Longdog Library: Sherlock Holmes versus The Thinking Machines

John Linwood Grant

Welcome to our newest column on 18thWall.com, John Linwood Grant’s Longdog Library. It’s an ecclectic collection of history, genre fiction, and nearly forgotten books and genres. Check it out on every second Thursday!

There’s something about a classic detective whose approach – or even mind – is a touch off the beaten track.  Most people know their Holmes, and many have flirted with Poirot, Father Brown or one of those other quirky fellows. So today we’re going to visit three lesser known crime-solvers. I’m conscious that I’ve picked male detectives here, but it wouldn’t be too hard to do the same for female sleuths. Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley (from the 1930s onwards) would have done just as well. A peculiar and erudite woman, she was described as “an alligator smiling gently while birds removed animal irritants from its armoured frame”.

However, I’ll stick to the chaps for now. Our tireless trio are Edgar Wallace’s Mr J G Reeder, Roy Vickers’ Detective-Inspector Rason, and Jacques Futrelle’s Professor Augustus S F X Van Dusen.

J G Reeder

Edgar Wallace

We start with my absolute favourite, Mr J G Reeder. It’s strange in a way that the character is so little known nowadays, as he stands out amongst his contemporaries in fiction. His creator Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) was already known for his thrillers, and was prolific, being described as being able to write a full novel in three to four days. Prior to Wallace, most British thrillers had featured amateur or private detectives as their main protagonists – Wallace almost single-handedly popularised the use of a police officer as the main investigator.

J G Reeder is a former police investigator with considerable experience in money-related crimes such as forgery, counterfeiting and bank heists. Taking up a position in the Department of Public Prosecutions, he is assigned a number of cases where officials are rather stumped. The character was first introduced in Edgar Wallace’s novel Room 13, but really took off in a series of short stories published in 1925.

This might be seen as a standard set of crime stories for the period, except for the nature of Reeder himself. In appearance and surface behaviour, Reeder is a mild-mannered civil servant of nineteen twenties fiction, polite and unassuming, described at one point as looking more like a rabbit than an officer of the law. He speaks gently and tries not to stand out. His mind, however, is extraordinary. He himself puts it down to being able to think precisely as his opponents do.

“I have that perversion,” he said. “It is a terrible misfortune, but it is true. I see evil in everything… in dying roses, in horseshoes – in poetry even. I have the mind of a criminal. It is deplorable!”

The Poetical Policeman

The end result of his ‘criminal’ mind is that whilst the investigator is orthodox in every visible way, his approach to investigations is often highly unorthodox. The mysteries themselves are novel and quite interesting, but Reeder’s character elevates every tale.

Hugh Burden as J.G. Reeder

It’s difficult to cherry-pick, but for me one of the most enjoyable is ‘The Green Mamba’, originally entitled ‘The Dangerous Reptile’. An “uncrowned emperor of the underworld”, Mo Liski is persuaded that Reeder must be taken down. The story which follows is a wonderful exercise in subtlety as the investigator misleads and misdirects everyone around him, a non-criminal mastermind at his finest.

“The world is full of sin and trouble,” he said, shaking his head sadly; “Both in high and low places vice is triumphant, and virtue thrust, like the daisies, underfoot. You don’t keep chickens, do you, Mr Liski?”

The dangerous reptile is, naturally, J G Reeder. My recommended Sleuth of the Month.

Associated trivia – The stories were turned into a UK TV series between 1969 and 1971, and rather well done. Doing an excellent job as Reeder was the actor Hugh Burden, who conveniently also starred in Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, one of my favourite mummy films.

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)

Wallace links to my own writing, as well. As a young man he enlisted in the Royal West Kent Regiment, transferred to the Medical Staff Corps and ended up South Africa during the second Boer War. In 1898 he left the army to become correspondent for Reuters, then correspondent for ‘The Daily Mail’. He wrote a series published as ‘Unofficial Dispatches’, but due to his viewpoint and criticisms, Lord Kitchener removed Wallace’s credentials.

Wallace was therefore operating at the same time that Henry Dodgson and Redvers Blake, from my novella A Study in Grey, became disenchanted with aspects of the war, especially the concentration camps. And yes, Wallace and one of my characters did meet, but that’s for another time…

Detective Inspector Rason

My next detective, who is given no first name, is not in J G Reeder’s class, but he and his cases are curious enough to deserve a mention. His creator, William Edward Vickers (1889-1965) was an English mystery writer better known under his pen name Roy Vickers, (he had five or six other pseudonyms as well).

The Rubber Trumpet, the first of Vicker’s thirty-seven stories featuring the fictitious Department of Dead Ends, appeared in Pearson’s Magazine in September 1934. Partial collections of the stories were later made in 1947, 1949, and 1978. I have the 1978 Dover Edition, introduced by E F Bleiler (who also edited science fiction and fantasy fiction anthologies).

The “Department of Dead Ends” is Scotland Yard’s dumping ground for unsolved mysteries – some serious, some mundane. It’s a classic cold case set-up, with the expectation that most will never be looked at again or ever solved. The stories are described thus:

“That repository of files which were never completed, of investigations without a clue and clues which led nowhere. From time to time, quite illogically, Inspector Rason finds a connection between happenings in the outside world and the objects in his Scotland Yard museum, a rubber trumpet, maybe, or a bunch of red carnations. Then events move inexorably to their appointed end.”

The central investigator, Detective Inspector Rason, is not a character on whom to dwell for too long, although the stories are themselves interesting. He’s neither as clever nor as ruthless as Mr Reeder. Instead, he acts as a collector of trivia, one who sees tiny links between people and items. Some of his cases are solved entirely by accident, or via an afterthought.

These are not detailed forensic investigations where science and team effort prevail. Rason might hear something in a corridor, and remember an item on a shelf. And that’s it. It’s an unusual way of doing things, and Vickers emphasises the random nature of existence above all else. The most casual action or incident in one town on an unimportant day might easily link to an horrific crime elsewhere a week or a year later. The connections are sometimes ingenious, and might make you worry a little if you’re a career criminal. Did you leave a discarded ticket on a train three years ago?

Although Vickers wrote over 60 crime novels and 80 short stories, it was on the basis of the Department of Dead Ends that he developed a reputation in both the UK and the US as an accomplished writer of “inverted mysteries.”

“One of the half-dozen successful books of detective short stories published since the days of Sherlock Holmes.” Manchester Evening News

The Thinking Machine

Jacques Futrelle

Finally, the earliest and most weird of our three sleuths for the day. If there is a cold, calculating challenger to Holmes, one who shares his irascibility, his disdain for others, and his logical bent, then it is Professor August S F X Van Dusen – also known as The Thinking Machine and in the press, ‘the American Sherlock Holmes’.

Van Dusen was the creation of Jacques Futrelle (1875-1912), an American writer and journalist. Rather tragically, Futrelle died on the Titanic after insisting his wife take her place in one of the lifeboats. Despite having written a number of novels, he is best known for his tales of Van Dusen, who is in some ways a monstrous central character – Holmes with less redeeming features. Our sleuth this time is no Holmes in appearance, either:

“He was slender with the droop of the student in his thin shoulders and the pallor of a close, sedentary life on his clean-shaven face. His eyes wore a perpetual, forbidding squint – the squint of a man who studies little things – and when they could be seen at all through his thick spectacles, were mere slits of watery blue. But above his eyes was his most striking feature. This was a tall, broad brow, almost abnormal in height and width, crowned by a heavy shock of bushy, yellow hair.”

Where Holmes had his Watson, Professor Van Dusen had American journalist Hutchinson Hatch, perhaps drawn from Futrelle’s experience working for the Atlanta Journal.

1905 drawing of Van Dusen

Acclaimed science fiction and fantasy author Harlan Ellison says of Van Dusen, in his introduction to the 2003 collection of Thinking Machine stories:

“This irascible genius, this diminutive egghead scientist, known to the world as “The Thinking Machine,” is no less than the newly rediscovered literary link between Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe: Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, who—with only the power of ratiocination—unravels problems of outrageous criminous activity in dazzlingly impossible settings.”

It’s tempting to think that Ellison, who is sometimes described as an irascible genius himself, felt a certain bond with Van Dusen.

A number of the short stories were originally published in The Saturday Evening Post and the Boston American. They’re a mixed bunch, and some are exercises in the most unlikely uses of logic, to the point of being rather unbelievable. If you ever questioned Holmes’ ability to make logical deductions from limited evidence, then you can have a field day here. The most widely anthologised tale, ‘The Problem of Cell 13’ (1905), relies on a chain of arrangements and events which stretch credibility about as far as you can go.

They’re still rather enjoyable, though. Because of their age, the full text of many of the stories can be found on-line.

Incidentally, Van Dusen is odd enough to have cropped up in other media a few times. The professor appeared in two episodes of the 1970s Thames Television series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Douglas Wilmer portrayed Van Dusen in “Cell 13” and “The Superfluous Finger.” This is rather appropriate, as Wilmer played Sherlock Holmes himself in the first series of the UK sixties production of Holmes’ exploits. Peter Cushing was to take the role for the second series. Despite much criticism of production problems by both actors, Wilmer is actually a rather good Sherlock.

Douglas Wilmer as Sherlock Holmes

In addition, the character appeared in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s graphic novel Nemo: Heart of Ice (20130. Van Dusen aids explorer Janni Nemo when she encounters H. P. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods in Antarctica.

There you have our three lesser known detectives, and if there is one who might have genuinely rivalled Holmes, it would have to be the annoying Professor Van Dusen. Although they’re all worth a look, Mr Reeder is the true delight. Do explore…