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Literature / The Thinking Machine

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"Two plus two equals four, not some of the time, but all of the time."

Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, Ph.D., LL.D., F.R.S., M.D., M.D.S., a.k.a. 'The Thinking Machine', is a the central character in a series of detective short stories and two novels by Jacques Futrelle.

In the stories, Professor Van Dusen solves a variety of different mysteries with his friend and companion, reporter Hutchinson Hatch.

The professor is known as "The Thinking Machine", solving problems by the remorseless application of logic.

The Thinking Machine stories contain examples of:

  • Abduction Is Love: In "The Mystery of a Studio", a Mad Artist abducts the woman who was his muse when he learns she does not return his love.
  • The Alcatraz: In "The Problem of Cell 13", Van Dusen accepts a challenge to escape from a death row cell in an 'inescapable' prison within a week. He does so in a truly spectacular fashion.
  • The Alibi: In "His Perfect Alibi", a murder is committed and every single piece of evidence—including a dying declaration by the victim—points to one man. However, that suspect has the seemingly airtight alibi of having been in a dentist chair having a tooth extracted at the time of the murder. It is up to Van Dusen to work out how someone could seemingly be in two places at same time.
  • Amateur Sleuth: Van Dusen is a university professor who solves 'impossible' crimes brought to him by his journalist friend Hutchinson Hatch. Van Dusen receives no financial remuneration for his efforts; merely the satisfaction of proving that nothing is impossible.
  • Animal Assassin: In "The Grip of Death", a man in found strangled in a locked apartment. He was actually strangled by a boa constrictor, that entered through a rat hole in the wall. (Strictly speaking this a case of bizarre death by misadventure rather than murder, but it plays out like a murder.)
  • Appropriated Appellation: Professor Van Dusen acquired the nickname 'The Thinking Machine' when an angry Russian chess grandmaster hurled it at him after Van Dusen had beaten him at chess despite never having played the game before by using Awesomeness by Analysis. The Russian says "You are not man; you're a brain - a machine - a thinking machine". Journalist Hutchinson Hatch picks it up and starts using it in his stories about Van Dusen. Van Dusen himself does not seem to care one way or the other about the nickname.
  • At the Opera Tonight: In "The Problem of the Opera Box", Van Dusen investigates when a young woman is stabbed to death while surrounded by her family in a opera box during a performance of Il trovatore.
  • Awesomeness by Analysis: Van Dusen acquired his nickname when he defeated a Russian grandmaster despite never having played a game of chess just by reading the rules and then applying pure logic.
  • Brandishment Bluff: In "The Problem of the Organ Grinder", Van Dusen manages to bluff a burly burglar into dropping his pistol by waving a clinical thermometer under his nose in a half-dark room, while Hatch holds the burglar's female accomplice prisoner at the point of his pipe case.
  • Bunker Woman: In "The Mystery of a Studio", a Mad Artist abducts his muse and imprisons her in a padded closet where he attempts to asphyxiate her with chloroform.
  • Catchphrase: Van Dusen is fond of saying "Two and two makes four, not sometimes but always", or variations thereon.
  • Chairman of the Brawl: In "The Motor Boat", when the killer manages to get the better of Detective Mallory through use of some jujitsu tricks, Hatch ends the fight by the simple expedient of breaking a chair over the killer's head.
  • Clock Tampering: Crucial to how the murder was committed in "His Perfect Alibi". Once Van Dusen works what the killer has done, he then has to work out how he did it.
  • Complexity Addiction: This is the only thing that can explain the incredibly convoluted plan the criminal comes up with in "The Fatal Cipher". It actually relies on the fact that Van Dusen is a deductive genius to stand any chance of succeeding.
  • Contortionist: A midget contortionist who folds himself up inside a suitcase is integral to the seemingly impossible theft committed in "The Lost Radium".
  • The Convenient Store Next Door: In "The Problem of the Deserted House", criminals rent an old, abandoned house and, over the course of several months, construct a tunnel from the cellar to a bank vault (crossing a subway tunnel in the process), so they will have the secret passage in place when a shipment of several million dollars in gold arrives.
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: In "The Problem of Cell 13", Van Dusen manages to send messages from inside the condemned cell by scraping shoe polish off his shoes to use as ink and using the metal aglets of his shoelaces as a stylus.
  • Counterfeit Cash: In "The Problem of the Organ Grinder", investigating a seemingly pointless crime (the murder of an organ grinder's monkey) leads to Van Dusen exposing an extremely professional and well-organized counterfeiting ring.
  • Creepy Gas-Station Attendant: "The Grinning God" is a pair of short stories by May and Jacques Futrelle (her's is "Wraiths of the Storm" and his reply is "The House That Was", both 1907) that feature a crusty New Englander variant of the unhelpful and alarming gas station attendant. He lives above the store in the middle of nowhere and is reluctant to sell fuel at night, despite the driver's car being clearly out of gas, miles from the nearest big city. He won't put the driver up for the night despite the signs of an approaching storm. He tells the driver that the road to the next town is "straight 'cept where it bends." Only an offer to pay double prompts the man to finally sell the fuel at all. The driver goes his way, and has a series of strange experiences. He comes to doubt his own sanity and act accordingly. It is up to Jacques Futrelle's Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen ("The Thinking Machine") to work out the answer, bringing the distraught man along on a re-enactment of the trip to show that it was all real. The driver had turned and backtracked instead of going on toward his destination; the attendant tried to call after him but had his voice drowned out by the thunder and the roar of the engine.
  • Disconnected by Death: What Van Dusen thinks might have happened in "The Problem of the Deserted House" when someone phones him in the early hours of the morning to warn of a matter of life and death, only for there to be a gunshot and the line go dead. The caller was still alive. It was the phone that had been shot.
  • Disguised in Drag: In "Convict #97", two brothers perform a Twin Switch. The innocent twin enters his brother's cell disguised as their (non-existent) sister. In the cell, the brothers swap clothes, and the convict exits in the 'sister's' garb.
  • Dying Clue: "His Perfect Alibi" features a rare variant in the which the victim manages to actually write down the name of his killer before expiring. However (as might be guessed from the title), the killer has a seemingly perfect alibi that makes it physically impossible for him to have committed the murder.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: The first story, "My First Experience with the Great Logician", is unusual in that is told in the first person, which none of the other stories are. (Futrelle seems to having been trying to ape the style of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, as Van Dusen performs a Sherlock Scan on the narrator, a feat he never repeats. Following this, Futrelle apparently decided the stories worked better in the third person.) Additionally, the narrator is not Hutchinson Hatch, who acts as The Watson in all the other tales.
  • Finger-Licking Poison: In "My First Experience with the Great Logician", the narrator accidentally poisons himself by smoking a cigar he stored in a jacket pocket where, several months earlier, he had carried a packet of insecticidal powder. Some of the powder had leaked and coated the tip of the cigar.
  • Fowl-Mouthed Parrot: In "The Lost Million", a parrot holds a vital clue to the mystery. However, the parrot had belonged to a misanthrope and constantly swears and is insulting. After a few days with the bird, the normally even-tempered Van Dusen hands it back to its new owner with the warning that if he ever sees it again, he is going to kill it.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: The 'frame yourself' version is done by the murderer in "The Fatal Cipher". The killer plants a lot of false evidence to implicate themselves; relying on Van Dusen to discover that this evidence is fake, and then find the second set of false evidence they planted to implicate their chosen patsy. The entire scheme ends up verging into Complexity Addiction.
  • Gentleman Thief: Leighton, the villain of "The Missing Necklace", is a master jewel thief that Scotland Yard have been trying to catch for years.
  • Great Detective
  • Hypnotic Eyes: In "The Problem of Dressing Room A", Van Dusen claims you can tell a hypnotist through his eyes.
  • Identity Amnesia: In "The Man who Was Lost", Van Dusen is consulted by a man who woke up in a hotel room in Boston with no idea of who he was or where he was, and no possessions besides the clothes he was wearing and $10,000 in $100 bills.
  • Inspector Lestrade: Detective Mallory is this to Professor Van Dusen. Van Dusen seems to respect Mallory, regarding him as a decent, if plodding detective. Mallory varies between welcoming Van Dusen's involvement in his cases, or regarding him as an irritating intrusion. While Mallory is quite capable of handling ordinary crimes, he is out of his depth in dealing with the 'impossible' crimes Van Dusen specialises in: either becoming totally flummoxed or simply arresting the most obvious suspect. When Mallory thinks Van Dusen might have been killed in "The Problem of the Deserted House", he is quite tender toward him.
  • Insufferable Genius: Professor Augustus Van Dusen, Ph. D.,LL. D., F.R.S. M.D. M.D.S, etc., a.k.a. 'the Thinking Machine'. After neatly being killed in "The Problem of the Deserted House", he remarks:
    "And, gentlemen, if I had been killed one of the most valuable minds in the sciences would have been lost. It would have been nothing less than a catastrophe."
  • Interdisciplinary Sleuth: Van Dusen is a logician, mathematician, physician, and has qualifications in multiple other fields. However, none of his qualifications are in criminology. He solves crimes by the rigorous application of logic.
  • Invisible Writing: In "The Broken Bracelet", Van Dusen is asked to uncover the secret of a blank scrap of paper found inside the eponymous bracelet. The secret is a cryptic set of directions written in invisible ink. When Hatch questions the feasibility of doing this in prison, Van Dusen points out lemon juice or milk would serve the purpose. (Presumably delicacy prevented him from mentioning the possibility of urine.)
  • Kidnapping Bird of Prey: This is proposed as a solution to the vanishing of Baby Blake in "The Disappearance of Baby Blake". Van Dusen shoots the idea down by pointing out that no eagle found in the local area would have the strength to lift a two year old. Of course, the real solution turns out to be stranger (and even less likely).
  • Locked Room Mystery: The stories contain multiple variants on the locked room mystery. "The Problem of the Grip of Death" is an excellent straight example where the victim is found strangled in his locked apartment, with the windows latched and the door not only locked, but barred in such a way that the bar could not have been dropped from the outside. The solution ultimately involves a boa constrictor acting as an Animal Assassin.
  • Mad Artist: In "The Mystery of a Studio", a mad artist abducts the woman who was his muse when he learns she does not return his love. he locks her in a closet in his studio so she can never leave him again.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: In "The Problem of the Organ Grinder", the investigation of what appears to be a truly pointless crime—the murder of an organ grinder's monkey—leads the exposure of a major counterfeiting ring.
  • Murder by Mistake: In "The Opera Box", the killer stabs what he thinks his intended victim through the lattice work separating two adjoining boxes. However, in the gloom, he did not realise that the woman attending the opera with her parents was actually his intended victim's sister.
  • Not in Front of the Parrot!: In "The Lost Million", a bitter old hermit tells his heirs before he dies that he has hidden his fortune where they will never find it. The only clue is the old man's parrot, which constantly swears and spouts random calculations. Van Dusen takes the parrot and, by writing down everything the parrot says, works out the numbers are actually a set a measurements. The old man had repeated them over and over when planning the hiding place, and the parrot memorised them, and was repeating them randomly. Once Van Dusen places them in the correct order, he just has to deduce the starting place.
  • Omnidisciplinary Scientist: Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, Ph. D., LL. D., F. R. S., M. D., etc., dubbed as "The Thinking Machine" by his reporter friend Hutchison Hatch, is one of these. In "The Problem of Dressing Room A", it is stated that Van Dusen is an expert in a dozen different disciplines.
  • Organ Grinder: In "The Problem of the Organ Grinder", Van Dusen investigates when an organ grinder's monkey is stabbed to death while Hatch is held at knifepoint. The organ grinder is later found beaten into unconsciousness in an alleyway.
  • The Perfect Crime: As the title implies, "His Perfect Alibi" involves a murder where the murderer has constructed what seems to be an airtight alibi making it impossible for him to have committed the crime, despite all of the other evidence pointing to him. It falls to Van Dusen to work out how he did it.
  • "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: In "The Flaming Phantom", a criminal masquerades as a ghost to give himself time to search a house that is due to be renovated for hidden jewels.
  • Sherlock Can Read: In "My First Experience with the Great Logician", Van Dusen performs a Sherlock Scan and is able to deduce his patient's name, address and profession; that he smokes; that he is wearing his clothes for the first time that winter; that he was widowed a few months earlier; that he kept house then; and that the house was infected with insects. After the narrator professes his astonishment, Van Dusen explains that the name, address and occupation he got from the man's business card, which he read while he was unconscious. The other facts were actual deductions, however.
  • Sherlock Scan: Not Van Dusen's usual stock-in-trade, but in "My First Experience with the Great Logician", he is able to deduce his patient's name, address and profession; that he smokes; that he is wearing his clothes for the first time that winter; that he was widowed a few months earlier; that he kept house then; and that the house was infected with insects.
  • Shoot Out the Lock: In "The Mystery of a Studio", after Hutch and Mallory fail to break down a closet door, Van Dusen takes Mallory's revolver and shoots the lock.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Played with. The title Great Detective has never played chess before and doesn't have a high opinion of it, but is somehow able to use his clever reasoning to beat a chess champion on his first try.
  • Suicide, Not Murder: In "The Great Auto Mystery", a woman is found stabbed to death in the front of an open air automobile. It is ultimately revealed that woman was not the one everyone thought she was, that the death was really suicide, and that one of the passengers knew the truth but could not say anything as it would have raised a large number of awkward questions.
  • Super Window Jump: Averted in "The Ghost Woman". A cracksman jumps through a closed window and vanishes into the night. However, Van Dusen notes the amount the amount of blood on the broken glass, and states that one cannot crash through a closed window and fall 20 ft. to the ground without sustaining serious lacerations and injuries. He reasons the man would have had to seek medical attention, which is how he locates him.
  • Thieving Magpie: In "The Rosewell Tiara", Van Dusen investigates when a single diamond is stolen from a tiara inside a locked safe. The 'thief' turns out to be the owner's pet cockatoo, who has a penchant for shiny objects and who plucked out the diamond and swallowed it. How the safe came to be opened turns out to a completely separate mystery.
  • Try to Fit That on a Business Card: The Thinking Machine's real name is Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, Ph.D., LL.D., F.R.S., M.D., M.D.S. explanation . Several of the stories add 'etc., etc.' to show that this is not the complete list of Van Dusen's titles.
  • Twin Switch: In "Convict #97", a convict escapes by forcing his twin brother to take his place on the cell. Van Dusen works out what has happened because the brothers have different shoe sizes.
  • The Unreveal: In "The Problem of Cell 13", Van Dusen asserts that he had at least two other methods of escaping from the cell if his first plan proved nonviable (and his first plan relied on facts he did not know before entering the cell). The reader never learns what these other plans were.
  • The Watson: Hutchinson Hatch serves this role. In the radio adaptations, his role is expanded and he becomes the narrator of the stories, much like the original Watson.