This is the first in what will be an occasional series about some of my favorite short stories. These are the sorts of stories that remind me of what I aspire to as a writer. They are the ones I enjoy partly for their engaging plot lines, and partly for the skillfulness of the writing itself. The ones I go back and reread periodically even though I’ve already memorized most of the dialogue. They have given me so much satisfaction over the years that I feel compelled to share them with everyone else.
This first entry addresses my very favorite short story of all time: “The Problem of Cell 13” by Jacques Futrelle. This post s a somewhat revised version of an essay I first posted here a little over five years ago. Enjoy!
I have always had a soft spot for prison break stories, and “The Problem of Cell 13” must surely be the best, or at least the most imaginative, such tale ever written. Published in 1906, it was one of some forty-eight stories to feature Professor S. F. X Van Dusen, nicknamed the Thinking Machine. Van Dusen was one of those fictional, eccentric detectives who could, with a few moments thought from his armchair, solve problems that had utterly baffled the police. Most of the Thinking Machine stories featured impossible situations of one kind or another: murders in locked rooms, thefts out of heavily guarded museums, motor cars that seemed to disappear from the middle of streets being watched on both sides, that sort of thing.
The stories were rather uneven in quality, though most managed to be highly enjoyable. But Cell 13 stands so head and shoulders above the rest you would almost think it was written by a different person. My father first showed me the story when I was in middle school, and I’ve been rereading it over and over again ever since. The story’s gimmick is brilliant, and the execution is flawless.
Futrelle tragically died on the Titanic in 1912.
The Modern Library recently published a new anthology of the best Thinking Machine stories. It features an introduction by Harlan Ellison, who describes Cell 13 this way:
Oh, baby! What an epiphany. What a mortal lock sweetie of a story. I was knocked out by it. Blown away. A guy who could solve such unfathomable problems just using his wits and his intelligence. I don’t know about you, but for a smart kid in a small Ohio town, it was a beacon. It was that illuminating moment when you understand the unarguable truth of Pasteur’s admonition that “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
So what’s the plot line? Well, this excerpt from the story’s opening states it pretty clearly:
Dr. Ransome laughed tolerantly. “I’ve heard you say such things before,” he said. “But they mean nothing. Mind may be master of matter, but it hasn’t yet found a way to apply itself. There are some things that can’t be thought out of existence, or rather which would not yield to any amount of thinking.”
“What, for instance?” demanded The Thinking Machine.
Dr. Ransome was thoughtful for a moment as he smoked. “Well, say prison walls,” he replied. “No man can think himself out of a cell. If he could, there would be no prisoners.”
“A man can so apply his brain and ingenuity that he can leave a cell, which is the same thing,” snapped The Thinking Machine.
Dr. Ransome was slightly amused. “Let’s suppose a case,” he said, after a moment. “Take a cell where prisoners under sentence of death are confined — men who are desperate and, maddened by fear, would take any chance to escape — suppose you were locked in such a cell. Could you escape?”
“Certainly,” declared The Thinking Machine.
“Of course,” said Mr. Fielding, who entered the conversation for the first time, “you might wreck the cell with an explosive — but inside, a prisoner, you couldn’t have that.”
“There would be nothing of that kind,” said The Thinking Machine. “You might treat me precisely as you treated prisoners under sentence of death, and I would leave the cell.”
“Not unless you entered it with tools prepared to get out,” said Dr. Ransome.
The Thinking Machine was visibly annoyed and his blue eyes snapped. “Lock me in any cell in any prison anywhere at any time, wearing only what is necessary, and I’ll escape in a week,” he declared, sharply.
Dr. Ransome sat up straight in the chair, interested. Mr. Fielding lighted a new cigar.
“You mean you could actually think yourself out?” asked Dr. Ransome.
“I would get out,” was the response.
“Are you serious?”
“Certainly I am serious.”
Dr. Ransome and Mr. Fielding were silent for a long time. “Would you be willing to try it?” asked Mr. Fielding, finally.
“Certainly,” said Professor Van Dusen, and there was a trace of irony in his voice. “I have done more asinine things than that to convince other men of less important truths.”
That, my friends, is what we in the writer biz refer to as good dialogue. After this passage Dr. Ransome and Mr. Fielding arrange with the local prison warden to try the experiment. The Thinking Machine is taken that very night from his study and placed in the darkest, dankest, death row cell you can imagine. Futrelle describes the scene so skillfully that by the end of it you are thinking, “This is crazy. There’s no way he’s going to escape from that cell.”
Well, I really don’t think I will be spoiling anything if I tell you that the Thinking Machine does, indeed, escape. Moreover, he manages to create quite a bit of chaos in the prison prior to doing so. The mechanism by which he escapes, while not exactly plausible, is nonetheless totally satisfying. No laws of physics are broken, but the Thinking Machine does catch a few lucky breaks.
Cell 13 has never been made into a movie, but, MacGyver once escaped from a prison cell by essentially the same mechanism in this memorable second season episode.
One reason I like this story so much is for the story itself. It’s a real page-turner. But I also find something very inspiring about it. It’s hard to imagine any situation more hopeless than the one in which the Thinking Machine finds himself at the start of the story. I mean, there is nothing in his cell, and multiple layers of security between him and freedom. Yet he voluntarily puts himself in that situation, absolutely confident that his own ingenuity will be sufficient to turn whatever he finds into an effective plan of escape. Here’s how it plays out:
“Here is Cell 13,” said the warden, stopping three doors down the steel corridor. “This is where we keep condemned murderers. No one can leave it without my permission; and no one in it can communicate with the outside. I’ll stake my reputation on that. It’s only three doors back of my office and I can readily hear any unusual noise.”
“Will this cell do, gentlemen?” asked The Thinking Machine. There was a touch of irony in his voice.
“Admirably,” was the reply.
The heavy steel door was thrown open, there was a great scurrying and scampering of tiny feet, and The Thinking Machine passed into the gloom of the cell. Then the door was closed and double locked by the warden.
“What is that noise in there?” asked Dr. Ransome, through the bars.
“Rats — dozens of them,” replied The Thinking Machine, tersely.
The three men, with final good-nights, were turning away when The Thinking Machine called:
“What time is it exactly, warden?”
“Eleven seventeen,” replied the warden.
“Thanks. I will join you gentlemen in your office at half-past eight o’clock one week from to-night,” said The Thinking Machine.
“And if you do not?”
“There is no `if’ about it.”
My kind of guy!
Let me close with one more excerpt from the story. The Thinking Machine has made his escape and has appeared suddenly in the warden’s office, accompanied by a local reporter named Hutchinson Hatch. The following exchange takes place. Be warned that there are some spoilers ahead, but I frankly think that they will just whet your appetite even more.
[The Thinking Machine] squinted belligerently at the warden, who sat with mouth agape. For the moment that official had nothing to say. Dr. Ransome and Mr. Fielding were amazed, but they didn’t know what the warden knew. They were only amazed; he was paralyzed. Hutchinson Hatch, the reporter, took in the scene with greedy eyes.
“How — how — how did you do it?” gasped the warden, finally.
“Come back to the cell,” said The Thinking Machine, in the irritated voice which his scientific associates knew so well.
The warden, still in a condition bordering on trance, led the way.
“Flash your light in there,” directed The Thinking Machine.
The warden did so. There was nothing unusual in the appearance of the cell, and there — there on the bed lay the figure of The Thinking Machine. Certainly! There was the yellow hair! Again the warden looked at the man beside him and wondered at the strangeness of his own dreams.
With trembling hands he unlocked the cell door and The Thinking Machine passed inside. “See here,” he said.
He kicked at the steel bars in the bottom of the cell door and three of them were pushed out of place. A fourth broke off and rolled away in the corridor.
“And here, too,” directed the erstwhile prisoner as he stood on the bed to reach the small window. He swept his hand across the opening and every bar came out.
“What’s this in the bed?” demanded the warden, who was slowly recovering.
“A wig,” was the reply. “Turn down the cover.”
The warden did so. Beneath it lay a large coil of strong rope, thirty feet or more, a dagger, three files, ten feet of electric wire, a thin, powerful pair of steel pliers, a small tack hammer with its handle, and — and a Derringer pistol.
“’How did you do it?” demanded the warden.
“You gentlemen have an engagement to supper with me at halfpast nine o’clock,” said The Thinking Machine. “Come on, or we shall be late.”
“But how did you do it?” insisted the warden.
“Don’t ever think you can hold any man who can use his brain,” said The Thinking Machine. “Come on; we shall be late.” (Emphasis Added)
I just never get tired of that boldface line! And fear not. The remainder of the story provides a very detailed explanation of precisely how he did it…