|Jacques Futrelle, a journalist who was born in Pike County, Georgia,
in 1875 and died when the Titanic sank in 1912, wrote one of the finest
crime short stories ever to be committed to paper. Called The Problem of
Cell 13', it first appeared as a serial in a Boston paper in 1905 and
featured Futrelle's creation, Professor S.F.X. Van Dusen, known as The
Thinking Machine. In the course of his short life, Futrelle also produced
stories about The Thinking Machine almost as breathtakingly ingenious as
his masterpiece. He also wrote others less good, in a total of some 50 stories as well as
a handful of novels with mystery elements and, towards his last days,
What he would have done as a writer if on that terrible night of 15 April 1912, he had not pushed his wife into one of the Titanic's lifeboats but refused to get in himself must be a matter of speculation. He might never have written in the crime field again; he might have produced work to put even 'The Problem of Cell 13' in the shade. It is not unknown for authors to have little idea of what they are really doing.
Even in that masterpiece story we cannot be sure that Futrelle consciously knew just what it is about it that makes it so grippingly memorable. Outwardly it is no more than a piece of tremendous ingenuity, written in an agreeably light manner. It concerns a bet made by the professor in a moment of petulance that, if locked up in the death-cell in Chisholm Prison under the customary rigorous conditions, he could get out by the sheer power of thought within a week.
The story merely details the ingenious series of things Van Dusen does to get himself out of that cell. The use of a rat to take a message out through a disused drainpipe is one of them, as is Van Dusen's reliance on the ordinary person's distaste for a dead rat as the means by which he conceals his discovery of the drainpipe as his tenuous link with the outside world.
But what is not often noted is the fact that Futrelle did not actually get his prisoner out of Cell 13 purely by implacable logic. He had the professor rely, too, quite largely, on the sort of intuitive thinking that can also be called common sense.
The notion of the repulsiveness of a dead rat is one example. Although the story purports to be a proof of the professor's axiom that 'the mind is the master of all things', in fact he succeeds in his 'impossible' task through a mixture of logic and simple imagination.
Elsewhere, in the story 'Kidnapped Baby Blake, Millionaire', Futrelle has The Thinking Machine say indeed, 'Imagination is necessary to supply temporary gaps caused by absence of facts. Imagination is the backbone of the scientific mind. Marconi had to imagine wireless telegraphy before he accomplished it.' This is that combination of two, apparently opposed, powers of the mind which Edgar Allan Poe saw as necessary for the creation of that myth hero, the Great Detective, the rational and the intuitive. It puts Futrelle's protagonist squarely among such figures.
Yet in view of Futrelle's quite ordinary career as a journalist and the fairly humdrum novels and stories he was capable of writing, one is entitled to ask: did he at all know what he was doing? Had he in The Problem of Cell 13' deceived not only his many readers but also himself? Did he consciously set out to include in this story apparently of the implacable workings of a super-mind those elements of simple, intuitive common sense which in fact give it that extra which has made it so appealing over the years?
Well, to borrow a nice phrase from a study of Futrelle's story by
Professor Benedict Freeman: a writer is not obliged to have good
diplomatic relations with his unconscious. Sometimes, we know, the
unconscious simply invades the conscious mind to produce ideas that the
daylight brain could never have envisaged. So probably Futrelle just
wrote - and produced, possibly never knowing what he had done before his
premature death, an enduring work of art.
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