Friday, May 9, 2014

The Phantom Motor by Jacques Futrelle

A car speeds onto a road with high walls either side, but never comes out the other end...

Taken from the collection of Jacques Futrelle's Thinking Machine stories, The Phantom Motor only briefly features the renown detective. Primarily focusing on the two policemen that reside either side of a thin stretch of road, the plot follows the confusion and frustration of the first policeman as he tries to convince his colleague of the seemingly impossible.

A modern day invisible car. Source: The Telegraph

Almost ever night, a mysterious car rushes past the officer (Baker) and into the inescapable stretch of road. When Baker calls his colleague (Bowman) at the other end to catch the speeding vehicle, it is nowhere to be seen. Even after walking the entire length of the road, neither policeman can determine how the vehicle could have accomplished such a feat. Only The Thinking Machine can piece together the story...

The Phantom Motor

The short story is available in its entirety for free at or If you want to read on your Kindle you can download it here (send to Kindle instructions here).

Author: Jacques Futrelle
Date: 1907
Word Count: 5,500 (about 22 pages)


The concept is really strong - a car is seen going onto a road that is surrounded by high walls on both sides, but disappears without a trace before coming out the other end. I'm not sure the solution can quite live up to the high expectations the concept generates.

Futrelle's portrayal of the confused policemen builds up the curiosity well, as they try and decipher the possible ways the car could have escaped. The reader follows along as they dismiss the various options - tunnelling under the road, a ramp over the walls, or a car that can somehow take flight.

There is little mention of why the car may be repeating the same pattern every night until towards the end of the story, and it may have been nice to see a few early hints to add to the mystery. The method of escape also relies on a small detail that is not revealed until relatively late, which decreases its impact slightly.

The Thinking Machine enters the fray towards the end of the story, where he listens to the facts and manages to deduce the method of escape. This could indicate that Futrelle wasn't confident enough in the ingenuity of the technique to submit it to the scrutiny of the detective for the duration, and the story suffers as a result.

6/10 - A strong concept that is slightly let down by the solution.

The Phantom Motor, in addition to many other stories featuring Professor Van Dusen, is available on Amazon (UK) and Amazon (UK) as part of The Thinking Machine collection. The book is available in paperback or Kindle editions.


  1. Kindle link downloads a Word 2007 .docx format file.

    1. Yep - Kindle supports Word documents. Just email it to your device (instructions in the post).

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