Get Even More Visitors To Your Blog, Upgrade To A Business Listing >>

FFB: The Problem of Cell 13

Jacques Heath Futrelle (1875-1912) was an American journalist and mystery writer who worked for the Atlanta Journal, where he began their sports section and met his great love and fellow writer, Lily May ("May") Peel. Soon after, Futrelle was off to Boston to join the editorial staff the Boston Post, but he missed Peel too much to stay. Before taking a job with the New York Herald, Jacques and May married in Georgia in July 1895, and after their honeymoon, the couple settled in to enjoy the New York literary life, including neighbors such as Edith Wharton and O. Henry. Inspired by his love of mysteries, especially the Sherlock Homes stories, Futrelle turned his own hand to penning short crime fiction in his spare time.

After emotional exhaustion following a period covering the Spanish-American War, Futrelle took a break from journalism to work as a two-year contract as a theatrical manager. He and May moved to Richmond, Virginia, where Jacques traveled for the small repertory company and tried his hand at dramatic writing. At the end of his stint with the theater, Jacques took a job at the Boston American newspaper, although he also continued to write short stories.

In 1906 Futrelle decided to leave journalism to turned his hand to writing fiction full time and became especially known for his series of stories featuring the "Thinking Machine," Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen ("a Ph.D., an LL.D., an F.R.S., an M.D., and an M.D.S."), who first appeared in 1905 in a serialized version of "The Problem of Cell 13." That was to be followed by The Chase of the Golden Plate (1906), The Simple Case of Susan (1908), The Thinking Machine on the Case (1908), The Diamond Master (1909), Elusive Isabel (1909), and The High Hand (1911).

In April of 1912, after celebrating his birthday in London following a publishing deal, Futrelle and his wife began their return journey from Europe to New York, booking their trip on the RMS Titanic. Though May made it into a life boat after the ship struck an iceberg on April 15, Jacques Futrelle died in the sinking. As the legend goes, after Futrelle ensured that his wife got on a lifeboat, he was last seen speaking on deck and smoking cigars with philanthropist John Jacob Astor, who also perished in the tragedy. Two more Thinking Machine novels were published posthumously, My Lady’s Garter in 1912 (which his widow inscribed "to the heroes of the Titanic, I dedicate my husband's book") and Blind Man’s Bluff in 1914. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine also published some uncollected stories in 1949 and 1950.

"The Problem of Cell 13" is a short story by Jacques Futrelle, first published in 1905 and later collected in The Thinking Machine (1907), which was featured in crime writer H. R. F. Keating's list of the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published. The story was also selected by science fiction author Harlan Ellison for Lawrence Block's Best Mysteries of the Century. It's seen by some crime fiction historians as a forerunner of the "locked room" detective story, and like many others of Futrelle's work, deals with an "impossible" scenario.

"The Problem of Cell 13" features Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen as the protagonist, although part of the story is seen through the POV of a prison warden. The story is set in motion after a scientific debate with two men, Dr. Charles Ransome and Alfred Fielding, which leads Van Dusen to insist that nothing is impossible when the human mind is properly applied. To prove it, he agrees to take part in an experiment where he'll be incarcerated in a prison for one week and escape on his own devices. He enters cell No. 13 with only three special requests: that his shoes should be polished, that he be provided with tooth-powder, and that he also be given 25 dollars (2 notes of 10 dollars and 1 note of 5 dollars). The only escape routes are a window with iron bars or having to walk through seven different doors to freedom.

Needless to say, mission is ultimately accomplished (with a little bit of aid from his confederate, newspaper reporter Hutchinson Hatch, and some rats), and Van Dusen also indirectly manages to get an inmate to confess to a crime he committed, something the police detectives hadn't even been able to do. When the warden wonders what would have happened if key elements of Van Dusen's escape hadn't been available, the "Thinking Machine" simply states there were also two other ways he could have done it - leaving those details to the speculation of the police and the reader.

The story was adapted for U.S. television by Arthur A. Ross in 1962 as part of the Kraft Mystery Theater series and won the 1963 Edgar Award for Best Episode in a TV Series. Other adaptations included "Cell 13" in 1973 for the British series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes featuring Douglas Wilmer (known for playing Sherlock Holmes in 1960s BBC productions), as well as couple of radio plays and a 2011 stage version.

Although not terribly well known today, Futrelle's work is still well regarded as part of the early Golden Age of crime fiction. His work has influenced many writers since, including John Dickson Carr, who referenced him in 1938's The Crooked Hinge, and Max Allan Collins, whose 1999 novel The Titanic Murders had Futrelle investigating a series of murders taking place the doomed ship. Jon Jermey and Mike Grost have more details on Futrelle and the scientific side of his writing over on the GA Detection website.


Related Stories

  • FFB: A Thief in the Night
  • FFB: Bill Crider
  • FFB: The Edgar Winners

This post first appeared on In Reference To Murder, please read the originial post: here

Share the post

FFB: The Problem of Cell 13


Subscribe to In Reference To Murder

Get updates delivered right to your inbox!

Thank you for your subscription