Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Problem of Cell 13 - Jacques Futrelle

Name: The Problem of Cell 13

Author: Jacques Futrelle
Source: The Thinking Machine (Queen’s Quorum Title #38). It’s available in numerous anthologies. Jacques Futrelle’s complete output of stories can be read online from this site:
Story Number: 7
Going through some of the most memorable stories that I’ve ever encountered for my blog these past few days, it’s hard to neglect one of the greatest creations in the annals of detective fiction - Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, Ph. D., LL. D., F. R. S., M. D., or simply ‘The Thinking Machine’. Hence this story finds it way in even though it’s one of the most anthologized stories. This story was also included in the list of the 12 best detective stories ever written - as adjudged by a distinguished panel of mystery authors.
To prove that one can achieve anything by simply applying one’s mind to it, the professor accepts a challenge from his friends that he can escape from a prison cell within 7 days. He enters the cell No. 13 with only 3 special requests: that his shoes should be polished, that he be provided with tooth-powder and 25 dollars (2 notes of 10 dollars and 1 note of 5 dollars). The only escape routes would have to be the window which has been barred by iron bars or walk through 7 doors.
On the second day of his stay, he hurls a small piece of cloth with a message on it with a 5 dollar note. The next day, another similar message is hurtled out of the window with another 5 dollar bill. This calls for a detailed search of the prison cell – no trace of a writing device is found and neither can they account for the extra 5 dollar note. Next, one of the prisoners in cell 43(2 floors above cell 13) confesses to the murder he has committed and begs to be moved to another cell as he has been hearing strange voices in the room – the main cause for worry being the word ‘Acid’ as he had killed a woman by throwing acid on her face. The next thing which troubles the warden is the invitation to dinner from the professor which reaches via the mail. On the final night, the arc light in the yard is blown out which calls for bringing in the electricians from outside and serves as the perfect distraction for the professor to escape. Over dinner on that 7th night, the professor explains to his friends, the warden and the jailer as to how he went about planning his escape from the locked-room and succeeded.


  1. "The Problem of Cell 13" is definitely one of the great forebears of the locked room story, along side The Big Bow Mystery and The Mystery of the Yellow Room, but it's also an excellent example of how a story can be devalued by over anthologizing it.

    I can only grunt when I open a collection of short stories and see it listed in the table of content. It has become filler at this point (i.e. free public domain stuff) and I have no idea why any serious mystery anthologist would include it today. Give us stories that aren't already included in half of the anthologies out there!

  2. I totally agree with you. Some of the other stories which fall in the same mold are 'The Absent-Minded Coterie', '#8' by Jack Ritchie & 'The Red-Headed League'.

  3. Great post!! Love this book... one of my favourite´s!! Great blog too... please check out mine, it´s a literature blog too...

    Best regards!!

    Luciano from Argentina