The Problem of the Wire Cage (John Dickson Carr)

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Dull and commonplace suburban setting with tennis court on which vicious Caligulan youth is strangled, without any footprints left in the mud.

Over-written and under-plotted: thick neurotic atmosphere in which emotions are as much strained to breaking point as the reader’s patience; while lacking in the crucial complexity of the author at his best, who admitted “that book should have been a novelette” (Greene).

Owing to singular paucity of suspects, the reader should be able to guess the villain without difficulty, despite police suspicion of the thick-headed hero and his lover, who speaks nauseatingly of the victim’s “poor old face.”

Solution is as impossible as the situation; not only difficult to visualise, but Frankly preposterous: would anyone be so stupid? Too many theatre people and very little Dr. Fell, who acts badly out of character, gloating at the villain: “I now propose … to give myself the extreme pleasure of telling you where you get off… The gallows. They are going to hang you.”

The last words suggest a plea on the author’s part: “He may, perhaps, be excused for not being up to his usual form.” He won’t be.


Blurb (US)

Again Gideon Fell – he of the vast pink face and bandit’s moustache and indestructible amiability – decorates a tale of horror and murder that will send the thermometer shooting off its course any season of the year.

Who killed Frank Dorrance?  And why?  His body was found, one evening following a heavy rain, near the centre of a tennis court.  And no footsteps but his own led to the spot.

Frank was young, he was handsome, he had charm and to spare.  He was also shrewd and calculating and rotten-spoiled.  Jealous love, hatred, or hope of financial gain could have prompted the killing.  And of six people, one was guilty.

John Dickson Carr has never lent his macabre talents to a more convincingly horrifying plot.  And this is praise indeed.  For of Carr it is said:

“He has a sense of the macabre that lifts him high above average detective story writers.” – J. B. Priestley.

“He can create atmosphere with an adjective, alarm with an allusion, in short, he can write.” – Dorothy L. Sayers

“He can produce an icy shudder in a heat wave.” – The Times (London).

“He can invest a quiet street with a hundred terrors.” – Chicago Tribune

Contemporary reviews

New Yorker (4th November 1939, 50w): Grand puzzle, and not a spy in the cast.

Sat R of Lit (4th November 1939, 50w): Explanation of first murder amazing; that of second strains credulity.  Background for both satisfactory and characters well-drawn.  Good Grade-B.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 5th November 1939, 180w): One is always sure of a good crime puzzle and of excellent entertainment when Dr. Fell is on the job.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 25th May 1940): BODY ON THE TENNIS COURT

The connoisseur of detective stories is faced with an embarrassing choice of riches this week.  The order in which he places the four books here under review must largely be determined by personal taste.  Mr. Carr offers a superb example of the economically written detective story proper; Mr. Wade comes back to the fore with a combination of detective story and romance [Lonely Magdalen]; Miss Mitchell gives us a complicated problem against a background of small town jealousies [Brazen Tongue]; and Mr. Fair reintroduces an amusing pair of characters who perform American tricks amid American small town politics [Turn on the Heat].

Mr. Carr in The Problem of the Wire Cage produces yet another variation on the sealed room mystery, although in this case the scene is a tennis court surrounded by high wire netting.  There is only one entrance to the court, and from this a set of footprints leads straight to the centre of the court, where the victim is found strangled.  But we know from the very beginning that the girl who made the footprints is innocent, while it nevertheless appears certain that if the murderer strangled his victim in the middle of the tennis court footprints must have been made on the soft sand of which the court is composed.  Needless to say, Mr. Carr is able to suggest several alternative ingenious solutions and to hint at others before the mystery is explained; and whereas a moderately astute reader may guess the murderer’s name he will be hard put to it to discover the method.

As usual, Mr. Carr’s characters are interesting (save for the victim and murderer, who are too bad to be true) and the only regret we feel is that Dr. Fell, the detective, does not take a more prominent part in the narrative.  Certainly an alpha plus story.

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 26th May 1940): THE CRIME RATION

Wire Cage surrounds tennis court in middle of which is found strangled, wonderfully unpleasant Don Giovanni fiend type.  No footprints except victim’s; suspects with powerful motives include acrobat and cripple.  A typical Dickson Carr reality defying problem further complicated by tampering with evidence.  Dr. Fell’s solution, after ingenious second murder, is certainly possible, though you could hardly expect it to be probable.  Excellent tense atmosphere throughout.  First-class recommendation.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 29th June 1940): The latest Dickson Carr is rather disappointing.  When we find a man strangled in the centre of a wire-enclosed hard tennis court with only the wrong person’s footprints leading to the body, our appetite is whetted for one of Carr’s miraculous juggling feats.  Is it done from an autogyro?  Or by an acrobat walking the tennis net like a tight-rope?  Or by a gigantic fishing rod?  None of these: Mr. Carr prefers his own method.  But apart from the riddle in mechanics The Problem of the Wire Cage holds nothing of interest, and the reader has to plough through acres of padding before reaching Dr. Fell’s simple demonstration of the answer.

Sir Hugh Walpole: How ingenious it is, and how human are his characters! … Dr. Fell remains my favourite of all contemporary figures.