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

Hugh Rowland wants to marry Brenda but she is engaged to Frank Dorrance asWire Cage under the terms of his uncle’s will they only inherit his fortune if they marry. the only exception is if one of them dies before the wedding can take place which is more than a little awkward for Brenda when Frank’s body is found in the middle of a clay tennis court which shows both their footprints leading to the body but only hers returning. If she didn’t strangle him then who could have done so without leaving any trace of their presence?

Enter Dr Gideon Fell thus:

“He turned round like a galleon and blinked towards the lighted house. They saw eyeglasses on a broad black ribbon; a vast pink face beaming like that of Father Christmas; and a bandit’s moustache.”

This type of crime is right up his street; the ordinary, as he says himself, is not for him:

“My scope in police work, I cheerfully admit, is limited. I could not tell you whether it was One-Eyed Ike or Louie the Lizard who cracked Isaac Goldbaum’s safe. If I were to attempt shadowing anybody, the shadowee would find himslef about as inconspicuous as though he were to walk down Piccadilly pursued by the Albert Memorial. Nor can I take one look at a footprint and tell you who made it. No. I am – h’mf – merely your consultant on the outré; or, to put it more popularly, the old guy who enjoys funny business.”

The plan of the court showing the wire fence surrounded by tightly growing poplars surrounded by a yew hedge reminded me of one of my favourite Father Brown stories – although the method there could not possibly have been used in this case.

When I came across a particular phrase I remembered a murder method from a short story which would fit the bill and for a time I was sure I was right – and then after more was revealed I decided I was wrong. Until another thing was mentioned and I thought I had been on the right track but the second murder meant that was no longer possible (at least without breaking the Knox Decalogue!). So I was most satisfied to be proven wrong when Dr Fell revealed both the method and the murderer.

Not a first-rate Carr by any means, but tier two is still better than many people’s best.

This is part of my series on the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives.




8 thoughts on “The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939) by John Dickson Carr”

  1. What I like most about this one is that, for the most part, we see everything from Hugh and Brenda’s point of view. It gives us a chance to see Dr. Fell and the police from the perspective of the most likely suspects, and great fun is had as they go down that hole of self-protection.

    What doesn’t work so much for me is the solution. I picked X as the killer because it seemed the least likely option . . . and I was correct. Total guess, based on reading too much of this stuff. I had no idea how it was done. And when I think about that method, I laugh uproariously . . .


    1. It’s an interesting perspective – seeing someone who’s livelihood depends on the law deciding to cover up various things – but I didn’t feel we got enough of Dr Fell. As for the method, I like that the murderer can back out up until the final moment of decision.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I agree about the point of view, it’s a superb way to observe Fell and get a sense of how much threat the detective character poses to the guilty party…which, in turn, allows us to make sense of someof the actions killers make in other books when they fear the detective is on their tale.

      I’m looking fiorward to rereading this one, because I remember thinking the killer was hidden in such a way that wasn’t exactly delightful to realise, and since everyone seems to fall into one extreme or the other with the solution I was further braced for maximum impact and I think everything just sort of washed over me. Checkig out Carr’s masterpieces for a second time is probably more fun, but these second-tier titles doubtless contain a lot of brilliance when you’re freed up from all the wondering (I remember the mid-book surprie here being especially good, for one thing).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pretty much agree with JJ and Brad here. The book is a really enjoyable read, with lots of fun with the antics of the romantic leads. However it’s padded, as the second murder, which Carr was made to add by his editors for the required length, makes little sense, and the murder method for the primary crime only works if your victim is the stupidest person on the planet.

    It’s not dull – unlike some Fell tales – but the most important part of the tale lets it down badly.


  3. What I wouldn’t give to read the version of this before the second murder was added. The solution can go either way, but the second murder is definitely bad. It’s a shame because in terms of the writing, the first half is some of the best stuff I’ve seen written by Carr. The atmosphere is perfect, the interpersonal conflict is kind of engaging (well to some extent), Carr always does a great line in characters you love to hate, and the comedy is actually funny. On these strengths the book is one of my favourites, despite its flaws. I might try a reread where I completely skip some of those later chapters. I’ll just jump to the end when a certain character shows up.


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