The Problem Of The Wire Cage by John Dickson Carr

The Problem Of The Wire CageInspired by the enjoyable-but-lightweight The Curse Of The Bronze Lamp, I thought I’d pick up another John Dickson Carr work. So, did I pick up one of the classics? The Judas Window? Til Death Do Us Part? Even the much-lauded-but-not-by-me Crooked Hinge? Nope, I decided on the much-maligned The Problem Of The Wire Cage.

Brenda White, a charming young lady, is to marry Frank Dorrance, a distinctly un-charming young man – primarily, it seems, due to one of those pesky inheritance clauses in a will saying that they both will be stinking rich if and only if they get married. Enter Hugh Rowlands, a charming young man, who persuades Brenda that love (and poverty) is a better option, much to the chagrin of her somewhat odd guardian.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the young things play a game of tennis and then retire. When Brenda returns to the clay court, she finds Dorrance lying in the middle of it. On approaching, she finds that he has been strangled – but the only footprints leading to the body are his. Oh, and her own set that she’s just made… oops!  Good thing Gideon Fell’s on hand to make sure the real culprit is brought to justice.

It’s really hard not to pick at all of the problems with this book, so I’m going to praise the positives first. It’s a cracking read, once you get past the sections of Hugh and Brenda trying to manufacture her innocence, rather than owning up to the police that she walked over to the body and back. The puzzle (you will note that I did not say the solution) is an intriguing one – Carr has done the “one set of footprints” elsewhere, notably in The White Priory Murders and The Witch Of The Low-Tide, but this small scale of this one makes it more ambitious. There are some genuinely amusing bits, most notably the conversation that Hugh has with his father. All in all, a good read.

So, the problems?

Well, everyone at some point in the book acts like an idiot. Bonus points for the victim and the murderer for believing that this could ever work, but the main actual suspect, who knows whodunit but decides not only to keep quiet but also take the rap. The motive is pretty weak as well.

Oh, the second murder, claimed to be an impossibility due to no-one being able to get access, is never explained, although to be honest, it was a pretty poor impossibility. And despite a massive cheat – go on, re-read the chapters leading up to the killing and tell me at what point the killing takes place in a certain character’s actions – the murderer’s blooming obvious, as there’s a list of about two genuine suspects.

Hmm, what else? Oh, Fell’s hardly in it, which is a shame – it almost feels as if his presence is an afterthought and Rowlands was intended to be the sleuth. Anyone have any info on that mindless speculation?

Having poured all that out, it was actually a lot better than I remembered. But I think it’s time to pick up one of his masterpieces just to remind me how good he could be when he was firing on all cylinders.


  1. The puzzle IS good. It’s really nice to have a “footprints” puzzle somewhere other than the beach or a snowy/muddy field. I play tennis occasionally, but not on clay, so I don’t know whether it’s dated well or not. But it’s easy enough to imagine.

    But I think the solution is a real problem, not just because it spoils this book, but because it weakens everything else that Carr wrote by association. Carr must have thought that [the solution] was plausible (or at least plausible enough that a suggestible person like Dorrance would fall for it, and that a villainous person like [murderer] would know this) and it just isn’t. Yes, it was 75 years ago, but still… It makes Carr seem like a complete dunderhead! And now every time I read anything of his I find myself wondering “Is that fact right?” “What about that?” “Has Carr done his research there, or does he just think he knows what he’s talking about?” “Oh god, is this going to be another Problem of the Wire Cage?!”

    There are other Carr’s with glaring errors of this kind, but this is the one that planted the seed of doubt in my mind. And once you’re second-guessing an author like that, it makes enjoying a mystery very difficult. I wish I’d never read it.


      • I think that’s the best strategy! I really do think it’s important that mysteries authors work to retain their readers’ trust. I would have enjoyed something like NINE AND DEATH MAKES TEN a lot more if I hadn’t spent so much time wondering whether the fingerprint problem was going to be another example of Carr misunderstanding something technical.

        THE FOUR FALSE WEAPONS is another example. While it doesn’t affect the mystery, Carr’s treatment of the card game they play near the end shows that he lacked even a basic understanding of probability.


  2. The second murder was a problem for the author. In Doug Greene’s book on Carr, he quotes Carr as saying, “I admit heartily that the second murder in The Problem of the Wire Cage was not only bad but unethical and lousy. That book should have been a novelette; instead I had to lug in more gore in order to get to the proper length.”


    • Not just unethical but he doesn’t even try and explain how someone like the murderer could have shot someone three times while they were on a trapeze! Now where did I put my copy of The Judas Window?


  3. Time to pick up a copy of DEATH WATCH or TILL DEATH US PART perhaps Steve? It’s been a while since I read this one (that means about 15 years or more probably) but I remember thinking the real solution was a lot more ingenious than the false one that I thought he was leading up to (and which is spoofed in the opening of the 1972 movie version of SLEUTH incidentally:


  4. I think I’m one of the few people who really doesn’t mind the ending. Yes, it’s implausible as all hell, but I kind-of liked it. I mean, I wouldn’t count it among Carr’s finest triumphs but it had a few interesting ideas and some good false solutions (one of which, as Sergio points out, is parodied in SLEUTH). This is one for the die-hard Carr fan who isn’t expecting too much, and when I first read it I fit that bill neatly.


    • I don’t mind the tennis court murder so much – stupidity of the victim aside – but the unfinishedness of the book, regarding the second murder, is the thing that really bugs me. It’s like a first draft that should have been sent back by the publisher. With a little distance from reading it, I find that it’s annoying me more and more. Time to move on.


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