Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Thinking Machine

Sherlock Holmes was created in 1888. Agatha Christie began writing mysteries in the 1920s. Hard-boiled detective stories appeared during that same later decade. In very rough terms, these events can be said to be the genesis of detective fiction as a definable and important genre.

But the nearly forty years between Holmes and the 1920s were not completely void of great other great detective characters. One of the most interesting and entertaining is Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusan, Ph.D., LL.D., F.R.S., M.D., M.D.S.

Van Dusan is a small, frail man who is convinced that any problem--any problem at all--can be solved through pure reason. He's gained the nickname "The Thinking Machine" after proving that he could use pure logic to win a chess game against a master, despite never having played the game before.

With the help of a reporter named Hutchinson Hatch, he often uses his intellect to solve crimes.

The Thinking Machine stories were written by Jacques Futrelle during the early 1900s and they are a lot of fun. The most famous of them is "The Problem of Cell 13," first published in 1905. It's unusual in that the "crime" Van Dusan is solving is one he's also perpetrating.

Van Dusan can be a bit egotistical about his genius. Several of his friends become annoyed with him because of this and challenge him to solve an insoluble problem. Van Dusan, with no time to prepare, will be taken to a local prison and locked in a cell on death row. He'll be treated exactly as a regular prisoner would be treated. If he's as smart as he claims to be--if it's true that any problem can be solved by pure reason--then he'll escape in one week.

But how can he escape? He's got nothing but his clothes, a little bit of cash and some tooth powder. Guards check on him several times a day and his meals are brought to him in his cell. It seems impossible.

But it's also impossible that he keeps leaving notes for the guards, despite having no pen with which to write. It's impossible that he is able to make change for his money and even seem to get more money, despite having no interaction with anyone involving money. It's also impossible that a prisoner in a nearby cell is hearing ghostly voices, though this does frighten the prisoner into confessing to a murder.

The story is delightful. It's told mostly from the point-of-view of the warden, who is driven to distraction by Van Dusan's impossible accomplishments, but is still confident that none of this can possibly give Van Dusan an opportunity to escape. He's right, of course. Writing mystery notes and somehow changing a five for one dollar bills might seem impossible, but it can't possibly get Van Dusan out of the cell.

Can it?

"The Problem of Cell 13" is available online HERE and it is, like other Thinking Machine stories, well worth reading.

Sadly, Jacques Futrelle died when the Titanic went down, bringing the career of the Thinking Machine to a premature end. Futrelle died because he gave up a seat in a lifeboat to make sure his wife survived. The Thinking Machine is a pretty awesome fictional character, but here we have a case of a real-life author who clearly outdoes his mythical hero in awesomeness.

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