Everything is Possible

"Nothing is impossible... The mind is master of all things. When science fully recognizes that fact a great advance will have been made."
- Prof. Augustus S.F.X. van Dusen (Jacques Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13," collected in The Thinking Machine, 1907)
Jacques Futrelle was a journalist, theatrical manager and an author of detective fiction who fathered one of the iconic characters of the genre's early period, "The Thinking Machine," which is the byname of Prof. Augustus S.F.X. van Dusen – considered by many mystery readers to be the American equivalent of Sherlock Holmes. Or at least one of his most notable rivals in the Americas.

Inexcusably, my reading of Futrelle and Van Dusen has been limited to a volume of short stories from the Modern Library, The Thinking Machine: The Enigmatic Problems of Prof. S.F.X. van Dusen (2003), which was edited and introduced by Harlan Ellison. As well as a number of short stories, such as "The Grinning God" and "The House That Was," scattered across several anthologies, e.g. Death Locked In: An Anthology of Locked Room Stories (1987).

Recently, I developed a yearning to return to Futrelle and read some of his stories I missed out on the first time around, which is when I was suddenly struck by Newton's apple – why not work my way through the ones Robert Adey listed in Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991)? It's both ingenious and something completely unexpected for this blog! Right guys? 

The first story under examination, "The Mystery of the Flaming Phantom," presents a seemingly impossible situation in the guise of a ghost story. A stock broker, Ernest Weston, is engaged to be married to the daughter of a banker and wants to renovate his ancestral home as a summer residence, but a "gang of laborers" were the first one to be confronted with the malevolent presence in the reception hall – a creature of "about nine feet high" and "blazing from head to foot as if he was burning up." It was a waving a long knife and laughed at the frightened men as they fled from the home.

The ghost story attracted the attention of the press and they dispatched a "nerveless young man," Hutchington Hatch, but even the fearless reported had to fled after witnessing the burning ghost for himself. There was even an additional impossibility: Hatch saw how the ghost, "on the very face of the air," wrote with his finger the word BEWARE!

So he fled to his old friend, Prof. S.F.X. van Dusen, on whom he bestowed the nickname of "The Thinking Machine," who does not give any credence to the notion that something is impossible and demonstrates why. Van Dusen provides a rational and logical, if somewhat convoluted, explanation for the apparent supernatural phenomena, which he based on such clues as a lack of a particular smell and a slight noise "attributed to a rat running across the floor" – which is a surprisingly amount of fair play for a detective story published in 1905. I also loved how the impossible premise, in combination with the motive, places the story firmly in Scooby Doo territory.

Futrelle conjured up an impressive, imaginative and elaborate piece of charlatanism in "The Problem of the Crystal Gazer," in which an enthusiastic investigator of the occult, Mr. Howard Varick, is shown an unsettling glimpse of the future by a seer – an East Indian mystic named Adhem Singh. Varick peers into the crystal ball, which was "faintly visible by its own mystic luminosity," before "a veil seemed lifted" and "the globe grew brighter" to show him his own death at the hands of an unknown man. He saw himself sitting his study, which was miles away, as a man slipped into the room and planted a knife in his back! The problem is brought to Prof. van Dusen and he believes there was something prophetic in the vision shown in the crystal ball, but it was brought about with a great deal of cheating and theatrics. He even declares, "the affair is perfectly simple."

However, the trickery involved to create the illusionary vision is everything but simple. Clever and original, but not simple. The explanation for the trick is tentatively related to the plot of the previous story, "The Flaming Phantom," and Dorothy L. Sayers' "The Haunted Policeman," which was first collected Striding Folly (1972).

The next one, "Kidnapped Baby Blake, Millionaire," began as a very promising and intriguing story, but the plot fell prey to one of the hoary tropes of the period: a fourteen months old heir to an immense fortune, Douglas Blake, waddles into the snow-covered backyard and simply vanishes into thin air. There's a track of "regular toddling steps of a baby," but they came to an abrupt ending as if the baby had shot up into the air. Ransom notes only serve to obscure the matter and I genuinely wish the snatching eagle had not been passed by as an improbability, because it would have been slightly better than the eventual explanation. I regard this story as the first serious disappointment of 2016!

In "The Last Radium," a colleague of the famous scientific detective, Professor Dexter, procured a precious supply of radium, which consists of no more than one ounce – representing "practically the world's entire supply of that singular and seemingly inexhaustible force." Fortuitously, a widow of a French scientist, Mme. Therese du Chastaigny, has a leftover supply of radium from her husband and is willing to part with it for every reasonable offer, but her visit coincides with the disappearance of Dexter's radium from the laboratory.

A laboratory with windows that were set high up in the walls, fastened from the inside, and there's a guard stationed at the sole door, but Van Dusen sees what everyone else, including Dexter, completely overlooked. The explanation was a bit carny and would have preferred the one Van Dusen hinted at, suggesting someone "fished out the radium through a window in the glass roof by some ingenious contrivance," but it was pretty passable for something from the early 1900s. I also appreciated the off-page cameo Mme. Curie.

"The Problem of the Missing Necklace" is a fun, semi-inverted mystery story in the tradition of Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin and E.W. Hornung's A.J. Raffles. Scotland Yard regards a famous jewel thief, Mr. Bradlee Cunnyngham Leighton, as a crook, but one of "the cleverest in the world," because they have never been able to put a finger on him – which drives one of their chief operators, Herbert Conway, up the wall. On his latest job, Leighton swiped the pearls from Lady Verron and has booked himself a trip to the United States, but finds Conway as one of his fellow passengers.

However, an illegal search of Leighton's cabin and a subsequent search by custom-officers were unsuccessful in locating the pearls. So Conway asks the famous American scientist-cum-detective for help and he quickly points out a place that overlooked by the officers, which makes this only a semi-impossible crime. However, the method for smuggling the pearls of the boat was clever and was later reused by a famous mystery writer for a similar impossible theft of jewels.

I hated the next story, "The Roswell Tiara," which involves a precious stone pried from a tiara that was locked away in a wall vault and only the owner knew the combination to open it, but the explanation is a combination of tired old tropes and coincidences. I disliked it pretty much for the same reason "Kidnapped Baby Blake, Millionaire" disappointed me. You can safely skip this one. 

"The Problem of the Perfect Alibi" revolves around what appears to be a cut and dry case for the police: a young man of some social prominence, Mr. De Forrest, was found stabbed to death in the sitting room of his suit and as he was dying from his injuries he scribbled a number of helpful notes – such as the name of his murderer, motive and hearing the clock strike two. There is, however, just one problem: the murderer was sitting in the dentist chair for an emergency treatment at the time of the murder and he can supply the police with several creditable witnesses. Unfortunately, it’s a ramshackle alibi and the trick is really not all that impressive, which would be considered amateurish stuff during the Golden Age. So it's not all that noteworthy how Van Dusen tears it to shreds.

"The Mystery of the Scarlet Thread" offers a classic, if somewhat dated, locked room mystery, which begins with several attempts at ending the life of Weldon Henley.

Henley is a young broker who occupies a handsome suit in "a fashionable establishment," which is luxuriously furnished, spacious corridors, staff and the modern miracles of both "the gas and electric systems of lighting." When he moved in, he had all the electric apparatuses removed and only employed gas for the purpose of lightning. Often kept "one of his gas jets burning low all night." A habit that nearly did him in: one night he woke up nearly asphyxiated by the gas, because the gas jet he had left burning had gone out and the tightly locked room had slowly filled with the noxious fumes – which is presumed to have been an accident. But these apparent accidents keep happening. They are assumed to be accidents on account of the carefully locked and barred door and windows of the suit, which precluded any outside interference.

The case is brought to the attention of The Thinking Machine by Hutchington Hatch, a reporter for The Daily New Yorker, who figures out the method based on a scarlet thread that was found on a flagpole and the way early twentieth century gas fittings functioned. I'm sure this particular gas outfitting would not be allowed today and everyone who would install it would probably be dragged in front of a judge.

I found the next story, "The Vanishing Man,"to be very unusual in its ordinariness and revolves around a promising business tycoon, Charles Carroll, who took the reigns of a successful brokerage concern as its young president, but not everyone agreed with his rapid ascension in the company – leaving "a residue of rankling envy." Nevertheless, Carroll functions above expectations and money is pouring into the company, but then strange things started to happen: Carroll seems to be able to vanish from his watched or locked private office at will and reappear there with the same ease.

These bouts of temporarily invisibility coincides with a prospected theft of gold bonds, but how these plot-threads intertwine with the overarching motive is what this both an original and unusual story. Only questionable part is the huge gamble Carroll took. A really, really big gamble. The locked room trick was incredibly simple and only a minor part of the overall story, which was perhaps for the best. Finally, I would like to observe this story was from 1907 and modern moneymakers, like Carroll, seemed to have still been admired as the financial wizards of the new century, but that would all change after the Stock Market Crash of 1929. A character like Carroll was more seen as pure villains than the daring anti-hero that Futrelle sketched in this story.

"The Haunted Bell" is a fairly, but over-elaborated, tale of a man, named Franklin Philips, who's being plagued by the ringing of a Japanese gong, which he received as a gift from his wife. The piece of antique consists of "six bells on a silken cord" and seems to ring of its own volition. Philips initially puts it down as a trick of his nerves, but calls in Prof. Van Dusen to help silence the ghost of the bells. Only problem is that the ghost yarn has turned into a crime story by that time and involves a shady curio-dealer, a dead burglar, a vanished servant and Japanese houseguest who had a great deal of veneration for the bells. A fun, but simple, story that could have easily been plucked from the pages of L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898), which is one of the first collections of impossible crime stories – because its solution seemed to fit the type of stories from in that volume.

Finally, I decided to re-read one of the stories, "The Phantom Motor," which stood up to reexamination. The setting of the story is a small, peaceful place called Yarborough County, but it had a fully engaged police force of several dozens of men who were stationed upon its highways, because the county was very particular about their speeding laws. It has superbly kept roads, "level as a floor," which tempted many drivers and provided the county with a steady income – in particular from a place known locally as The Trap.

The Trap is described as a "perfectly macadamized road bed" situated "between two tall stone walls" with "only enough of a sinuous twist in it to make each end invisible from the other," which have a Special Constable stationed at each end. There was telephonic communication between both officers and they could warn each other if one failed to stop a car or get the registration number, but there's one speeding automobile that manages to vanish impossibly from the speed trap. Not once, but several times! A well-known reporter, Hatch, has an opportunity to witness the ghost car for himself and decides to call in the help of his old friend, Van Dusen. Of course, he manages to find a completely rational explanation for the apparently supernatural quality of the speeding car and how managed to disappear from a closely observed and guarded speed trap. I only have one minor complaint: could two trained and experience traffic officers really be fooled by what they saw. Surely, they would see that one was not like the other. Regardless, I found this to be a fun impossible crime story from the early 1800s.

Well, that's it for this review and I know what you think: what about stories such "The Problem of Cell 13," but rest assured, I'll certainly do a follow up to this post and read/re-read more Thinking Machine stories to review. So this will definitely be continued. I just can't say/promise when that will be. However, I can promise that the next review won't be a week from now.


  1. I like the Thinking Machine stories a lot. I remember buying that paperback volume (the one with the white cover) back when I was in school. I think that cover has a much better portrait of Van Dusen that the one on The Thinking Machine Omnibus. I bought a copy of the Ellison edition, but his introduction annoyed me to such an extent that I chucked the book in the basement. Coachwhip Publications has a very nice two-volume complete edition which is the one I would recommend.

  2. Actually, looking again at the picture on the cover of The Thinking Machine Omnibus, I think that is not Van Dusen at all, rather, it is a portrait of Futrelle himself. I note he is on what is probably the Titanic, judging from the life preserver. I always felt bad about losing him that way. I remember reading somewhere that he took down some Thinking Machine stories with him.

    1. You're correct, Anon. It's a portrait of Futrelle and the illustration was based on a photograph, which you can view here.

      I think his wife, May, who survived the sinking of the Titanic, confirmed her husband had written five or six stories that went down with their creator.

      Max Allan Collins wrote a sort of pastiche, The Titanic Murders, in which Futrelle got to play detective.

    2. Forgot to add that you might want to check Collins' book out, if you like Futrelle and The Thinking Machine.

  3. I checked with Google Images, that picture is certainly Futrelle.

  4. I neglected to thank you for this when it went up, TC, as I was still on something of a blog hiatus. I've wanted to do a sweep through Futrelle's impossible crimes but couldn't remember exactly what was what in the complete collection I have (they guy wrote a LOT in a short space of time!). So many thanks, I look forward to going back through and comparing notes in the near(ish?) future.

    1. You're welcome. I'm looking forward to it!