(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Of the seven novels and four short-story collections of Jacques Futrelle, two of the novels and almost all the short stories feature Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen. Futrelle’s first two works are among his best known: “The Problem of Cell Thirteen” and the novel The Chase of the Golden Plate (1906). Because the novel was written before the short story (despite their publication dates), the question of exactly what year the now-famous professor was introduced becomes problematic. Professor Van Dusen is a fifty-year-old, yellow-haired, five-foot, two-inch, 107-pound, slit-eyed “son of the son of the son of an eminent German scientist”; he is “the logical production of a house that had borne a distinguished name in the sciences for generations.” Just recently he has held the chair of philosophy in a great university, and he has spent thirty-five years “devoted to logic, study, analysis of cause and effect, mental, material, and psychological.” He is fond of repeating the phrases “two plus two equals four,” “nothing is impossible,” and “simple logic can reveal anything,” and he boasts that one astute in logic can receive only one day of training in chess and beat the chess masters at their own game “by the force of inevitable logic.” With the professor, Futrelle gave new meaning to Richard Lovelace’s famous words: “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” Lovelace meant that the mind can leave the body behind in its flight. Futrelle’s depiction of Van Dusen, however, suggests that the body can follow the mind in its flight.

The critic Howard Haycraft wisely warns all detective writers to “avoid the Locked Room puzzle; only a genius can invest it with novelty or interest today.” Part of the reason for Haycraft’s warning stems from the works of Futrelle, about half of which deal in some manner with a locked-room,-building, or-passage situation (a prison cell, two separate locked rooms in a hotel, a boarded-up antique house being renovated, a room in a boat at sea, a dentist’s office, a strip of highway walled on both sides, an impregnable science lab, even the impossible escape of a fourteen-month-old baby from a house isolated in the snow). Most of the stories employ strange but logical means of escape (for example, an orangutan swings the baby through the trees, and two motorcycles with detachable seats and steering are made to look like the car that vanishes into the strip of highway). In the case of “The Problem of Cell Thirteen,” the escape of Van Dusen from a maximum security prison with nothing but polished shoes, tooth powder, and twenty-five dollars was a sensational locked-room puzzle no reader of the Boston American solved. Such near-impossible escapes earned for Van Dusen the title the Thinking Machine and earned for Futrelle the title Master of the Locked Room, for few have set up the “closure” mystery any better.

“The Problem of Cell Thirteen”

“The Problem of Cell Thirteen” (published in The Thinking Machine, 1907) sets the tone and the perimeters for the rest of the Van Dusen series. Almost all the stories refer to Van Dusen as the Thinking Machine, almost all employ newspaper reporter Hutchinson Hatch as his sidekick, and most use Detective Mallory of the Supreme Police Intelligence of the Metropolitan District as the inferior but pleasant rival of Van Dusen.

The Chase of the Golden Plate

The structural pattern most of Futrelle’s short stories were to follow is first seen in his novel The Chase of the Golden Plate. That Professor Van Dusen is not mentioned until the last third of the novel does not mean that he plays a secondary role, or that he was added to the story as an afterthought, as some critics have suggested. Typically, the Futrelle mystery story falls into three sections, as in this novel. In the first section the mystery is presented to the reader, either as told to Van Dusen or through third-person narration. In the second section, Hutchinson Hatch usually appears to check out specific details, accumulate physical evidence, or, in some cases, dramatize to Van Dusen how baffling the situation is at that point of his investigation. Finally, in the third section, the Thinking Machine focuses his brain cells on the problem and in most cases solves the riddle without so much as leaving his armchair, all the while pointing out that the case was logically quite simple. The three steps used as a controlling device (matching the three parts of this novel), with Van Dusen brought in late in the third part, is a technique used throughout Futrelle’s career.

Even though Futrelle left no body of critical material that outlines his fictional theory, or any commentary on the writing of other detective fiction that might be used as a gauge, one can surmise from his work a distinct approach involving four prominent elements: insistence on the superiority of logic to any insoluble...

(The entire section is 2040 words.)