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.
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.