodged against the victim from The Peacock Feather Murders, but the foolishness there was (sort of) explained. The victim here had absolutely no excuse.

    That being sad, I completely agree with you that this was an imperfect, but enjoyable, entry in the Dr. Fell series.

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    1. It is an enjoyable entry in the Fell series, although it’s worth noting that Fell himself is somewhat in the background. Although he’s present for a fair amount of the story, his personality isn’t really felt outside of a few references to Father Christmas – aside from the end reveal of course.

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  3. I haven’t read this one so far (so I’ve skipped the spoilers!), but I have been on the lookout for it, especially because Doug Greene wrote that Carr prefigured his more character-driven books of the ’40s (The Seat of the Scornful, He Who Whispers, She Died A Lady) with Wire Cage.

    I’m a bit strange with my Carr choices. I have a few favorites that are commonly considered great–The Crooked Hinge, He Who Whispers–but then I really, really enjoy Below Suspicion (it would be in my top 10 Carrs) and am not as fond of The Hollow Man/The Three Coffins as are most mystery fans. (Lest I be crucified in the court of [mystery-lovers’] public opinion, I recognize the brilliance of the plotting, but the book has always struck me as somewhat colder and more reserved than the majority of Carrs before and after.)

    I’m also a big fan of The Peacock Feather Murders, which used to be considered “great” but whose reputation has steadily declined since, and of The Emperor’s Snuff-Box, which (I take it) is a “love it or hate it” kind of book.

    Why I am writing this? (It’s not just to drone on–apologies!) Because I actually liked Till Death Do Us Part and Green Capsule better than The Judas Window, and consider the tricks better. Window was my favorite Carr a few years back–I love the courtroom drama–but both the murderer and the locked-room trick are somewhat bland. (The murderer is absolutely colorless, and the trick is surprisingly mechanical for JDC.) The latter is a great “surprise!”–but then seems to be the most basic possible explanation of such a thing, rather than the grand symphony of ideas that characterizes The Three Coffins, The Crooked Hinge, He Who WhispersTill Death‘s solution first seems to be similar to Judas Window in this regard (I was disappointed when I first read it), but the trick there seems both simple and elaborate, colorful, other adjectives that I’m forgetting at the moment…

    I’ve probably taken up too much time and articulated my thoughts badly, but I hope it all makes some sense.

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    1. The reason you love Till Death Do Us Part is very simple: it is one of the finest books ever written in the genre. I’ll more than happily accept prevarication over The Hollow Man or disputes over Death-Watch, and I myself am a He Who Whispers andThe Judas Window dissenter, but Till Death and Green Capsule are at the wondrous, joyous peak of everything achieved in GAD, and I honestly do not believe that anyone could claim to love the formal puzzle novel and in the same breath decry either of those two. So, don’t worry, you’re on the right side of history here…

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  4. I skipped the spoiler section because – wonder of wonders – this is yet another title that I read years ago and have completely forgotten! I don’t know what that means: I can never forget the ending to The Crooked Hinge, I remember who the killer is in The Mad Hatter Mystery, but most of the others I read as a kid are lost in time. Lucky me! How I wish this could have happened with Agatha Christie (without resorting to a mind-muddling disease, of course!!) I have a lot of “re-reading for the first time” to do here, as well as all those Carter Dicksons to break open! 🙂

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  5. Just skimmed what you wrote here as I haven’t read the book yet – speaking of covers, I have the Zebra edition, which looks OK I suppose – but have been aware of the mediocre reaction to it by many. As such, it’s refreshing to hear you got something out of it.

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  6. This is just about the only positive review I’ve read of the book, and so it’s good to hear an alternative opinion. Maybe I should go and scout for a copy! 🙂

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  7. Have been so excited to the read this review, and loved it, some great points made here. I am more and more inclined to respect Carr for trying out more mad solutions and problems, and the idea of trying to fool the detectives the whole time is lovely.

    Although I haven’t read this it sounds a very similar reading experience to A Graveyard To Let, which again is rated low by many, but I think is brilliant. Similar in that there is about a quarter of the book that you could get rid of, which felt a bit like a needless aside towards the end, and that it’s just downright fun!

    I have the Pan edition of Wire Cage which I love, it’s a really nice late 40’s reprint, which shows some lovely hand drawn line work, and offset 3 colour printing, popular at the time I believe.

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    1. That is a good cover as well. This title seems to have better covers than most, although there is that one cover that JJ pointed out…

      What I love about this book is that it comes from what I’d call Carr’s “gimmick” titles. These are works that don’t just feature the alluring hook of an impossibility, but they throw in some fun angle to the story that makes for a great read – in this case, the cat and mouse with the detectives. Other gimmick titles would be The Red Widow Murders, The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Reader is Warned, The Plague Court Murders, and Seeing is Believing.

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