Great Short Stories I: “The Problem of Cell 13” by Jacques Futrelle

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...


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"Cell 13" is indeed the best of The Thinking Machine stories and one wonders what extraordinary thing Futrelle would have had to accomplish had he been granted a long enough life in which to surpass it.

OT but apparently, there is a film being made of one of Lee Child's Reacher novels staring, get this, Tom Cruise! Mr. Cruise is described in IMDB as being 5'7" tall and probably weighs 150 lbs soaking wet. Mr. Reacher is described in the novels as being 6'5" tall and weighing 250 lbs. ROTFLMAO.

SLC - Anne Rice made the same complaint about the selection of Cruise to play Lestat in Interview. Then she changed her mind after seeing the finished movie.

Without making any comment regarding his acting ability, I don't really think his height (or lack of it) negatively impacted his ability to play the role. And that was 17 years ago. With current special effects, if they want him to be tall, I'm sure he'll be tall.

Re eric @ #4

1. Ms. Rice's initial objection to Mr. Cruise appears to be based on his acting ability, his personnel appearance, and his previous choice of roles, which did not, in her opinion, bode well for casting him as a vampire.

2. If Hollywood can make the 5'7" 160 lb Cruise look like a 6'5" 250 lb man, that will be some accomplishment.

If Hollywood can make the 5'7" 160 lb Cruise look like a 6'5" 250 lb man, that will be some accomplishment.

Do you really find it that unbelieveable?

Its an accomplishment, yes. On the same order of Jackson's LOTR, where they made a 5'6" Elijah Wood look 3'6" tall next to Ian McKellan. They can 'gandalf' Cruise or 'hobbit' everyone around him, but either way, I would bet you a lot of money that special effects are already up to the challenge of a 12% apparent size increase.

No movies of "Cell 13" but two TV adaptations, one back in the early 60's on Suspense Theater (I think it was called) and one in the 70's on a British series called "The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes".

By See Nick Overlook (not verified) on 10 Oct 2011 #permalink

If this is the story where the guy ties a note to a rat, I thought it so implausible that I still remember the disappointment 30 years later.

By Greg Esres (not verified) on 10 Oct 2011 #permalink

Re eric @ #6

Of course, Tinseltown has been making short actors appear taller for a long time (the late Alan Ladd, who was even shorter then Mr. Cruise, used to stand on a box when appearing in closeups with taller female actors). However, they not only have to make Mr. Cruise appear taller, they have to make him appear broader (e.g. some 100 lbs heavier then he actually is). I understand the reason to put an A list actor in the role but it would be a lot easier to cast, say, Howie Long who was mentioned in an earlier thread on this blog when the subject of who might play the role of Reacher came up.

I'm with Greg at #8. For all his bluster, and as he admits at the end, if cell 13 didn't have that entirely fortuitous feature (which he exploits brilliantly), the Thinking Machine would be totally screwed.

Greg and Dave M --

Were you expecting a plausible method for escaping from a jail cell? Lighten up, guys. Futrelle was pretty clearly acknowledging the implausibility of the story by pointing out the various lucky coincidences the Thinking Machine made use of. I liked it when the Thinking Machine pompously claims that he had at least two other escape methods, without ever telling us what those methods were.

SLC and others --

I'm glad to hear they're finally going to make a movie out of the Reacher series, but I agree that Tom Cruise is a poor choice. He not only doesn't look the part, he's also too old. How about the guy who played Thor? He's more the way I picture Reacher.

See Nick Overlook --

Thanks for the information. I wonder if either of those adaptations is available on DVD.

Re Jason Rosenhouse @ #11

According to IMDB, Mr. Cruise is 49, which is only a few years older then Reacher who is described as being in his early 40s. That would be the least of my objections to him.

I assume that Prof. Rosenhouse is referring to Chris Hemsworth who is described as being 6'3" and probably tips the scales at 200 lbs or more, judging by his photographs. However, Mr. Hemsworth is too young at 28 which is much younger then Reacher's early 40s.

==Were you expecting a plausible method for escaping from a jail cell? ===

Given the boast of The Thinking Machine, yes. The author's apparent goal is to establish the brilliance of The Thinking Machine and the only way to have done this in this story would have been to show that the escape was inevitable, not due to chance. Therefore, The Thinking Machine comes across as being rather foolish in his boast.

But I think this is a perennial problem when you have a non-brilliant author attempting to portray a character of extraordinary intelligence. Even the logic demonstrated by the better-drawn character of Sherlock Holmes doesn't really stand up to rigorous examination.

By Greg Esres (not verified) on 11 Oct 2011 #permalink

I just read it at the link given in comment #2. Yes, it's a great short story, but it seems to end abruptly with "Let the fifth man go. He's all right." Is that the actual ending, or was the story truncated?

By Dr. I. Needtob Athe (not verified) on 13 Oct 2011 #permalink

Re sesli chat

Let's quit beating around the bush here. What they have to do to realistically portray Reacher is make Mr. Cruise look like Clint Walker. Rots of ruck on that one.

Just read "Cell 13". Absolutely brilliant. the lucky coincidences remind me of the adage: "Luck is where opportunity meets preparation".

By complex field (not verified) on 30 Oct 2011 #permalink

No movies of "Cell 13" but two TV adaptations, one back in the early 60's on Suspense Theater (I think it was called) and one in the 70's on a British series called "The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes".

I'm currently coordinating a project based on the latter series, called "The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1", where we're recording stories that appeared in the first season (except for "The Missing Witness Sensation" by Ernest Bramah, which is still under copyright in the U.S. and for which I've substituted "The Tilling Shaw Mystery").

Vol 2. (with "Cell 13") will be forthcoming. I've already gathered together all the e-texts, and we'll be recording all the English language stories adapted for that series. Two foreign-language stories, "Anonymous Letters" by Balduin Groller and "The Sensible Action of Lieutenant Holst" by Baron Palle Rosenkrantz, were only translated into English for the volume The Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, ed. Hugh Greene, and so can't be used.

By Nullifidian (not verified) on 01 Nov 2011 #permalink

The UK dramatisation made all the characters English, which is a bit of shame, but we do get to see Nicholas(The Brig)Courtney playing Hutchinson Hatch.