rivals of sherlockFor Balladeer’s Blog’s review of the very first episode of this 1971-1973 series about London by Gaslight detectives from both the Victorian and Edwardian Ages you can simply click HERE

*** This review will cover the two Professor Van Dusen stories that were dramatized in Season Two of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

Superfluous fingerEpisode: THE SUPERFLUOUS FINGER (March 11th, 1973) 

Detective: Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, created by Jacques Futrelle. The very first Professor Van Dusen story was published in 1905.

Comment: Though the professor, also called “The Thinking Machine,” was an American character created by an American author, this British series saved money by depicting him as a British detective solving crimes in England.

Professor Van DusenReview: Professor Van Dusen (Douglas Wilmer) is engaged by his acquaintance, Doctor Prescott (Laurence Payne), to solve a mystery. A perfectly healthy woman (Veronica Strong) wanted the physician to amputate one of her fingers but refused to say why.

When the doctor refused, she immediately inflicted an injury on herself forcing the amputation of that finger by the MD. Prescott wants the professor to find out what was behind this strange incident.

The woman refuses to offer any explanation or to give her real name, so Van Dusen has her followed by his reporter friend, Roderick Varley (Mark Eden), a replacement for the original story’s Hutchinson Hatch. (In those original Van Dusen stories Hatch worked for the fictional newspaper called the Daily New Yorker. In this series the reporter character is employed by a London newspaper.)

Despite Van Dusen’s Holmesian airs of doing everything himself, the truth is the reporter assembles most of the early clues himself, and learns that the woman just arrived with her husband by steamship from America. The newsman winds up getting arrested when he is found standing over the murdered body of the woman who requested the amputation. 

The Thinking Machine saves the reporter from suspicion and recruits the arresting officer, Inspector Sterling, to lend official sanction to his investigation. The trail leads to a demented but titled figure whose wealth and rank keep saving him from the consequences of his criminal actions.

Following onward from clues provided by this dangerous man – who holds Van Dusen against his will in his dungeon at one point – the professor pulls the mystery’s threads together. He also manages to corral the real murderers and exposes their motives.

Douglas Wilmer, who played Sherlock Holmes on television in the 1960s, was fun to watch as Professor Van Dusen. His pomposity and his exasperation with lesser minds are humorously appropriate for Van Dusen or Holmes or even Doctor Who.

The mystery is, beat for beat, almost a dead ringer for a Sherlock Holmes story, right down to a fake telegram being used to lure out the perpetrators. The reporter, of course, would have been Watson and the policeman either Inspector Lestrade or Inspector Bradstreet.

Cell 13Episode: CELL 13 (February 12th, 1973)

Review: Douglas Wilmer starred as the Thinking Machine in this episode, also, with Michael Gough in a supporting role. I was disappointed in the selection of this particular Futrelle story, however, because Cell 13 (originally titled The Problem of Cell 13) has been one of the most often dramatized Van Dusen tales before and since this television series. An opportunity was missed to throw some attention to a lesser-known account of the professor. And there are plenty of them.

To me the story doesn’t even count as a mystery in any way, shape or form. Professor Van Dusen makes a bet with some of his acquaintances that he can escape from a cell in a presumably inescapable prison which has never lost an inmate.

Strict conditions are laid down in the bet and Van Dusen is permitted only a few odd and – to his opponents – seemingly useless items. A series of really, and I mean REALLY unlikely events follows and needless to say the Thinking Machine wins his bet before the agreed-upon deadline.

The supposed charm of this story eludes me and I cannot explain its popularity. Obviously I greatly preferred The Superfluous Finger. The next time Cell 13 is adapted maybe they should change it up a bit and make it so that Van Dusen is called in to solve how a particular prisoner pulled off their escape from the “escape-proof” penitentiary. 

Two items of note before I wrap up this review: One, in this episode the reporter friend of the professor was played under the character’s real name of Hutchinson Hatch … by Nicholas Courtney, the Brigadier from Doctor Who. And two, Jacques Futrelle was among the passengers who died on the Titanic. He got his wife to a lifeboat and stayed behind to die.     





Filed under Forgotten Television


  1. Frank

    I loved your article post.Thanks Again. Great.

  2. daniel gorman

    Professor van Douchebag is more like it.

  3. Bill Corbett

    Major props on this review. And yes they should have Van Dusen solve the breakout next time they do Cell 13.

  4. Betty P

    I loved the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes stories so this sounds perfect for me!

  5. I blog often and I genuinely appreciate your content. Your article has truly peaked my interest. I’m going to bookmark your website and keep checking for new information about once per week. I opted in for your RSS feed too.

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