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

Today’s read is in preparation for JJ and Ben’s forthcoming discussion on this book, later this month. The only Carr novel I managed to read last year was Patrick Butler for the Defence (1956), which was not that great of a read, so I was hoping I would fare better with this one.

The plot commences with a love triangle of sorts. Hugh Rowland, a solicitor, is madly in love with Brenda White, but she is already engaged to another man, Frank Dorrance. Hugh is not so convinced Brenda loves her fiancé and is more committed to the relationship due to social and financial pressures. In particular Frank’s uncle left a will which only leaves his substantial wealth to his nephew and Brenda if they get married and will only stay with them as long as they remain so. Though before anyone begins feeling sorry for Frank, who sees Brenda and Hugh kissing, the narrative soon reveals the spoilt and unpleasant man Frank is and it is therefore no surprise to the reader that after an afternoon of tennis, followed by a storm, Frank is found dead on the tennis court – strangled. Brenda puts herself in jeopardy when she finds his body and walks across the sandy court, as you see there are only two sets of footprints, hers and Frank’s. She swears to Hugh she didn’t do the deed, but who did? And more perplexingly how? As the tennis court and its surroundings are designed in such a way to make it seem impossible anyone could have murdered Frank, other than Brenda. Of course Brenda and Hugh’s lies, as well as the actions of another unknown party muddy the investigative waters for Superintendent Hadley and Gideon Fell.

Overall Thoughts

With Carr there is often an expectation of his mysteries having very intricate murder methods and there is also often an expectation of his stories having a decidedly gothic hue and atmosphere: It Walks By Night (1930) and The Burning Court (1937) are but two examples of this expectation being vindicated. However, what struck me about this book was not that it didn’t have an intricate murder method, indeed this is a technically very fiendish murder to pull off indeed, but that the story itself seemed to focus much more narrative space on its suspects and their relationships with one another, as well as the lies they are prepared to give. The beginning of the story has oppressively hot weather and this becomes a form of pathetic fallacy, as a symbol for the increasingly and unbearably tense emotions going on underneath respectable surfaces. Yet for all that, this intensity of personality, (which I think is embodied into the themed chapter headings), I wouldn’t say it came across as particularly gothic. Having said all this, these are not criticisms of the story, but just something I noticed. In some ways this is perhaps not your typical Carr and interestingly Gideon Fell, who does appear in this story, takes much more of a behind the scenes sort of role. On the one hand this prevented any over theorising, as in some books he can go on a bit, but on the other hand I think I felt more in the dark regarding how the murder was achieved until Fell reveals all at the end. The culprit I did manage to identify but that was more due to reader instinct than specific proofs.

So to the characters who stole the limelight for themselves. I think Brenda and Hugh make for unusual protagonists and in the latter case arguably quite a morally ambiguous one, as Hugh does admit later on in the book that he and his father fabricated evidence to get a guilty client free of their murder charge. Initially when you first meet Brenda around Frank, it is easy to see them as a variation of a descendent of another fictional ill-matched couple, Daisy and Tom Buchanan in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), with their relationship being held together by money and social standing. But then we get to see another side to her, (Frank really is a sinister take on the bright young thing). Brenda is a complex heroine, an orphan, who is worldly and not naïve, but equally not all that experienced. After the murder, other characters, such as Kitty, begin to disparage her and present her as an oddity, saying she ‘doesn’t seem to like the things most normal girls like […] positively hates small-talk and all things social […] and she reads too much, she reads and reads and reads; it’s not natural.’ This desire for reading is not hugely apparent elsewhere in the text, but I guess the murder was probably taking up more of Brenda’s time and attention, (after all what book would you want to read whilst being a part of a murder investigation?) As I mentioned earlier, Dr Fell, has a more minor presence in the novel, but I think he still has some entertaining moments. A personal favourite is when he assesses his skills and talents as a sleuth, demarcating those areas which he is not so good at: ‘If I were to attempt shadowing anybody, the shadowee would find himself about as inconspicuous as though he were to walk down Piccadilly pursued by the Albert Memorial.’ Furthermore, there were also other moments of unexpected comedy in this book, which I equally enjoyed a lot, such as when Hugh’s father sends his assistants to experimentally find out whether or not it is possible to walk across a tennis court net when it is tied up.

So on the whole I think I rather enjoyed this one. Tension and drama, even without the gothic hues, were well maintained, as I particularly liked the countdown to Frank’s death, which appeared in parenthesis within the text. The pace was good on the whole and Carr presents the reader with some interesting characters to grapple with. The culprit is perhaps an easy one to intuit, but the murder method is definitely a puzzling one. Good read to start the year with and I am looking forward to hearing JJ and Ben’s thoughts on it.

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Death by Strangulation


  1. Thanks for playing along, Kate! I’ll keep my thoughts close to my chest for now, but we’re in broad agreement…and that Albert Memorial line is absolutely wonderful. Ben and are are in the process of hewing our own perspectives into something approaching a narrative, so thanks too for keeping this in people’s minds while we get ourselves sorted. Hopefully the wait will be worth it…

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  2. I would never recommend someone start reading Carr with late stuff. There is a distinct diminution in quality as to the standard classic detective stories. After one has read his best, then read the later stuff, especially the derring-do historical mystery novels.

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  3. Thanks for the review – I, too, read this recently in anticipation of the joint- review. I think “Wire Cage” is a title that has received some negative press, and so I’d say I liked it more than I thought I would. The solution does stretch credulity somewhat, but not to the point that I disliked it. Where I would say Carr was firing on less cylinders than he, at his peak, was capable of, would be the choice of culprit. Like you said, it was somewhat guessable – for me, partly because of the narrow circle of characters to choose from.

    The Carr novel I read before that was “Hollow Man”, and I daresay “Wire Cage” had slightly more interesting characters, even if the puzzle was inferior.

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  4. I’ll save most of my comments for the Big Confab, but I don’t think later Carr was very Grand Guignol at all! The 40’s titles are mostly very modern in tone, which makes the whole impossible angle even more jarring: unnatural death in natural surroundings!

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    • Hmm, that could be an interesting discussion – when did Carr stop writing the heavy atmosphere of his early career? I’d be tempted to say 1939. The Reader is Warned, The Crooked Hinge, and The Problem of the Green Capsule are probably the last books to really cause one to look over their shoulders while reading.

      The following year we see Carr write a haunted house novel (The Man Who Could Not Shudder) that is completely devoid of dread. Even later titles that dabbled in the dark arts like The Curse of the Bronze Lamp and Below Suspicion lack any real sense of horror.

      One could counter that there are some great moments of atmosphere in Nine — And Death Makes Ten (due to the setting) and He Who Whispers, but I don’t really see those to be on the same level as earlier works like The Plague Court Murders or The Red Widow Murders.

      Oh, sorry, did I nerd out and take things way off topic?

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    • She could have been a little more developed, as after the opening she doesn’t really expand in terms of character or personality, but I felt she was one of Carr’s more sympathetic female characters.


  5. I enjoyed most of this, but it is let not by a nonsense murder method that relies too much on the stupidity of the victim. It felt like Carr had the idea of the set up but struggled to come up with a viable solution, that undermines the good work done elsewhere. And even Carr describes the second murder as “unethical and lousy”

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  6. I read this way back in December in two days. I already knew the solution (as I’ve mentioned several times over the years on various blogs), but enjoyed it nonetheless. Actually had no clue about the second murder or the occupation of that victim so discovering that part was a lot of fun. But the fact that there was a witness and proof of how the tennis court murder was pulled off was all too coincidental for me. Lots of contrived plot mechanics in this one which is not the usual way for Carr. Plus the gullibility of the first victim which makes the murder method possible (as Steve has pointed out above) all but ruins the story. Ego of the murderer plus idiocy of victim doesn’t make me admire the author’s invention. It’s a bit lazy of Carr to rely on such utter foolishness on the victim’s part in order for his villain to carry out a baroque crime. Still, I love the outrageousness of it all. Really ranks up there with the best of the most bizarre fictional murder methods, though there are other books I feel would make up the Top Five of that category. Still can’t understand why anyone would disparage the story for being imaginative or preposterous. Wire Cage is both, but I’d never consider it “lesser Carr” for being so.

    Trivia: This novel is made fun of — along with SUDDENLY AT HIS RESIDENCE — in a scene that occurs in SLEUTH.

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