#338: Spoiler Warning 5 – The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939) by John Dickson Carr


Okay, here we go — do not read any further unless you are happy to be spoiled on the details of John Dickson Carr’s 1939 novel featuring the impossible “no footprints” problem of a man strangled in the middle of a clay tennis court.


Ben, wrangler of the excellent GAD- and impossible crime-focused blog The Green Capsule (clearly a man after my own heart), was sporting enough to serve up his opinions with me for this and — adopting the tennis motif of the book itself — we’ve divided the areas for discussion into six “games” wherein we knocked comments back and forth.  Yes, that’s all the sports puns I’ve got.  So, once again, spoilers herein — the killer is revealed, the impossible murder is discussed, the book will not be the same experience if you read this before it — proceed with fair warning.


We open in the drawing-room of the country house of the elderly Dr. Nick Young on a sultry, blazing hot afternoon where Hugh Rowland is desperately trying to declare his feelings to Brenda White, who is engaged to the caddishly charming Frank Dorrance.  Frank, Brenda, Hugh, and their neighbour Kitty Bancroft play a game of tennis, during which the weather breaks and there is a thunderous downpour of rain, and then everyone goes their separate ways.  Hugh discovers his car has a flat tire and, after fixing it and in search of a pump, heads towards the garages only to see Frank strangled to death in the middle of the tennis court, with Brenda standing over him…and she insists that there were no footprints near the body before she approached it…


Game 1 – Structure

JJ: This surely must be one of the most conventionally-structured books Carr ever wrote: everything you need is happening in the “now”, with no larger background scheme that slowly comes to light a la The Plague Court Murders or The Hollow Man.  Right up until the end of chapter 11 and the discovery of the empty hamper it could almost be a Ngaio Marsh novel.  The second half is clearly Carr through and through, but it starts by feeling like a deliberate attempt to write a very different type of setup.

Ben: The opening structure is somewhat similar to Carr’s 1938 novel To Wake the Dead.  We basically have our hero bumbling into an incriminating crime scene, although Carr let his foot off the gas with the sense of jeopardy very quickly in TWTD.  With The Problem of the Wire Cage, the foot stays firmly on the accelerator, and I think that what I love so much about the book is the way that Hugh and Brenda’s situation spirals out of control. I mean, you actually have the hero on the opposite side from Hadley and Fell, which is a first that I can think of for Carr.

That’s an excellent comparison — and TWTD is the perfect counter-point for how in that book Christopher Kent rushes straight to Fell once the situation becomes apparent, Having Fell instead as more of an ominous figure is a different tack; I wonder if this was a deliberate attempt to move him away from H.M., who was eight books old by this point and starting to develop his own personality.  I also wonder whether Carr tired to write something along more conventional lines so that the empty suitcase comes as even more of a shock.  The second half would be a very different animal from anyone else’s after the near-homogeneity of the first 11 chapters.

I’ve always felt that Merrivale and Fell were completely different characters, although you’re right that they start to become much more distinct around this time.  I tend to place the branch more along the time of Seeing is Believing and The Gilded Man, but that’s probably because I’m focusing more on the emergence of the slapstick aspect of Merrivale.  You’re right though – in terms of structure, this definitely stands apart from anything else that I can think of by Carr.

For all its conventionality — as unconventional as that is for Carr — there is some sublime writing. I love those little parenthetical asides about how little time Frank Dorrance has left to live, and this contains what might even be my single favourite sentence by Carr with:

“He went to investigate; and so he determined, by his first free act of will, the fate of a person who was carried, fighting and hysterical, to the execution shed on a morning three months later”

And for all the scoffing that may be done when the mechanics of the murder are disclosed, that too is described with the most superbly understated grimness.  It’s not a top-tier Carr, but he still writes it wonderfully.


Game 2 – The Impossibility

Without Brenda rushing out onto the court and leaving those extra footprints to confuse things, this would be at best a short story.  Carr’s clearly having a lot of fun with the misreading of the physical evidence, inverting what we know and watching Fell and Hadley grope towards it, but as an impossibility it surely only has one solution…and so extra camouflage was needed to obscure it.

How great is it though that Brenda rushed out onto the court?  As a reader, you’re put in a situation where you get to watch the investigators struggle with theories based on clues that you know are red herrings.  It’s almost like you get a chance to be in Carr’s shoes for once.  Footprint crimes tend to fascinate me because it’s one of those open-ended puzzles where you have a lot of room to come up with theories about how it could be done.  It’s interesting here because Carr placed the footprints (or lack of) within a structure, which raised a lot of possibilities, while also introducing some constraints.  I really liked all of the false solutions that get batted around, in particular the one where the net is used as a tightrope/broom.

It lends the first stages of the investigation a sort of inverted quality, doesn’t it?  And it’s doubly good because not only do you know what didn’t happen you also don’t know what did.  The false solutions never really get to fly, I feel, partly because they’re all based on the incorrect assumption that Brenda’s footprints are in some way integral to explaining the murder…and this brings me back to the narrowness of the problem.  For all the “twenty-four feet of completely unmarked sand around him in every direction” the only real hindrance to spotting the murder method is how unlikely it seems that someone would put themselves in that situation.

Carr does something that I absolutely love with the impossibility though — he makes it accidental.  That moment when you ask yourself “Why did the killer create an impossible situation?” and then it hits you that they didn’t mean to.  The impossibility has actually worked against them and shone more scrutiny on the crime than they intended.  I’d love nothing more than to nerd out and rattle off another ten or so of his books where he does it, but we’re only spoiling this one…

Actually, what is the point of making this an impossibility?  I can understand Nick Young wanting to hide his involvement in it, but is it purely for the sake of hiding his involvement that it happens to be an impossibility?  Was there ever any chance of legitimately foisting the blame onto someone else?  Had Brenda not run onto the court — something that can’t have been accounted for in all the planning — what was Nick Young hoping the outcome of this strangling to be?

Nick hadn’t intended for any footprints to be left on the court – he didn’t take into account the effect that the rainstorm would have.  His simple goal was to make it appear that someone had strangled Frank — a task that he clearly couldn’t have done.

Yeah, sorry, I see it now.  I’m an idiot.

As Fell says “if he had chosen dry weather, we might never have had cause to suspect the kind of strangling this was.”  In essence, had there been no question surrounding the footprints, the police would have assumed that Frank was manually strangled.  Carr uses this effect with much more impact in several other books that I wish that I could cite, but the basic idea is that the accidental introduction of an impossibility actually puts the killer in a tough spot.  There’s something satisfying in that more so than a killer purposely creating an impossibility simply to bewilder.


Game 3 – The Culprit

As well-known as Carr is for his puzzling crimes, it’s often the identity of the killer that surprises me the most.  This seemed to be one of Carr’s more obvious killers — I think most of us mystery fans are trained to immediately suspect the person incapable of having committed the crime for one reason or another.  It was a bit tricky though because Nick Young was so unlikable, that you’re almost forced to second guess because he’s too obvious.

One of my biggest frustrations is how Carr hides Nick Young’s involvement in the crime, writing “Doctor Young crawled up to the windows to admit fresh, healing air.  Before seven-thirty he was sleeping peacefully”.  Now, between that full-stop and “Before” there’s a huge amount of activity, and deliberately occluding it in this way is tantamount to writing “he then performed several other actions” in that way that third-tier authors use to hide simple facts or clues.  He’s not alone in this — there’s an Agatha Christie novel I shall not name that does the exact same thing — but Carr should know better!  Even after lampshading it by having Nick declare himself the most likely suspect, Carr should still know better!

It was one of those frustrating cases of “I know he did it, but how?!”  It was actually that passage that you call out that threw me off — much more so than him being laid up in a cast.  Still, Nick is unlikable enough of a villain that you have to keep your eyes on the other characters.  Carr almost never has the outwardly obnoxious character as the culprit.  Kitty Bancroft struck me as the obvious red herring, but it dawned on me that Brenda was another least likely killer.  You knew she made the footprints, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t guilty.  Even though Nick was pretty obvious in this one, Carr’s reputation still kept me guessing with such a small cast — as always!

There was a part of me that was hoping Hugh was the killer — the convenient nail in his tire could easily have been done by him upon arrival, and I started rethinking the conventionality of this as pure dust in the eyes: Carr was leading down the path of expecting a standard love-lorn hero who eventually gets the girl who’s engaged to the unscrupulous oaf…and then he’d turn out to be the killer, the “delay” with changing a tire somehow significant in allowing him to carry off his plan.  Alas, not to be…


Game 4 – The Solution

One of the core complaints that I hear about this book has to do with the actual solution.  This definitely isn’t one that you walk away from in awe, although I’d argue that many of Carr’s better works like Till Death Do Us Part and The Problem of the Green Capsule don’t exactly sport mind-blowing solutions.  

I’m also not convinced that the justification — the “tennis-playing robot” — really stands the test of time: if someone wrote that now in a novel set in 1939 we’d be hooting from the rooftops about anachronisms and lack of insight into the period…maybe that’s the main problem.

That Carr wrote this in 1939 does have me giving him a pass on the tennis playing robot.  As a modern reader, I think it’s tempting to interpret “robot” in the post-50s sense of some high tech computer driven wonder.  I’m more apt to assume that Carr meant some mechanical contraption that would flip back a ball that hit it.  Perhaps I’m jumping to forgiving conclusions, but I can’t imagine he meant anything more advanced than that.

Another fault commonly found with the solution is just how stupid Frank would have to be to go along with Nick’s plan.  Here, again, I’m a bit forgiving.  Nick treats Frank like a favorite child.  Why should Frank have any reason to suspect Nick would attempt to murder him?  Yeah, the whole idea of putting the neck through the noose, so to say, is a bit flimsy but it works just enough.

And — let’s be fair — Carr is wise to those objections: “You could do that, you people.  Any of you.  You could persuade a wife or a husband or a close friend to walk into the same trap without a ghost of suspicion ever entering their heads.  The essence of successful murder is that the victim sees a smiling face … I do not advise you to try it.  But I think you would find it would work”.  That’s as blatant a piece of addressing the audience as the Locked Room Lecture ever was!  And, sure, the solution is not as creatively brilliant as people might hope, but I think it holds up.

Changing focus a little, there’s a point herein where I think Carr deliberately lies and I want to run it past you.  The final line of chapter 13 is:

“Arthur Chandler, who knew no more about the footprints than the Man in the Moon, was arrested and charged with the murder of Frank Dorrance.”

Except, well, Chandler knows exactly about the footprints — he’s got the photo of Brenda rushing towards Dorrance’s corpse, and knows more about the footprints (and the absence of them prior to Brenda’s arrival) than literally everyone else involved.  Saying he has no idea about them is purely and simply a bald-faced lie…especially when he could have missed out that clause about the Man on the Moon and it would have been perfectly fair…so why do it?

You know, I never caught that in hindsight, and it does seem like a cheat.  It is a lovely sentence though, isn’t it?


Game 5 – Changing Attitudes

There’s a distinct sense of change in the air between generations, too, I feel.  At the start of chapter 3, Nick Young spells out to Hadley the plan for Brenda and Frank’s marriage and first child, only for Brenda herself to disdain that exact same plan (which we assume she hasn’t been made explicitly privy to) in conversation with Hugh later.  And Kitty Bancroft notes later that Brenda “doesn’t like the thing normal girls like” — there’s a real sense of Brenda representing a generation that will no longer be beholden to the standards and expectation of the generation before it…which seems almost revolutionary in a GAD setting.

That’s a nice touch that I think Carr does well in quite a few of his works, including the historicals.  You don’t just get a sense of the younger characters, but there’s often that aspect of how they differ from their parents.  This is a fascinating topic for me as a modern reader, as the norms of the 1930s are foreign enough, and then Carr will throw in some fact about the character’s parents who were born in 1885 or something like that.  What’s really creepy in The Problem of the Wire Cage is how Nick Young intends to exploit those expectations…

I love how when Hugh Rowland’s father enquires about Brenda’s social connections Hugh says “Her father shot himself and her mother died of drink” and Rowland, Sr just rubs his jaw, shrugs, and goes “Well, it could be worse…” — which is not just a lovely moment, but also it leaves Nick Young, who turns out to be the villain of the piece, as the only character who seems to be in favour of this generational obligation (or so he says…).  Actually, can we even be certain that Nick wants that for Brenda, since we know his plan all along involves killing Frank and marrying Brenda; is he just adopting generational camouflage?


Game 6 – The Impossible Shooting

What gets me is — in order to allow the solution of Nick strangling Frank in the way he did — how culpable Arthur Chandler is in all this, too. I mean, he sits there watching a man being strangled to death over a matter of minutes and does nothing except take photographs.  Surely had he not himself been shot, he’d be jailed as an accessory.

I was tempted to say that the second death was necessary because Arthur Chandler had to die, but I’m curious if the entire character was written in after the fact.  If ever Carr committed a sin, it has to be the inclusion of the second “impossible” crime in this book. The logistics of it are ludicrous enough, but to declare it an impossibility, only to brush it off with a mistaken witness is beyond the pale.

Oh, yeah, Carr wasn’t happy with this himself after the event, writing in a letter to Anthony Boucher:

“I heartily admit that the second murder…was not only bad, but unethical and lousy…I had to lug in more gore in order to get the proper length.”

Also, it’s never really addressed how good a shot someone would have to be to hit that small a target spinning through the air however far above one’s head…it just doesn’t work as presented.  And the extra shame is that not only is it a doozy of a death it’s also a very good scene (I thought — hoped, maybe — that Lannigan’s whip skills might have some part in the strangling solution…).

The theatre scene definitely feels tacked onto what would have otherwise been a superb novella.  I wonder though if Chandler would have still existed in that novella, or if evidence of him was just woven seamlessly into the earlier chapters.  It’s tempting to think that he had to exist because you get that whole acrobat angle for the theories and he’s responsible for some key clues at the crime scene.

Interesting.  I definitely saw Chandler as the necessary aspect for keeping you guessing in such a small cast: since it’s possible some acrobatic feat would account for the murder you clearly need someone capable of acrobatic feats in the line-up.  Indeed, there’s a Carr short story that clearly relies on someone being acrobatic and it’s subtly dropped in that they have prowess in that field.  As for the theatre scene, it does suddenly come out of nowhere, and I agree that it is narratively problematic, but it does showcase some of Carr’s superb minor characters: Tex Lannigan is wonderful, from his “Sho’!”s over and over to Carr’s jab at Southerners and their views on race…part of me sees him sighing, rolling up his sleeves, and going “Well, if I’ve got to put this in I might as well have fun doing so…”

This one was obviously forced in, but it does make me think — Carr never really did strong secondary crimes, whether they were impossible or not.  No one is ever going to rave about the second killing in The Man Who Could Not Shudder, The Red Widow Murders, Till Death Do Us Part, or The Bowstring Murders.

I’m sure people will cite objections — The Hollow Man springs to mind — but I essentially agree with you.  Carr’s later crimes tend to be non-impossible and perhaps a little off the pace of the main narrative (the disappearing body in The Ten Teacups is wonderful, mind, and the solution is as creepy as hell), but the vogue for some late-on action probably had to be adhered to if you wanted to get paid, eh?

The secondary crimes tended to be in there to move the story along and provide a touch of additional danger.  The best secondaries that I can think of would be in The Burning Court, The Ten Teacups, and The Reader is Warned.  Compare that with authors like Hake Talbot, John Sladek, or Paul Halter, where you almost have to debate which crime/impossibility is the central one.


Umpires’ Call

This is definitely a book with its flaws, but it’s still rather fun, isn’t it?  Where do you find this one falling in Carr’s library?

Were I adding this to my ranking of the First Ten Fells, it’d probably go eighth between Hag’s Nook and To Wake the Dead.  I like that it shows — I make it his 27th published novel in ten years — that Carr was still willing to experiment with what he wrote.

I’m fairly confident that I rank this book higher than most people.  For me the key factor is that it was a lot of fun.  There’s a great sense of peril and plenty of end of chapter cliffhangers, reminiscent of Till Death Do Us Part.  Then there’s that wide open impossibility that really had me scratching my head, comparable to The White Priory Murders or The Judas Window. Basically, the impossibility really sucked me in and the pacing kept me glued to the pages.  That’s what I remember most about the book. 

Certain Carrian conventions being to rear their head (like, it’s 20 chapters long, which was a fixation he had for a while) but he’s clearly playing around with his toybox: pushing Fell into the background, relying less on a Bigger Scheme, and constructing a tight focus in comparison to the H.M. novels from around this same era that veer all over the place (very entertainingly, don’t misunderstand…).

This is one of those where the ride was so fun, I’d rank it over some stories that have a much better trick to the impossibility or better misdirection woven throughout.  For that reason, I’d rank it higher than other mysteries that I really love, such as Death Watch, Hag’s Nook, The Reader is Warned, The Nine Wrong Answers, etc.  I’m not to the point where I’m really building a final list yet, but this probably ends up in my top 15 Carr books.



Well, I think it’s fair to say we both rather enjoyed that — but now over to you, dear reader.  Whaddaya think of the topics discussed above, and indeed of any other topics herein that we’ve not raised?  Anything is on the table, full spoilers are encouraged — let the unwary un-“un” their unwariness.

And let me quickly experience the joy of winning an Academy Award by saying how immensely chuffed I’ve been to learn of people reading TPotWC in anticipation of this post — thank-you so much for getting in on the spirit of these spoiler-heavy discussions.  More will be forthcoming, because I really enjoy doing them.  Ten house points each to the following bloggers who got a review of TPotWC out in the run-up and helped keep this on people’s radar:

Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!

Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog

Don @ CrimeLit

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime

I also can’t finish without thanking Puzzle Doctor — you know him, of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel — for his help in some of the wider research and reading done in preparation for this article.

Finally, on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this novel fulfils the category Death by strangulation.

Right, have at it…

56 thoughts on “#338: Spoiler Warning 5 – The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939) by John Dickson Carr

  1. Thanks for the shout out, but I should point out that it was Santosh over at my review (years before you whipper-snappers took a look at it) that reminded me of Carr’s distaste for the second murder. It also reminds me a little of the event in The Black Spectacles that JJ forgot happened.

    As for this one, it’s a fun read, but I can’t get past a) the stupidity of the victim and b) if the rain was the only thing that made it an impossible crime, why not just strangle him? Why go to the extremes that surely are more likely to go wrong than right?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, well, consider that reminder paid forward, then…

      As for your pont b) I’d suggest the following: surely the whole point was that Frank had to be on his own and the advantage of Nick killing him the way he does is that his infirm state puts him out of consideration for the murder — the situation needed both of those things to be in place in order for Nick to feel he’d get away with it. And so while he could wait to get Frank alone again, time was of the essence to kill him while still recovering from his crash so that he’d not be suspected; as soon as he’s fully well, there’s more chance for him to become a suspect, so he has to act while the dual conditions are fulfilled.

      How does that grab anyone?!

      Liked by 1 person

        • I think that the location and complexity of the crime makes a lot of sense. I firstly agree with JJ’s point about the time-bound nature of it, which does come up from Fell I believe. And also, in the context, the Wire Cage is one of the best places to have committed the murder. It’s totally shielded by the poplars, hedge and to some extent the cage, it’s somewhere Nick knows very well, and if it had gone to plan there would be no evidence left of footprints at all.


          • Oh, nice — I completely overlooked how shielded it is as a murder location; the fact that it;s only visible from Nick’s room, and that Nick is suspected to be asleep and so not to be disturbed, simply did not occur to me before now. Good spot!


    • The impossible crime bothered me here too as I can’t imagine that Frank wouldn’t notice how weird it was that Frank refuses to step on the clay himself.

      From Nick’s perspective though I can see that the advantage the rain provides is that it is harder to frame himself or anyone else for the crime and it seems to throw more suspicion on the young man he has just heard about (though I don’t recall if we are told at that point he is an acrobat).

      Totally agree with you about the stupidity of the victim. No amount of ‘look folks, you’ll find if you were to try this how easy it is’ commentary can convince me that anyone would be willing to noose themselves so that Nick can work out the size of a robot’s neck.

      Even given that Frank trusts Nick, that coupled with the fact Nick won’t step on the clay and so is throwing the cabling to Frank should give anyone pause…


      • You say “step on the clay”, but Nick’s in a wheelchair don’t forget — the effort alone involved in getting himself around would surely preclude any meaningful suspicions on that front.

        I’m nor saying it’s a flawless scheme, but equally Carr is professional enough to have these fundamentals covered. Were Nick in perfect health I’d agree, but as I say above — it inly happens this way on account of Nick being physically compromised.


        • Is Nick always in a wheelchair? I know his foot’s in a cast but I got the impression he had walked there. Wouldn’t a wheelchair have left tracks in the grass on a wet day? Ho hum!

          It seems clear though that if we are to believe that the killer manually strangled Frank that Nick seems to be out of contention.


        • He didn’t use the wheelchair, he used a crutch for the murder.

          My main problem is that Nick’s health – broken leg, broken arm and collarbone, one week previous – should make it impossible, but it’s just a flat out lie. Ha, ha, fooled you, he can get around just fine. Why? No reason, he just can. He’s spry. Total cheat.

          But I still enjoyed the book. Loved Rowland Sr and Chandler. A shame not to get more of them.

          Liked by 1 person

          • You say “cheat”, I say “liberal interpretation of his physical limitations”. Which, yes, is possibly just cheating by another name, but the scene in the office shere he shits the curtains and “falls asleep” at least shows he’s able to get around on his own…


        • Yes, he was able to close and open the windows and Carr heavily underlined how “Old Nick” kept himself young and athletic, but not hurry hundreds of yards to the tennis court, then reel up the line and race hundreds of yards back in what? 15 minutes? Strains credulity and seems in direct contradiction of the unwritten rule that you can trust what the narrator tells you. I had early on thought of faked injuries, as I’m sure others did, but we’re reassured the accident and injuries are real. They just don’t incapacitate him as they would an ordinary mortal. Bah!

          As to one of your earlier observations that Chandler should’ve been arrested as an accessory and I agree he would have, except I don’t think he intended the police to know about the photographs. They would only have come out if he had to prove his own innocence, but yes, his actions and motivations don’t seem well thought out. I could see how he’d be perfectly happy to watch Frank get killed, and possibly he didn’t realize either what was happening until it was too late, but then he goes and practically tells Brenda and Hugh about them, which doesn’t seem too smart.


          • Yeah, in all seriousness I can’t disagree with you about Nick’s presentation; sure, we’ve all read a book where the “old man who can’t walk following an accident” turns out to be perfectly fit and spry and mobile, but this does take it to something of an extreme. There’s no other proper demonstration of his physical abilities, so we’re led to believe he wouldn’t be capable of this and simply have to swallow it when it’s served up at the end that he is…yeah, not great.

            Chandler’s role in all this is a little spurious, but I agree that it’s entirely possible you wouldn’t realise what was happening until after it had happened (Fell, I remember, likens the strangling to being hanged, saying that Nick would have simply had to exert one huge, powerful pull on the cord). It’s a little weird that he then hung around long enough to take photos of Brenda — I would’ve gotten out of there quick-sharp — but I can see how he’s more narratively vital than he is well-motivated!


      • I’m pretty sure that’s wrong about being hanged. It’s only quick if you break the person’s neck. That’s why they have platforms and drops. If it’s not done right it takes a while. He’s right about the kicking, but wrong I think on the whole method. Frank’s hands weren’t tied. He wouldn’t have cutched at the scarf, he would have clutched at the rope and I don’t think one-armed Nick would’ve won that one.

        But neverrmind. It was a fun read and if anyone tries this at home, they will hopefully fail.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the problematic scene at the end of The Black Spectacles mars what is otherwise a near perfect story. Of course, that scene merely provides the reader with a cheap chapter ending cliff hanger, whereas the Chandler murder has a significant impact on the story.


  2. I do agree with the idea that the accidental impossibility is more satisfying than had Nick devised this as a plan. Clearly he arrives at the court, notices the footprints and improvises to make sure that he won’t get his own footprints on the clay.

    I have my issues with the credibility that Frank could be foolish enough not to notice Nick’s strange behavior but it is a clever way to play with the reader’s expectations.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The point that really strikes me here is the one you both discuss regarding generational differences. In a way, Brenda and Frank are made for each other because they are both “bright young things” who share troubled parenting issues. Hugh is stodgy in the extreme (even his father seems younger), Kitty is aging and she knows it, and Nick and his late partner who created the marriage/inheritance scheme are positively Victorian! Who in 1939 still manipulated people to marry like that? That Brenda would go along with this scheme is the first thing that strikes me wrong in this novel (which I did enjoy, truly, despite a lot of problems I had with it.) And why would Frank be such a jerk to her – not only cheating on her with two other women but just acting like an ass to her and all her friends – if he wants that money?

    Like you guys, I think this is an odd book in that the killer is, for once in Carr, quite obvious, so I tried my best to ignore that aspect for the longest time. Here you have a stodgy hero who, I’m sorry, JJ, just doesn’t have the instincts of a killer in him. Besides, Carr takes us into Hugh’s mind too openly for us to buy any of the “after I fixed my tire i did some other things, then . . . ” business. He’s innocent! So then we hope that Brenda will be the surprise killer, but I never bought that because she acted just guilty enough to satisfy me that she was the heroine and because she and Hugh made up the most interesting aspect of this novel: the thirteen-chapter, real-time, inverted battle to prove innocence part. So then we go to Kitty, Ben’s suggestion for who’s left to suspect. I liked Kitty because she was so nice at the beginning and then gradually revealed her true colors. But because she was in this position in the quartet of suspects, I would never have been truly surprised if she had been unmasked at the end. (Only Hugh or Brenda would have accomplished that.)

    Which leaves Nick, who is not only incapacitated but it is mentioned several times that he likes to think up ingenious murder methods. I suppose this, plus the – what did you call it, JJ, lamp shading??? – of Nick declaring himself the most likely suspect was supposed to draw us off, but really, who else could it have been??? My problem is that we’re supposed to believe that Nick’s evil plans were years in the making, (which seems very Victorian to me) that he actually raised Frank to be a bastard in his own image, and he behaves abominably toward Hugh throughout the novel – – – and yet everybody loves Nick! Everyone thinks Nick and Frank are so charming, but their actions are so brimming with villainy that it makes everyone look stupid.

    Thanks for including me in your Academy speech, JJ. I talked a lot in my own post about what I liked, but I do want to just agree here with you both that Hugh’s father (and his insistence on proving someone walked the net) is hilarious, and so is the scene in the theatre, despite the awful second murder. Regarding that “lie” about Arthur Chandler, on the one hand it gave me a moment’s pause because Carr does love to create “open statements of truth” (The Nine Wrong Answers) that he can then honestly refute, but then I took it to mean that Carr didn’t want us wasting much time suspecting this red herring who he was going to kill in a few pages anyway, so he made a dramatic statement along the same lines as the earlier ones counting down to Frank’s death or that delicious statement you quoted above, JJ. It just seemed to be the style of the book. Problematical, though, I agree, when you really think about it.

    Finally, I just want to say regarding the prose surrounding the scene where Nick is supposedly asleep during the murder . . . Mr. JJ repeatedly says that Carr “should have known better” and in doing so alluded to a Christie novel . . . and we all know which one you mean, sir. I would hazard to say that Christie does this tactic so much better in that book than Carr does here. Now, maybe it’s the difference in my age, but something seemed fishy when I read those pages in Carr, but it all flowed by just beautifully when I read you-know-what! Even in a trifling book like Third Girl, Christie could have fun with perspective and cast doubt on a person’s guilt! I’m not saying Carr couldn’t do that equally well; he just doesn’t do it as well here.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, the fact that Nick and Frank are seen as these sort of lovable rogues is pretty weird when you think about it. Hmmm.

      Also, I totally get what youo mean about not wanting us to suspect Arthur Chandler…but it just seems so…needless. To lie outright like that isn’t even justified, and is so easily avoidable, as I say above. It’s just a wrinkle this could do without, given that it was always going to be a slightly cold soup for people to stomach in the first place.

      I wonder what the contemporary reviews were like…


      • I remember… decades ago, when I was a college student… seeing a series of reference volumes that compiled reviews of books published in a particular year. The reviews went back to the 1930’s at least, although the actual reference books were (I think) published later. And they included reviews of mysteries, not just “serious” novels. I can’t remember the title of the series and my Google skills are failing me, but I do remember seeing reviews of Carr/Dickson books when I looked at these volumes all those years ago. If someone can remember what the heck these books were called and has access to them, they’d be a valuable resource for finding out what the reviewers had to say back when the books were originally published.


    • I also noticed something strange regarding the description of the scene when Nick is supposed to have gone to sleep. And yet, despite having read so many of these books, for some reason I never considered interpreting it in the true way. I merely thought it was odd.


  4. Great work guys! A brilliant and thorough break down, which had me noticing a lot of things that I hadn’t see before (not to mention the man in the moon line, that IS a real puzzler?)

    I must say I absolutely loved this book, and the opening has got to be one of Carr’s most tense, and not in a creepy, or terrifying, or historical sense, but in terms of domestic claustrophobia, and the heat raining down on the early tensions between Frank and Hugh is marvellous. The whole thing really is a page turner, and as Ben says keeps you glued the whole way.

    The use of the term ‘inverted’ here is very important I think and is a brilliant and unique tool used by Carr for this book. The fact that we have both an inverted and puzzle based mystery happening AT THE SAME TIME to me is just wonderful, and shows Carr at a level of plotting which blows my mind. You then get battered with the dual tensions of watching Hugh and Brenda try to sweat things out in the moment (the missing finger nail for example, my gosh..) and then the tension of the fact that you still don’t know how it was done and that ‘the real killer is getting all the luck’ (which is a lovely phrase to repeat seeing as in the end that’s exactly what the killer is not getting!)

    I actually really enjoyed the solution to the no footprints, and believe that the head through the noose idea is totally credible. Frank literally had no idea he was about to be killed, and we are told many times that he desperate to make this robot work. If you imagine Nick saying okay ‘just pop your head here for me so I can get the right height’ it would literally cast zero suspicion on your long term father figure. And I think Carr deals with that well when he mentions that you could get family members to do the same (though by the looks of it he thought he would encounter criticism so he wrote that in as well).

    BUT… the main thing that no one seems to mention about the impossibility, which is what I think makes it so brilliant, is the fact that the clothes line it made it look like he was strangled with his own scarf! What a beautiful piece of misdirection! The fact that the scarf hides the real murder weapon while at the same time look like it IS the murder weapon is gob-smakingly beautiful I think, and totally underrated. This then links so well with the whole ‘to big to be seen’ idea, and that it’s a problem that get’s you focused on footprints, when really the solution is screaming at you in THE WIRE CAGE itself and – that fact that you forget to think about at all – that the setting is ACTUALLY A TENNIS COURT. So that Franks body is in the location that he would be if he were playing tennis, and the method uses both the game of tennis at the structure of the court and the cage is totally meta. The title for this book then is all the better. Carr is totally toying with you, basically telling you ‘it’s the problem of THE WIRE CAGE guys!’.

    I also enjoyed the second impossibility, and I could see, with so little page count left that it wasn’t going to be some major solution, but I think that scene where the question is ‘will he fall or won’t he’ from the trapeze is another great bit of tension.

    There is much more I could say but I’ll leave it there for now!

    Liked by 3 people

    • There’s a motif in Carr — I’ll not mention titles, no fear — where the actual murder weapon is occluded by some other means being used to parrot that weapon (if you like, I’m being deliberately vague). The trammels of misdirection could actually be very swiftly removed in several plots if the reader were to ask “Hey, couldn’t something besides a [WEAPON APPARENTLY USED] produce a similar effect?”. Part of Carr’s immense success is layering sufficient other problems to stop this occurring to you.

      The second murder bothers me partly because it doesn’t work as presented: the three CRACKs we’re shown in the text that we’re meant to think are Lannigan’s whip but turn out to be gunshots are waaaaaaaay too spaced out, the implication being that Chandler is able to keep acrobatting while shot the first two times — nah, sorry, not having it. I don’t mind the mistaken witness, it’s part and parcel of the genre, but it feels rushed, is rushed, and does Carr no favours. One wishes to admire his intrepid spirit ins fitting it in so neatly, but the drop off in quality rather screams at you once it’s resolved.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The trapeze scene may be one of the best scenes that Carr wrote in terms of hair raising tension. Other contenders would be the attic scene in The Lost Gallows and the description of the murder in The Problem of the Green Capsule. The tension is so great because you know Chandler is about to die, but you really have no sense of how and when.

      Of course, I forgot about how great that tension was because of what follows.
      1. The ridiculous notion that Chandler was shot multiple times while in motion and kept performing acrobatics.
      2. Hadley immediately declaring that it is an impossible crime, despite us really being given no adequate evidence of what made it impossible.
      3. The fact that the solution to said impossibility turns out to be “a crippled man shot a gun three times while standing in the same room as the detectives, and then merely hobbled out of the theatre in plain view of a witness.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • 3. The fact that the solution to said impossibility turns out to be “a crippled man shot a gun three times while standing in the same room as the detectives, and then merely hobbled out of the theatre in plain view of a witness.”

        This is the one of those that’s most fatal, I feel. The other two are borderline, but given the fun of that scene and the opportunity to throw in a decent piece of puzzling towards the end, this solution is an immense disappointment on par with the late-on locked bathroom murder in The Blushing Monkey by Roman Macdougald.


      • Having read it, I can see why you enjoyed it so much — there are ways in which it really does not work for me, but equally there are aspects of it which I consider superb. However, more details on Thursday…

        Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks, we (well, I can’t speak for Ben) had a great time knocking this back and forth, it’s always fun to pick over the details like this.

      As for what comes next…currently trying to whittle down a list with the next collaborator — news in due course…


  5. An excellent and fun analysis, thanks guys. And some great comments too.

    Nick really is up for a ‘Most Thoroughly Horrible Human-being’ award with his raising of Frank for slaughter and Brenda for money and worse. I agree that it’s a mistake that there’s only mention of his ability to be charming rather than any solid evidence of it. Frank’s unpleasantness is (slightly) more plausible to me because he is young and pretty and so desperately spoiled that he probably actually does believe that the world was created just for him. I think that he and Kitty would have made a rather more suited couple than Frank and Brenda (and then she could have disposed of him neatly later, when love inevitably died).
    I think I’m alone in not finding the tennis net comedy very funny, but I did enjoy Hugh and his father’s somewhat relaxed attitude to ethics.


    • Regarding Frank, there is that moment (I believe at the end of chapter 2) where he blatantly cheats Hugh out of a point in their tennis game and a bit of me felt a swell of reluctant respect for someone who could be that brazen. It’s difficult to like him in that moment, but I dd get a real sense of him being an actual person rather than simply a victim-in-waiting.

      And, hey, if you want unfunny comedy, well, firstly, no, you obviously don’t — who does apart from everyone who tunes into Mrs. Brown’s Boys? — but secondly wait until you get to some of the later Merrivales!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks for the review. 🙂 I seem to have come in late, with all the backlog from work taking me away from the internet. This is the first of the joint-reviews that I can actually read, since I’ve completed the novel. I quite liked it – I did find the culprit somewhat obvious, but I might have been tipped off by reviews stating that. Then again, Carr does usually catch me off-guard by his choices of culprits, unless the circle of characters is somewhat small. This has only happened one other time – the other novel in question being ‘Hag’s Nook’.

    I think I swallowed the explanation of the mechanics of the set-up and the solution somewhat better than some others who have commented. But I do agree that the second impossible crime fell somewhat flat.

    Not sure what my next Carr novel would be. ‘Lost Gallows’? Or perhaps ‘Eight of Swords’?


    • Well, one man’s “obvious” is another man’s…”not obvious” — I’ve just been discussing with Dan about how something often leaps out at one reader who chuffs at its lazy concealment and yet sails past another who is keen to yet another aspect hidden from the first. I’d love to know Carr’s thinking behind some of the decisions herein — mainly on account of how traditional this is in the middle of a period where he was anything but — and shall merely have to content myself with baseless speculation.

      I, too, don’t mind the workings of the killing here, it just seemed a little too obvious, like there was only really one way it could be done (Carr’s at his best when you can see absolutely no way for his impossibilities to be achieved, c.f. The Plague Court Murders, The White Priory Murders, The Red Widow Murders). But, again, subjectivity is everything!

      Ether of those Carrs are a fine choice, though the final section of EoS was a drag for me (see my review for further deets). I was recently thinking of revisiting the Bencolins, so might give Castle Skull and Lost Gallows a look over msyelf before too long…


        • Two-thirds of it are great, and the reversals and expectations provided in the middle section are pure Carrian brilliance. But Hadley’s final section — yeesh, it’s hard work…


  7. I tried to respond about miracle Nick running around like a maniac with a broken arm, leg and collarbone not bothering him, but it vanished in cyberspace. Ah well, maybe it will appear somewhere. Don’t feel like rewriting it.


  8. “the fate of a person who was carried, fighting and hysterical, to the execution shed” — not only an ominous sentence, but also a hint as to the identity of the murderer! (Why did he have to be carried? Perhaps because his broken leg had not yet fully healed.)

    “as an impossibility it surely only has one solution” — I think there are a couple of other possibilities that Carr does not discuss in the book. A murderer could have tied a rope across the court and used it to visit the scene of the crime without leaving footprints, either by climbing hand-over-hand, or (if a skilled acrobat) using it as a slack-rope. Alternatively, a murderer could have followed Frank to the scene of the crime, stepping in his footprints (having taken care to wear identical shoes), and then escaping by walking backwards in the same footprints.

    Of course both of these solutions would be unsatisfactory because they would require the murderer to have planned for the rainstorm. Also, the murderer would be deliberately creating the appearance of an impossibility, and the motive for doing so would need to be explained.


    • Goddamn, that’s a superb point about the being carried — I’d assumed that they were being carried because, well, being hysterical as they were they we unwilling to walk there…but in fact you make a great point about this being interpreted your way as well — outstanding work.

      I think the “walking over someone else’s footprints” thing was well and truly dismissed by Carr in The White Priory Murders — I infer from the way he debunked it there that he wasn’t a fan of it and would do his best to rise above such naive trickery. Though you’re spot on in acknowledging that the reason for the apparent impossible would need to be deduced as well; it’s something a lot of authors seem to’ve forgotten as the impossible crime gets longer in the tooth (see my upcoming post next Tuesday), whereas Carr was always about the why as much as the how.


  9. Pingback: The Problem of the Wire Cage by John Dickson Carr (1939) – Bedford Bookshelf

  10. Great post. I love the idea of a full spoiler discussion of mystery books, as long as they’re books I’ve already read, of course! But It’s been so long since I read this book I’m afraid I don’t remember much of the details. Although I do remember the theory of walking on the net as a tightrope, which even to me seemed pretty unlikely as a possibility.

    Another thing that bothered me was the title of the book. It’s a tennis court with a fence around it, right? Yes, you could call it a ‘wire cage’, but it seemed like stretching the point a little too much. But that’s just a nitpick. I guess that “The Problem of the Tennis Court” wouldn’t have been quite as interesting a title.

    Of course, what really would have spoiled it would have been a picture of this tennis-playing robot. I, too, can’t imagine what kind of device that would be in 1939, but seeing it probably would have made the solution more obvious, say, if this had been in a TV show or movie instead of merely a book.


  11. Pingback: The Problem of the Wire Cage by John Dickson Carr (1939) – Mrs. K. Investigates

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