I bet you've never heard of the Thinking Machine. Today he's not very well known at all. But based on one short story read years and years ago, the Thinking Machine stamped himself indelibly onto my consciousness. And on the strength of that short story, "The Problem of Cell 13," I purchased JACQUES FUTRELLE'S "THE THINKING MACHINE" which, at 370 pages, collects 23 short stories about the Thinking Machine and offers a 13-paged introduction by Harlan Ellison, who here also dons the editing hat.
A bit more background: During the early 1900s, before he boarded the ill-fated RMS Titanic, American (not French) newspaperman Jacques Futrelle penned a series of short stories starring his testy but brilliant puzzle-solver the Thinking Machine. The Thinking Machine, whose real identity is Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, is not your average detective. He chooses to solve mysteries to exercise his brain. Van Dusen is actually a 50-year-old logician, an incandescent mind housed in a frail, tiny body, and, in his time, deemed the foremost authority in the scientific fields. But his mantra of logic overcoming all obstacles frequently leads him to be involved in the most bizarre of conundrums. Or, as he's most wont to say to his reliable aide, reporter Hutchinson Hatch, "Two and two make four not sometimes, but all the time."
The Thinking Machine's most celebrated case is "The Problem of Cell 13" and rightly so as it's one of the best "locked room" mysteries I've ever read. Thankfully that gem is included here. Sad to say, Futrelle never before or again matched the gripping quality, the delicious suspense of "The Problem of Cell 13." The rest of the stories in this collection range from good to decent to drab. Set in the Edwardian era, several mysteries don't lend themselves well to contemporary times (Harlan Ellison covers this in his intro). This is exemplified in the dated "The Silver Box" and "The Superfluous Finger." Too, Futrelle seems to be reaching with his far-fetched solutions to "The Mystery of the Grip of Death," "The Problem of the Hidden Million" and "The Roswell Tiara."
But there are also the memorable stories. "Enter: 'The Thinking Machine'" is noteworthy for revealing how Prof. Van Dusen got his nickname. In "The Jackdaw Girl" we meet the one person who comes closest to one-upping the Thinking Machine. And "The Fatal Cipher," "The Brown Coat," and "The Problem of the Stolen Rubens" are all fairly clever puzzles. Now, more often than not, the Thinking Machine does his crime-solving after the fact and is more often than not accompanied by his trusty sidekick Hutchinson Hatch or another recurring character in the person of Police Detective Mallory, but in "The Problem of the Deserted House" he goes it alone and actively places his life in jeopardy. He almost doesn't make it. Meanwhile, I'm still scratching my head over "The Problem of the Broken Bracelet," which is either too smart or too confusing for me.
In his shortened time Futrelle wrote around 48 or so short stories centering on the Thinking Machine, as well as a few novellas about him (The chase of the golden plate, The Diamond Master, etc). Futrelle was never the best of storytellers, his writing style more dry and procedural than fluid, which I guess perfectly suited his very precise protagonist. And, at age 37, Futrelle's was an untimely passing. But he did give us "The Problem of Cell 13" which is so good it considerably bumps up my rating for this collection - from two stars to four. Yep, that good.
But, here's the breakdown on the 23 tales told in JACQUES FUTRELLE'S "THE THINKING MACHINE":
1) "Enter: 'The Thinking Machine'" - Prof. Van Dusen baldly states that a logical man, though having never before played chess, may study the rules of the game and then in the same day vanquish a champion chess master. He proceeds to do just that.
2) "My First Experience with the Great Logician" - The Thinking Machine saves the life of a man suffering a mysterious ailment.
3) "The Thinking Machine's First Problem: "Dressing Room 'A'" - In the middle of a stage play, the beautiful lead actress vanishes from inside her dressing room.
4) "The Problem of Cell 13" - Awesome, awesome locked room puzzler. The Thinking Machine is challenged to escape from an impregnable prison cell in death row, using nothing but his wits.
5) "The Phantom Motor" - The police, lying in wait at both ends of a speed trap corridor, are baffled by a speeding automobile who appears nightly only to then spookily vanish.
6) "The Mystery of the Grip of Death" - Another "locked room" mystery. Newspaperman Hutchinson Hatch once again calls on the Thinking Machine, this time to shed light on the murder of a man who seems to have been choked to death with a rope.
7) "The Problem of the Hidden Million" - Lame story. A bitter dying old man vindictively hides his wealth from his heirs, and it's up to the Thinking Machine to find it.
8) "The Ralston Bank Burglary" - The vault of a prestigious bank is blasted open in the middle of the night. Was it an inside job?
9) "The Problem of the Auto Cab" - A necklace is stolen during a gala affair, and Hutchinson Hatch shares a ride with a woman who may be involved in the case.
10) "The Silver Box" - An eminent financier is at wits' end when his business rivals consistently get the jump on his stock market dealings.
11) "The Jackdaw Girl" - An enterprising con man teaches jackdaws to steal jewelry. The robberies soon attract the interest of the Thinking Machine.
12) "The Brown Coat" - A safecracker lands behind bars but is pretty smug about not revealing the whereabouts of the bank loot, much to Detective Mallory's helpless frustration.
13) "The Problem of the Stolen Rubens" - A priced painting vanishes, and the police are again led astray.
14) "The Fatal Cipher" - The Thinking Machine is presented with an enigmatic suicide note.
15) "The Superfluous Finger" - A woman walks into a surgeon's office and asks to have her finger amputated.
16) "The Motor Boat" - A motor boat crashes into the Boston Harbor with its driver already dead. Was it murder?
17) "The Problem of the Broken Bracelet" - A masked woman breaks into another woman's bedroom and asks to borrow a golden bracelet.
18) "The Problem of the Cross Mark" - A character actor tells a story which took place three years ago, when he was destitute and was hired to portray a 75-year-old man under nefarious circumstances.
19) "The Roswell Tiara" - A tiara kept safe in a vault is mysteriously losing the diamonds on its setting.
20) "The Problem of the Red Rose" - A supine young woman clutching a rose and her little dog are both found dead in her bedroom. The police believe that heart failure was suffered by both. The Thinking Machine begs to differ.
21) "The Man Who Was Lost" - A man with memory loss comes to the Thinking Machine for help.
22) "A Piece of String" - In the middle of a kidnapping story, Hutchinson Hatch is instructed by the Thinking Machine to discern the contents of a tree hole; Hatch obligingly finds a piece of string.
23) "The Problem of the Deserted House" - In the middle of the night, the Thinking Machine receives an alarming phone call from a man in distress.