“The Problem of the Wire Cage” by John Dickson Carr

What’s this… a late 40’s paperback cover that actually depicts a scene from the novel accurately?… Blasphemy!

So I’m back from a slight hiatus – spent reading more, um, “serious” literature – but I’m back with a until-now unread book from one of the giants of GAD, and a personal favorite author. I’ve avoided this one for awhile because I had read much about its various disappointments, mostly in the solutions to the two impossible crimes. So even though the prospects were not bright for my reading experience, I still trotted on, and although I have mixed feelings about the book itself, I’m still very glad I read it.

The plot of The Problem of the Wire Cage follows, at first, a love triangle. Brenda White is set to be married to the narcissistic Frank Dorrance in order that both may receive an inheritance from Dorrance’s long-dead uncle. Meanwhile, Hugh Rowland, a lawyer, wants to win Brenda over in any way. These three are all young men and women, who meet one faithful day to play tennis at the house of Frank’s guardian, Dr. Nick Young (who is, incidentally, not very young) alongside the enigmatic Kitty Bancroft. Incidentally, Frank’s side girlfriend Madge Sturgess has unsuccessfully tried to kill herself after he jilted her, and her main boyfriend Arthur Chandler is out for blood. No surprise, then, that the tennis game soon leads to domestic dispute, and that soon afterwards, Frank Dorrance lies dead on the tennis court, strangled with his own scarf.

Except… there was a rainstorm right before the murder. And that rainstorm caused the foundation of the tennis court to become muddy, temporarily recording any and all footprints within the court. Frank’s footprints to the court are there. So are Brenda’s to the court and back, from when (ostensibly) she found the body. But no other tracks exist on the court. Can Brenda and Hugh figure out how this ghastly trick was done, and twist the evidence in their favor, all while Dr. Young, Superintendent Hadley, and Dr. Gideon Fell seemingly go against their plots.

There are admittedly many moving parts in this book. Even with so few characters, the interpersonal connections are complex. You can tell that Carr intended this to be a more character-driven book than usual, although for sure the plot keeps up. Most of this unusual characterization stems from the unique 3rd person perspective of Hugh Rowland as he tries to shift the blame off of Brenda, and then himself, through his knowledge of legal trickery. In many Carrs, and many GAD novels in general, we watch as the detective sifts through the elaborate lies set up by suspects to clear themselves or others from innocence. This is one of the few books where we see the opposite side, as Hugh and Brenda try to destroy the evidence, and then adapt to new conditions via convoluted yet believable alibis. The constant switch from their new plot to Hadley and Fell’s counterattack is much like a tennis match in structure – one wonders if perhaps David Foster Wallace got a bit of inspiration for the structure of Infinite Jest from this book? Probably not, but a guy can dream…

For an unusual mode of narrative form and characterization, the plot may be just as zany. As is typical of WWII-era Carr, there’s a bit of setup prior to the murder, since these novels contain more introductory characterization than previous works. But things take a turn for the unusual after Frank bites the dust, or should I say, bites the sand-concrete mixture. Hadley is already on the scene as he has already come to Dr. Young to warn him about the apparently nefarious Arthur Chandler (who, by the way, we will not meet until about two-thirds into the book.) Dr. Fell is soon on board too, but his appearances are a bit spotty. He seems to weave himself in and out of the narrative, and pops in only when he needs to. Much more emphasis is put on Brenda and Hugh and their fight to defend themselves against the sharp and calculated minds of Hadley and Nick, and don’t forget Dr. Fell! There’s a bit of a lull in the middle as a new day emerges and Hugh seeks his father’s advice (Rowland Sr., by the way, is such a great side character – memorably whimsical he is.) Then Brenda and Hugh meet Arthur and Madge, BOOM! another impossible murder, then 20 pages later the solution, then 20 pages later a weird epilogue that feels ripped out of the end of a based-on-a-true-story Oscar-bait movie with Matt Damon or Kevin Costner, and then that’s it. There are some brilliant moments in the plot for sure, as well as some brilliant end-of-chapter reveals (especially the one that ends Chapter XI), but the general pace of the novel seems to be a bit rickety. I have to mention, too, that while the scenes in the Orpheum Theater are really funny and well-written (there’s oodles of subtlety in the Tex Lannigan character for sure,) I went into it with much trepidation due to the rodeo-esque setting. It’s no surprise that I am deeply traumatized by my experience with The American Gun Mystery.

[I’m about to discuss the solution to the first impossible crime in this next paragraph. Obviously I don’t spoil how it was done or who did it, but I consider some aspects of the whole situation in a way that may allow prospective readers to glom onto the solution if and when they read it. The reader is warned.]

OK, here’s the part you’ve all waited for. The big problems. The talking points. The elephants in the room. It is of course time to speak of the solutions to the two impossible murders that the book has to offer. Quite some people criticize the solution to the no-footprints murder of Frank Dorrance, and claim that it is complicated to a Rude-Goldbergian degree, and that Dorrance had to be a blithering idiot to fall into the killer’s trap. And, yes, those two criticisms are to some extent true. But, character psychology plays into the scheme of things here. The only reason that this ostensibly stupid plan works is because of the psychological profiles of the victim and the killer. Without X as the murderer and without Frank as the victim the murder would never have been pulled off like it was. But this is one of those cases where the characters themselves become a big part of the solution to the impossibility – and where their personalities become big clues. Compare that to the solution of the locked room murder of The Ten Teacups, wherein Vance Keating really is just a gullible buffoon. Yes, Frank Dorrance has his feet of clay, and he is really quite unpleasant, but that he fell for the killer’s ploy speaks to a much deeper psychological fallibility than mere stupidity or gullibility, even if gullibility is a hefty factor. The same holds true for the murderer and their ridiculously complicated plan. Carr tries to tell the readers that this would work in certain circumstances should they try it out for themselves. (Um… don’t try it at home, kids. Murder doesn’t pay.) But the truth is that the strength of this solution lies in the fact that it was this specific victim, and this specific murderer, who were involved in the act.

As for the second murder… yeah, that was really stupid. It seems like it could be clever, but a.) I immediately guessed the solution, b.) it falls apart in so many ways when you think about it for more than three seconds, and c.) how does anyone at all shoot the second victim in the position they were!? Carr himself confessed to Anthony Boucher in a letter that the second murder was a mistake written to bring up the word count and the “gore”, and I fervently agree.

[Okay, the possible psychological spoilers are over. Continue freely.]

The Problem of the Wire Cage had much potential. And in many ways it does succeed! The fresh perspective of character is appreciated, the murder of Frank Dorrance, although many claim otherwise, is really cleverly clued and solved, and the characters themselves are memorable and in some cases sweetly Dickensian. On the other hand, shaky pace, the dotty appearances of Dr. Fell himself, and the laughability of the second murder bring this one down in the ranks. So it saddens me to say that this seems to be more of a mid-tier Carr (keep in mind that I haven’t read most of the agreed stinkers.) But it’s one that I’ll look back on fondly, and think about often, especially the description of Dr. Fell’s disorganized library in Chapter XIX. Until next time….


5 responses to ““The Problem of the Wire Cage” by John Dickson Carr”

  1. I think you’ve treated this pretty fairly — it’s an odd little book, which feels at once too minor to really be taken seriously in Carr’s output and yet is so much fun (those chapter endings are rather wonderful…)that you sort of want to press it on people.

    Given that Carr wrote The Problem of the Green Capsule and The Reader is Warned — two of his best books, I’d say — in the same year as well as co-writing Fatal Descent with John Rhode, I’m guessing this one was just a little dashed off thing to clear out some space between masterpieces. Looked at like that, I find this hard to criticise too harshly.

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    • Even during the parts where the pace of the book got a bit weird, I definitely had a lot of fun reading it. No doubt that Green Capsule and The Reader Is Warned are much stronger and more well-plotted examples of detective fiction from Carr, and I read both of them in like two days each in a fervor, but Wire Cage just has that sense of “here’s something new and fun, let’s see what happens!” Even if it’s not a completely successful experiment, it still has enough good aspects to make it a memorable Carr. And you definitely have to give it to Carr that he wrote this in-between those two masterpieces, so he was in need of a bit of a break.

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  2. In some respects this is one of Carr’s top 10 most fun reads. The unmanageable situation that the protagonists find themselves in, and how it spirals even further out of control, makes for a breathtaking read. And hey, that’s a damn fine impossible set up to puzzle over for a few hours. I love the book, but acknowledge that it has some weaknesses. It would certainly be better without the second murder.

    I agree with you that the solution is more viable than people give it credit for. Yeah, it kind of feels weak, but it works for the reasons that you say. If the justification could have been written a little tighter (and if the second murder was cropped from the book) this would be top 15 Carr.

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    • In terms of sheer enjoyability, I would rate this one alongside The Punch and Judy Murders or He Who Whispers – in other words, right at the top. I really think that the sort-of inverted aspect of Hugh and Brenda’s meddling is the main factor in that.

      I’ll be honest, when I first read through the solution, I was slightly disappointed by the explanation for Frank’s murder. But in the days after I read it I started to mull it over in my head and my opinion slowly changed, and while I was writing this review the whole psychological aspect just came to me and I was like, “Wait… this solution is actually pretty good!” Compare that to when I read the solution to the second murder, which went something like: “Oh, okay, cool…wait…how could that work… how do you even… wait a minute… what?”

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      • Punch and Judy and Wire Cage are both examples of Carr in fine form and the pages just fly by because of it. It’s funny because neither have the strongest solution to the mystery, but it’s the journey that is done really well. The same could be said for Captain Cut Throat.

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