The Problem of the Wire Cage by John Dickson Carr

published 1939

Problem of the Wire Cage

She sat on a couch at one end of the long dusky drawing-room. Beside her on the table had been set out a tea-service with tea now cold and biscuits untouched.

Hugh Rowland never forgot how she looked at that moment: the thick fair hair, darkish at the edges and bobbed below the ears; the light blue eyes, with a trick of looking up sideways and smiling; the fine lines of the body, which was just slender enough to escape being too well developed, for she was small. She wore a sleeveless white blouse, with white tennis shorts and tennis shoes; her bare legs were curled up under her on the chintz-covered couch. But she was not smiling now. Hugh Rowland felt her looking steadily at him, warning him.

Possibly because the day was sultry, emotions were growing sultry too.

commentary: I don’t know what the weather’s like where you are, but it is freezing and icy here, so a book about a summer-y evening’s sultry tennis seemed cheering. (And if you are in Australia, you can enjoy your good weather and take the blogpost as a tribute to the Australian Open.)

This is the opening passage of the book: there is a love triangle featuring the young people above and another man, one who is not very nice. There will be some very bad-tempered tennis played, then everyone will depart, and soon afterwards one person will be found dead. The body will be inside the cage-like tennis court, and the clear footsteps leading up to the body will suggest that either Brenda (above) is guilty, or else it is an impossible crime.

John Dickson Carr is the King of the locked room mystery, and this is him almost playing with his audience – no creepy tower, no sinister cell-like room, no impossible lock. This time his closed space is as outdoorsy and as light and as airy as it could be. But he has still made it impossible – and the explanation when it finally arrived actually made me laugh out loud in admiration. (It is a ludicrously unlikely murder method, impossible to believe in, but if you start on that with Carr, his entire wonderful oeuvre would disappear.)

Instead, you can enjoy the strange characters and relationships in this one – there were some very odd people in very odd ways, Carr was lavish with his subsidiaries here. It did seem that the second murder – in a music-hall theatre during rehearsals – was both unnecessary, not worked out properly, and thrown away. The setting and personalities could have made a whole other book.

Late on, Hugh Rowland’s father is introduced – a wonderful character, who again could have supported a whole book. (He reminded me of Charles Ryder’s father in Evelyn Waugh’s revered Brideshead Revisited.) On being told the worst – either Hugh or Hugh's beloved are suspects – his immediate reaction is:
‘We will send your mother to the north of Scotland. That is the furthest we can send her without a passport… There will be ructions, Hugh. Yes, I foresee ructions.’
When he has heard even more:
‘I am not sure that the north of Scotland is quite remote enough for your mother’s holiday. After reflection, I should suggest some place such as Tanganyika or the Arctic Circle.’
There is also an odd-job man called Angus MacWhirter, which worried at me until I remembered that that happens to be the name of a key character in Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero, published five years later, in 1944.

There are certainly some problems with the book, and one of them is that according to the facts as given, Brenda spent her early 20s as a pupil at a girls’ school. She is now around 27, and ‘Only five years ago… I put her for nearly four years at the best school in England, which irked her because she was older than the other girls.’ Irksome seems inadequate as a description.

The photo is from the state library of Florida, and can be found on Flickr. And if you’re thinking ‘well that’s not tennis shorts’ my justification is that Carr himself forgets about the shorts, and later refers to Brenda’s ‘white frock’.

After the solution was revealed, I went back and read the relevant pages, and it seems to me that Carr has not entirely played fair with his wording – but obv this is less important than tennis frocks and schoolgirl years. And none of these factors affected my enjoyment of the book.

There are many, many entries on John Dickson Carr on the blog, including a Tuesday Night Club set – click on the label below to see them.

I picked this one up after reading a post by Martin Edwards over at doyouwriteunderyourownname – his review is recommended and helpful.

A tennis party is key in another murder story – Georgette Heyer’s 1953 Detection Unlimited.


  1. Great post Moira - this is one is great fun, I agree. Have you seen the 1972 version of SLEUTH? The scene that Olivier’s character is dictating in the opening moments in the maze is basically a solution from WIRE CAGE!

    1. Thanks Sergio - and what a sold gold fact to add to the mix - I did not know that at all. I saw Sleuth years ago, and wouldn't have realized.

  2. That's the thing about Carr, Moira. Even when there are some problems with the story, one forgives him. And this is a really interesting twist on the traditional 'locked room' mystery. You have to give Carr credit for taking this chance - or at least I do.

    1. That's exactly how I feel about Carr - he can get away with murder, one might even say!

  3. I've avoided this one for decades because I had the solution spoiled for me when as a teenager I foolishly disregarded the "Do not open this section!" and read the solution in sealed booklet bound into the rear of the original edition of Murder Ink. I also read the endings of Chandler's The Little Sister and a couple of others. But now even reading this post I find that I cannot remember at all what was revealed to me about Carr's book. I only remember that it was about tennis. Ah, "old age"! So happily I can now read Problem of the Wire Cage with no spoilers whatsoever. I think I'll add it to the TBR pile for February.

    These posts are always fun to read about your observations about costuming. They've made me pay closer attention to character wardrobe updates in my own reading when in the past I just skipped right over the clothing descriptions. The book I'm reading right now goes into great detail about men's 19th century wardrobe and it was written and published only two years ago. Never knew bowler hats were the most popular choice of business men in the American west.

    1. Thank you for the kind words, and that's hilarious about your self-inflicted spoiler! As you say, the advantage of growing older is that you forget all. It's one of the reasons middling books are better as re-reads - the really great ones you can't forget the solution. Hope you enjoy this one.
      And I am thinking, old B&W pictures do show men in bowlers. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid...

  4. I enjoyed this book, although it's not one of his absolute bullsyes. The explanation isn't actually impossible, but you do have to take a deep breath before you accept it. Mind you, Fell does say in THE HOLLOW MAN that in a locked-room mystery it is not so much 'Would anyone actually do it' but rather 'Could it actually be done'. The characters are very well done in this one (and Rowland Sr is worth the price of the book himself!) But the whole thing is a bit...lumpy. There's lots of good stuff in it, but it could have done with a few more stirs.

    Carr was never really pleased with it, and felt that it should have been a novella. The book was also serialized in a magazine, and they often asked for fresh incident about two-thirds of the way through a story, hence murder number two. I suspect that he rather regretted having to throw away the second murder in order to bulk up this novel.

    Like you, I seem to have been reading about sunny climes recently. It does help offset the sub-arctic weather. You're right about bowler hats. They were the most popular form of headgear in the old West.

    1. Now, novella makes much more sense. It's that problematic second murder. It's a pity there wasn't more of a market for shorter murder stories - some tales would fit that mid-length much better.
      When I read a book set in summer it's the long light evenings that hit home to me, even more than any warmth - perhaps because daylight is predictable and certain, where heat isn't!

  5. Sounds interesting, and I like the excerpt. A lovely image to go with it too. JD Carr books don't seem to show up much around here. But I do have three to start with.

    1. JD Carr is one of my most reliable comfort reads in crime - they're always enjoyable, and atmospheric, and unguessable. And not too gruesome...


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