Jacques Futrelle: The Problem of Cell 13

thinkingmachinePractically all those letters remaining in the alphabet after Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen was named were afterward acquired by that gentleman in the course of a brilliant scientific career, and, being honorably acquired, were tacked on to the other end. His name, therefore, taken with all that belonged it, was a wonderfully imposing structure. He was a Ph.D., an LL.D., an F.R.S., an M.D., and an M.D.S.

Professor van Dusen (who wears a No. 8 hat) rather arrogantly gets himself put into the death-cell confinement in Chisholm Prison just to prove to his dinner-party guests that he is clever enough to escape. How he does it, and secures the confession of an acid-thrower along the way, forms the bulk of this short story, collected in 1907’s The Thinking Machine.

There was not even a chair, or a small table, or a bit of tin or crockery. Nothing! The jailer stood by when he ate, then took away the wooden spoon and bowl which he had used.
One by one these things sank into the brain of The Thinking Machine. When the last possibility had been considered he began an examination of his cell. From the roof, down the walls on all sides, he examined the stones and the cement between them. He stamped over the floor carefully time after time, but it was cement, perfectly solid.
After the examination he sat on the edge of the iron bed and was lost in thought for a long time. For Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, The Thinking Machine, had something to think about.

The solution annoyed me – once the Professor has managed to do a certain thing I won’t reveal here, he could have gone on to do pretty much anything he wanted. And that certain thing required huge amounts of luck. Futrelle anticipates this objection –

‘There were two other ways out,’ said The Thinking Machine, enigmatically.

– but I still found it a bit annoying.

However, this is an entertaining and very quick read with some good gags at the expense of the professor’s arrogance.

‘Nothing is impossible,’ declared The Thinking Machine.
‘How about the airship?’ asked Dr. Ransome.
‘That’s not impossible at all,’ asserted The Thinking Machine. ‘It will be invented some time. I’d do it myself, but I’m busy.’

Well worth your time.


About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
This entry was posted in Crime fiction of the year challenge, Crimes of the Century, Locked room mystery, Witness Statements and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Jacques Futrelle: The Problem of Cell 13

  1. I know what you mean about being annoying and simultaneously entertaining at the same time. It did get a bit tiresome when I tried to read the entire collection of short stories in one go…

    BTW have we got a year for next month?


  2. Wonderfull ingenious and wonderfully unlikely.


  3. JJ says:

    Ha, yeah, given how preposterously unlikely the method actually used was, I seriously doubt there are another two ways to escape. I mean, Futrelle does a great job thinking a way out of there, and it’s hugely entertaining as a sort of mini caper, but it’s not a realistice portrayal of how one could actually use logic in that situtation. Holmes would be furious!


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