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by Bamber Gascoigne

Jacques Futrelle (1875-1912)


American journalist, theatrical manager, and mystery writer. Futrelle's most famous character is professor Van Dusen, called the Thinking Machine, who solves impossible crimes. 'The Problem of Cell 13' (1905), a Van Dusen tale, is one of the most famous detective stories ever written. Futrelle died on the Titanic, on 15 April 1912. Before the ship sank, Futrelle made sure that his wife had a safe place on a lifeboat.

"As a general rule, the greatest crimes never come to light because the greatest criminals, their perpetrators, are too clever to be caught." (Van Dusen in 'The Scarlet Thread')

Jacques Futrelle (John Heath Futrell) was born in Pike County, Georgia, the descendant of French Huguenots. His father, Wiley Harmon Heath, was a college teacher, and mother, Linnie (Bevill) Futrelle, from Atlanta. After being educated in public schools and by his father, Futrelle worked in journalism. While in Atlanta, he established the Atlanta Journal's first sports column. In 1895, Futrelle married the writer L. May Peel; they had two children. With his wife, Futrelle moved to New York, where he was employed as a telegraph editor at the Hearst paper, The New York Herald. The Futrelles lived in the Gramercy Park area of Manhattan. Well-known writers in their neighborhood included Edith Wharton and O. Henry; Gramercy Park appeared in many of O. Henry's stories, such as 'The Discounters of Money' and 'The Trimmed Lamp."

The term "yellow journalism" was coined during Hearst's famous circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. It has been often said, that these two media moguls played a major role in drumming up U.S. public opinion to go war with Spain in 1898. According to a story, when the artist Frederic Remington telegrammed to Hearst that everything is quiet in Cuba, Hearst allegedly replied: "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." Although the Spanish American war lasted only about ten weeks, Futrelle was so exhausted after covering it from the frontlines, that he resigned and went to Scituate, Massachusetts, where his sister had a cottage. For two years between 1902 and 1904, he worked in Richmond, Virginia, as a theater manager. He wrote several plays and even  acted in some of them. Following the birth of their children, the Futrelles eventually settled in Massachusetts.

In 1904, Futrelle joined the staff of the Boston American, which published several of his short stories. In addition to mysteries, Futrelle wrote Westwerns and romances. During this period, Futrelle created also Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, the Thinking Machine, an eccentric scientist, who is nearsighted, behaves arrogantly, and possesses superior mental powers. And he has a huge head: Van Dusen wears a size 8 hat. The stories always end in his lectures about how he found the solution in the case in question.

Van Dusen's assistant is a clever newspaper reporter, Hutchinson Hatch; he is the Doctor Watson of the stories. This model of team work, familiar from Sherlock Holmes stories, has been copied later by many mystery writers, including Rex Stout in his books about Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe, and  Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot and Hastings). With his British rival Sherlock Holmes, Van Dusen shared similar unemotional and technical approach to problems, but without Holmes' human weaknesses, neurotic symptoms, and drug-taking, or Father Brown's moral and political concerns. However, Van Dusen has his own disadvantage, which perhaps explains his monkish way of life: "There was one thing on the earth he was afraid of – a woman" ('The Ralston Bank Burglary'). Although Van Dusen never reads the newspapers, he knows enough of the world out of his laboratory doors.

Van Dusen's character appeared in a book form for the first time in the novel The Chase of the Golden Plate (1906), where the Professor had still a minor role. This was followed by a short story collection, The Thinking Machine (1907). The critic and award-winning mystery writer H.R.F. Keating included it among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published. Its lead story, 'The Problem of Cell 13', originally serialized in the Boston American in October-November 1905, involves no murder, no crime at all, but centers on the theme that "mind is the master of all things": professor Van Dusen thinks himself out of a maximum-security prison cell by observing the habits of rodents and his jailers. Van Dusen exemplifies pure thought without human feelings; "any problem may  be solved by logic; logic  is inevitable," he argues. (Jacques Futrelle's "The Thinking Machine": The Enigmatic Problems of Prof. Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, Ph. D., LL. D., F. R. S., M. D., M. D. S., edited by Harlan Ellison, 2003,  p. xxiii) On the whole, the earlier stories, in which he is challenged by a seemingly insolutable problem, are considerer superior to the later detective mysteries.

In 'The Crystal Gazer' (1906) an American traveller named Varick, is allowed by an Indian seer to peer into his crystal. Varick recognizes his own room, himself in there, and a man who enters and hits him with a dagger in the back. Van Dusen solves the puzzle and proves that the fraudulent seer has used a complex system of mirrors.

Van Dusen's character verge on science fiction – the Thinking Machine might almost be a character invented by H.G. Wells. In 'The Problem of a Dressing Room' (1906) Futrelle explained, how the professor got his nickname. Van Dusen recounts how he can't play chess, but that after a few hours of instruction he could defeat a master player. When Van Dusen proves he wasn't joking, and beats his Russian opponent, who exclaims: "Mon Dieu! You are not a man; you are a brain – a machine – a thinking machine."

'Nothing is impossible,' snapped the scientist. 'The human mind can do anything. It is all we have to lift us above the brute creation.' (from 'The Problem of a Dressing Room')

Futrelle left in 1906 the newspaper business for good to become a full-time writer. He moved with his family to Scituate, where they built a house known as "Stepping Stones". Most of his works Futrelle wrote at Scituate Harbor. The golden age of pulp fiction had not yet dawned, but there was a great demand for the kind of mysteries Futrelle invented. Newspapers and magazines hoped to attract readers by their own fictional detective characters. Futrelle's Thinking Machine stories were first serialized in Boston newspapers. Also, among others, The Minneapolis Journal, The New York Tribune, and the Washington Evening Star published his mysteries.

Prior to the appearance of the Thinking Machine, Futrelle wrote a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, 'The Great Suit Case Mystery' (1906), which was published in four installments in  Hearst's Boston American. To boost the sales of the tabloid, this real-life crime, about the death of a 21-year-old chorus girl from a botched abortion, was put on the front page. "In dealing with crime one must always remember, too, that the mind of the criminal is abnormal always," says Holmes in the story, "A man whose brain is perfectly poised is never a criminal."

One of Futrelle's novels, Elusive Isabel (1909), a conspiracy mystery, was adapted for the big screen in Hollywood. The screenplay was written by Raymond I. Schrock. Originally Isabel was planned as an eight-reel feature, but priot to its premiere, it was cut to six reels. Variety wrote that the fim  was "a very much jumbled up affair that runs along in halting fashion and finally ends up nowhere." (American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929 by John T. Soister and Henry Nicolella, 2012, pp. 180-181) 'The Problem of Cell 13' has been adapted for television several times. 

Early in 1912, Futrelle travelled in Europe. He spent a month in Italy and at one point he visited Scotland Yard. In April of 1912, Futrelle boarded with his wife the R.M.S. Titanic, on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. They had a first class cabin (possibly number C-123, which was situated opposite the Aft Grand Staircase). Initially the couple had not planned to take the Titanic, but had booked on the Adriatic, another White Star liner. Due to delays, they were forced to cancel this passage. The last picture of the author, standing on the windy boat deck close to ship's sports room, was taken by Father Francis Browne. Futrelle has no hat on his head, and he is keeping his left hand in the pocket.

After the ship had collided with the iceberg, the Futrelles went up on deck. May was escorted by her husband to lifeboat 9, filled almost to capacity. When Mrs Futrelle hesitated, an officer forced her into the boat, and she survived the disaster. On the deck Futrelle lit a cigarette for himself and one for Colonel Astor; the match illuminating both of their faces was the last sight of her husband. "I feel better," she said later, aboard the rescue ship Carpathia, "for I can cry now." (On Board the Titanic: The Complete Story with Eyewitness Accounts, edited by Logan Marshall, 2006, p. 99) Jacques Futrelle and several of his stories, which he had written during his stay in England, went down with the ship. Futrelle's body was never found. His last novel was My Lady's Garter (1912). Futrelle's mother Linnie died in July 1912. The New York Times reported, that the grief over the loss of her son was believed to have been the direct cause of the death. May Futrelle later expanded The Simple Case of Susan (1908) into Lieutenant What's-His-Name (1915). She died in 1967 and was buried in Scituate, Massachusetts. The Ellery Queen Magazine published in 1949-50 some uncollected stories.

About Jacques Futrelle: 'Introduction,' by E.F. Bleiler, in The Great Thinking Machine: "The Problem of Cell 13" & Other Stories, edited by E. F. Bleiler  (2018); 'Futrelle, Jacques (1875-1912)' by Delphine Cingal, in 100 American Crime Writers, edited by S. Powell (2012); "Thinking Machine, The' in The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery by B. Murphy (1999); 'Futrelle, Jacques,' in World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 2, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories, ed. by Tony Hillerman and Rosemary Herbert (1996); Probable Cause: Crime Fiction in America by LeRoy Panek (1990); Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating (1987); 'Futrelle, Jacques,' by E.F. Bleiler, in Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. by John M. Reilly (1985). Suomeksi on julkaistu teosten Susannan pula (1916) ja Sokkosilla (1920) lisäksi valikoima novelleja, Mestarisalapoliisi (1931).

Selected works:

  • The Chase of the Golden Plate, 1906 (with illustrations by Will Grefé and decorations by E.A. Poucher)
  • The Thinking Machine, 1907
  • The Simple Case of Susan, 1908 (expanded by May Futrelle as Lieutenant What's-His-Name, 1915)
    - Susannan pula (suom. Impi Sotavalta, 1916)
  • The Thinking Machine on the Case, 1909 (GB title: The Professor on the Case, 1909) 
  • Elusive Isabel, 1909 (GB title: The Lady in the Case, 1910) - film 1916, dir. by Stuart Paton, starring Florence Lawrence, Sidney Bracey, Harry Millarde, Wallace Clarke
  • The Diamond Master, 1909 (illustrated by Herman Pfeifer)
  • The High Hand, 1911 (with illustrations by Will Grefé; GB title: The Master Hand, 1914) 
  • My Lady's Garter, 1912 (illustrated by F.R. Gruger)
  • Blind Man's Bluff, 1914 (printed in periodical form)
    - Sokkosilla: seikkailuromaani Pariisista (suom. A.J. Salonen, 1920)
  • Lieutenant What's-His-Name, 1915 (edited by L. May Futrelle, frontispiece by Howard Chandler Christy)
  • Best "Thinking Machine" Detective Stories, 1973 (edited by E. F. Bleiler)
  • Great Cases of the Thinking Machine, 1976 (with an introd. by E. F. Bleiler)
  • The Classic Tales of Jacques Futrelle, Volume One: The Thinking Machine, 2004
  • Mystery and Detection with The Thinking Machine: Volume 1-2, 2009
  • Jacques Futrelle's "The Thinking Machine": The Enigmatic Problems of Prof. Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, Ph. D., LL. D., F. R. S., M. D., M. D. S., 2003 (edited by Harlan Ellison)
  • Professor Van Dusen: The Thinking Machine, 2005
  • The Great Thinking Machine: "The Problem of Cell 13" & Other Stories, 2018 (edited by E. F. Bleiler)
  • 'The Superfluous Finger,' 2019 (in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: The Greatest Detective Stories: 1837-1914, edited by Graeme Davis; republication of Best "Thinking Machine" Detective Stories, 1973)

For further reading about Titanic:

  • The Loss of the Titanic by L. Beesley (1912)
  • Titanic & Other Ships by C. Lightoller 1935)
  • A Night To Remember by Walter Lord (1955)
  • The Story of the Titanic As Told By Its Survivors by J. Wincour (ed. 1970)
  • The Truth about the Titanic by A.Gracie (1973)
  • Titanic by M. McCaughan (1982)
  • The Night Lives On by Walter Lord (1986)
  • The Titanic, the Full Story of the Tragedy by M. Davie (1986)
  • Titanic, Triumph and Tragedy by John P. Eaton and Charles A. Haas (1986)
  • RMS Titanic by D. Hutchings (1987)
  • The Titanic - Southampton's Memorials by B. Ticehurst (1988)
  • Her Name Titanic by C. Pellegrino (1988)
  • Hands Off the Titanic by M. Harding O'Hara (1989)
  • Shadow of the Titanic by R.C. Denney and E. Hart (1994)
  • The Titanic Disaster by Dave Bryceson (1997) 
  • Titanic: Destination Disaster by John P. Eaton and Charles A. Haas (1997)
  • Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge (1997)
  • The Titanic: The Extraordinary Story of the 'Unsinkable' Ship by Geoff Tibballs (1997)
  • Titanic Voices by Donald Hyslop, Alastair Forsyth and Sheila Jemima (1997)
  • Last Dinner On the Titanic: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner by Rick Archbold, Dana McCauley, and Walter Lord (1997)
  • All Stations! Distress!: April 15, 1912: The Day the Titanic Sank by Don Brown (2010)
  • Exploring the Titanic: How the Greatest Ship Ever Lost-Was Found by Robert D. Ballard (2010)
  • Lost Voices from the Titanic: The Definitive Oral History by Nick Barratt (2010)
  • Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived by Andrew Wilson (2011)
  • LIFE Titanic: The Tragedy that Shook the World: One Century Later by Editors of Life (2012)
  • Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic's First-Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster (2012)
  • Titanic in Photographs by Daniel Klistorner and Scott Andrews (2012)
  • Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From by Richard Davenport-Hines (2012)
  • The Ship of Dreams: The Sinking of the Titanic and the End of the Edwardian Era by Gareth Russell (2019)
Literary coincidences: Morgan Robertson's novel The Wreck of the Titan, which appeared in 1898, told a story where a ship was sunk by ice. The American poet Celia Thaxter described in her work from 1874 a collision between a ship and an iceberg. The journalist William Thomas Stead, who was a first class passenger on the Titanic, had written in 1886 a fictional article for the Pall Mall Gazette, in which a ship collided with another ship. Great loss of life resulted because there were not enough lifeboats. In 1892, Stead wrote an article for the Reviews of Reviews, depicting a journey from England to the United States on White Star liner Majestic. During the voyage the liner rescues survivors from a ship that was sunk after collision with ice. - Stead himself died on the Titanic.  Films: Saved from the Titanic (1912); Titanic, dir. Herbert Selpin (1943); Titanic, dir. Jean Negulesco (1953); A Night to Remember, dir. Roy Baker, screenplay Eric Ambler, based on Walter Lord's book with the same title (1958); The Unsinkable Molly Brown, dir. Charles Walters (1964); SOS Titanic, dir. Billy Hale (1979, television series); Raise the Titanic!, dir. Jerry Jameson (1980); Titanica (1991, document film); Titanic (1996, four-hour TV mini-series); Titanicin suomalaisten tarina, dir. Marko Kuparinen, Juho Lilja (1996, documentary); Titanic, dir. James Cameron (1997); La femme de chambre du Titanic , dir. Bigas Luna (1997); The Titanic Chronicles, dir Wayne Keeley (1999); La véritable histoire du Titanic, dir. Julien Reininger (2001, short animation); Last Mysteries of the Titanic, dir. Neil Flagg (2005); The Unsinkable Titanic, dir. Patrick Reams (2008); Saving the Titanic, dir. Maurice Sweeney (2011); Titanic: Case Closed, dir. Nigel Levy (2012, TV documentary); Titanic, dir. Kevin Lincoln, Pete Meads (2012); Titanic: 20 Years Later with James Cameron (2017, TV  documentary) - Suomeksi on käännetty Walter Lordin Titanicin kohtalonyö (1957). Beesley Lawrencen teos Titanic ilmestyi suomeksi 1913 vuosi onnettomuuden jälkeen. Erik Fosnes Hansenin teos Salme ved reisens slutt (1990) on suomennettu nimellä Viimeiseen soittoon (1992). Ulla Appelsinin Titanicin tuntematon lapsi (2003) kertoo suomalaisten matkustajien kohtaloista ja erityisesti yhdestä, 13-kuukauden ikäisestä pojasta nimeltä Eino Panula (=the unknown child), jonka haudasta Fairview Lawn -hautausmaalla tuli kaikkien onnettomuudessa menehtyneiden lapsien muistomerkki. Onnettomuutta sivuavat myös Aino Kallaksen Seitsemän: Titanic-novelleja (1914), Matti Wuoren Titanicin kansituolit (1993) ja virolaisen Jaan Kaplinskin Titanic (1995).

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