JOHN DICKSON CARR. The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939).

20 Dec

WireCage.jpgIn “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the founding tale of the mystery genre, Edgar Allan Poe planted the notion that asking “How was it done?” might be at least as powerful as asking that now-perennial question “Who done it?” Carr, fairly well known in his time (The New Yorker published a two-part profile of him) but largely forgotten today, took that idea and pursued it more prolifically and more inventively than any writer who came before or after him. This entry in the Dr. Gideon Fell series provides a well-turned sample of what an impossible-crime story can deliver. At a Saturday afternoon tennis party in Hampstead Heath, an insufferable youth named Frank Dorrance serves up to his fellow doubles players (and to others nearby) several good reasons for killing him. Soon after the party, his fiancée discovers his lifeless, contorted body in the middle of a tennis court and at the end of a lone trail of footprints—his own. Someone strangled him there, and did it without leaving any other prints on the wet, sandy court. The culprit’s identity isn’t hard to spot, since viable alternative suspects are practically nonexistent; Carr applies his ample powers of mystification not to the perpetrator of this “problem,” but to its logistics. The story progresses with Dr. Fell lobbing one possible solution after another at his official comrade, Inspector Hadley, until he finally scores a winner. So does Carr: This is a virtuoso display of pure plotting, with little of the overwrought Arabian Nights quality or the juvenile humor that mars some of his other work.

[ADDENDUM: Wire Cage is the first book by Carr that I read, and the first impossible-crime story that I read with full consciousness that I was reading an impossible-crime story. Thus, while it’s not a novel that has won much praise from critics (or, as far as I can tell, from ordinary readers), it holds a firm and cherished spot in my mystery-loving heart. That first encounter with this tale left me feeling as if my mind were on fire—as if a whole world of possibilities (or should I say “impossibilities”?) had opened up in my reading life. For days after I finished it, as I recall, I found myself trying to think up Carr-like tricks that might unfold in the suburban teenage wasteland where I then lived. A duffer stabbed while standing alone in the middle of a putting green! A shopper felled by a gunshot while trying on clothes inside a locked and carefully watched department-store fitting room! In any event, insofar as his book has major weak spots, I remain blind to them.]


Posted by on December 20, 2012 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle


7 responses to “JOHN DICKSON CARR. The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939).

  1. Cavershamragu

    December 22, 2012 at 2:47 AM

    Bravo Michael – I really enjoyed your aside here as it pretty much reflects my own encounter with one of Carr’s miracle problems – although this was not the first by him that I read (those were THE READER IS WARNED and FIRE, BURN), like you I think this may have been the first in which I knew that the miracle problem was going to be central – and I loved the way Carr teases us with false solutions and then bests out expectations with an even better one. Anthony Shaffer was obviously impressed too as he includes it in the opening to SLEUTH.

    One should probably regularly devote posts to ‘my first mystery by Carr, Queen, Christie etc’ because they really are such cherishable experiences. Thanks for bringing it all back.


  2. Mike

    December 22, 2012 at 6:05 PM

    Greetings, Sergio. Posting this review did put me in mind of my first encounters with Queen and Christie, the other members of that great triumvirate. In each instance, I was lucky enough to pick a book that exemplifies the author’s talent and sensibility. The first EQ novel that I read was “The French Powder Mystery,” an incredibly clue-rich puzzler that did a number on my tender 13-year-old brain. (I vividly recall hurtling toward the surprise solution that comes in the last line of the book!) My maiden Christie title was “Sleeping Murder,” which, although it was Christie’s last-published work, served as a swell introduction to her mastery of deception. Even better was “Murder in Retrospect” (“Five Little Pigs”), the first Poirot book that I read. Decades later, I still think that Christie reached the acme of her achievement when she wrote that one.

  3. Cavershamragu

    December 23, 2012 at 6:44 AM

    Ah yes, that is a classic Queen book – those last 30-odd pages are wonderfully and the withholding of the name is really well done. Cannot actually remember my first Christie – I suspect the rather unimpressive SEVEN DIALS MYSTERY after watching the TV version …

  4. prettysinister

    December 28, 2012 at 8:09 AM

    I’m not sure I will ever read this one since I spoiled it by reading the solution when it was written up (along with about eight other books) in a little packet bound into the rear of the 1st edition of MURDER INK. I have always remembered it because it was so bizarre. Also, as Sergio points out, the solution once again is ruined when it’s alluded to in SLEUTH as a work by Andrew Wyke. Clearly it’s Carr’s book that the playwright brothers are referencing. Only those acquainted with Carr (and perhaps another title by Christianna Brand) will get the joke.

    I always enjoy reading of people’s first memories of encountering mystery novels. Those moents really are long lasting aren’t they? My first Carr, I think, was the fairly mediocre PANIC IN BOX C. But I soon found and read all the Henri Bencolin books and was amazed by them. I still have about ten or twelve Carr (and about five or six Carter Dickson) books to read in my lifetime and I am savoring them rather than devouring them as I did when I was a teen.

  5. Mike

    December 30, 2012 at 4:50 PM

    Hi, John. I’m slow reader, so I have lots and lots of books—including many Carr/Dickson titles—to put aside for savoring later. I do think that “Wire Cage” is worth reading, even if you know the solution. (My review here reflects a second, adulthood encounter with the book.) Douglas Greene, in fact, argues that it marks a key turning point in Carr’s career: With this novel, Carr shows a new interest in engaging readers emotionally, as well as intellectually, with the life-and-death matters at hand.

    I believe that I saw “Sleuth” during my teen years as well, but I hardly remember it, and I certainly don’t remember any connection to the Carr novel. Anyway, I’d very much like to see that movie. (It’s been unavailable from Netflix for the longest time.)

  6. thegreencapsule

    November 12, 2017 at 4:06 PM

    I’m with you on this one – The Problem of the Wire Cage is an extremely enjoyable Carr. The puzzle is absolutely perplexing, and it’s one of those where Carr gives you enough room to think of dozens of your own solutions, only to have them each ground to dust by Fell.

    But it’s not just puzzle – there’s plot as well. The situation that the main characters find themselves in is thrilling, and I love the sense of cat and mouse they have to play not just with the killer, but with Fell and Hadley.

    I know this is a heavily criticized book, but I don’t care – I’ll stick by my guns. This more than likely qualifies as a Top 10 Carr for me. I’m glad to see that someone else enjoyed it.

    • Mike

      November 12, 2017 at 5:36 PM

      Thanks for the comment, “greencapsule.” As I note, nostalgia plays some part in my fondest for Wire Cage, but that’s hardly the whole of it. The plot has an elemental simplicity to it that I greatly admire. Thanks also for bringing your impressive blog to my attention. I’m eager to browse through it at length when I get a spare moment.


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