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Futrelle, Jacques

Page history last edited by Jon 12 years, 6 months ago

Jacques FutrelleJacques Futrelle (1875-1912) was an American journalist, theatrical manager, and mystery writer. Futrelle's most famous detective character was professor Van Dusen, the 'Thinking Machine,' who solved impossible crimes. 'The Problem of Cell 13', a Van Dusen tale, is one of the most famous detective stories ever written. Futrelle died on the Titanic 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 was born in Pike County, Georgia, the descendant of French Huguenots. He was educated in public and private schools. Futrelle worked as a young man on a newspaper and as a theatrical manager. He then joined the staff of the Boston American, which published several of his short stories. In 1895 Futrelle married the writer L. May Peel. She later expanded Futrelle's The Simple Case of Susan (1908) into Lieutenant What's-His-Name (1915). The Ellery Queen Magazine published in 1949-50 some uncollected stories.


His best-known character was Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, the 'Thinking Machine', who was small, nearsighted, had a huge head, his behavior was arrogant, and he possessed superior mental powers. This eccentric scientist has as an assistant the clever newspaper reporter Hutchinson Hatch, who brings him cases. This model of team work was copied later in many mystery writers, among them Rex Stout in his books about Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe. With Sherlock Holmes Van Dusen shared an unemotional approach to problems without Holmes' human weaknesses, such as drug-taking, a seven-percent solution of cocaine.



--The reporter stared into the calm, inscrutable face of The Thinking Machine, fearing first that he had not heard aright. Then he concluded that he had.

--'You mean,' he inquired eagerly, 'that the phantom may be an auto- aeroplane affair, and that it actually does fly?'

--It's not at all impossible,' commented the scientist. (from 'The Phantom Motor')


Van Dusen's adventures appeared in a book for the first time in the novel The Chase of the Golden Plate (1906), where the Professor was still a minor character. 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', involves no murder, no crime at all but centers on the theme that 'mind is the master of all things': professor Van Dusen this time thinks himself out of a maximum-security prison cell by observing the habits of rodents and his jailers. In 'The Crystal Gazer' 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.


Whereas Sherlock Holmes had some weaknesses, which made him closer to readers, Van Dusen exemplified pure thought without much that was human. In 'The Problem of a Dressing Room' 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 that he wasn't joking, and beats his Russian opponent, the Russian 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')


In 1912 Futrelle was returning with his wife to New York on the Titanic in first class. After the ship had collided with the iceberg, she was escorted by her husband to lifeboat 9, which was filled almost to capacity. When Mrs Futrelle hesitated, an officer forced her into the boat, and she survived the disaster. Jacques Futrelle and several of his stories, which he had written during his stay in England, went down with the ship.


There is an official Jacques Futrelle website set up by the family. All the Thinking Machine stories can be downloaded from this site. Other Futrelle works are available at Project Gutenberg.


A brief review of Futrelle's life and works can be found here.




Mike Grost on Jacques Futrelle


Jacques Futrelle's tales of the Thinking Machine are some of the best detective stories even written. The Thinking Machine, a professor who received his nickname from the press for his intellectual acuity, appeared in a series of around 50 stories, from 1905 to Futrelle's death on the Titanic in 1912. Even the less successful Thinking Machine tales have features which make them enjoyable and worth reading. What seems to be the complete Thinking Machine stories can be found on-line at: http://www.futrelle.com/. This contains all the Thinking Machine stories in the recommended reading list at the start of this article, by the way.


Futrelle's tales seem extraordinarily surrealistic. Events in them are often bizarre, and with strange emotional undertones that come right out of the unconscious. Futrelle is at the start of an American tradition of "pop" Surrealism, that encompasses the detective fiction of Ellery Queen and Craig Rice, and the films of Buster Keaton and such Warner Brothers Loony Tunes animators as Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. All of these artists produced work as part of popular culture that encompass a full, delirious surrealism. If this work is strange, it is rarely downbeat. There is a harmonious beauty of form to the plots of most of these artists, that seems like the unfolding of the musical argument of a Mozart or Beethoven. It represents the storytelling instinct at its most graceful. Much of their work seems like an expression of joy. Futrelle's stories often pile mystery upon mystery in baffling fashion. The enigmatical detective investigations of the Thinking Machine, whose underlying motivations are not always shared with the reader, often aid the sense of endless mysteries, as well. The Thinking Machine's investigative ideas are often remarkably trenchant.


Futrelle's stories often deal with impossible crimes. He did not invent the impossible crime - he came after such impossible crime specialists as Zangwill and the team of Meade and Eustace, and was a contemporary of Hanshew - but his work in this field has a special exuberance, a rich power of invention. One of his stories, "The Silver Box" deals with the apparently impossible leakage of business information. This same subject was the theme of some of Meade and Eustace's series of Florence Cusack tales. These tales only appeared in magazines and were never collected in book form, so it is unclear if Futrelle ever saw them. In any case, Futrelle's method for the leaking of the information was original, and not found anywhere in his predecessors.


Futrelle's methodology as a writer of impossible crime stories centers on lines of communication. Pipes, strings, telephone lines, chains of mirrors used to reflect light - all of these appear in his stories. All of these devices are used to convey information from one point to another, in a way that seems at first glance to be impossible. A similar approach is found in the works of Meade and Eustace, and to a degree in Hanshew. Similarly, the emphasis on signaling devices in Whitechurch's train stories reflects an essentially similar interest in the high tech matrix of modern communication, a poetic, imaginative response to the growing communication grid of the modern world. This is in contrast to the bad machines found first in the impossible crime stories of M. McDonnell Bodkin, and then in Ernest Bramah.


Futrelle has affinities with the "scientific" school of American detective writers, who were his contemporaries. His detective hero was a scientist, and his plots can turn on technology and ingenious devices. However, this element is but one of many that goes to make up his fiction, and the scientific aspect is much less central here than in the works of Reeve or MacHarg and Balmer. There is also less of an atmosphere of "realism" to Futrelle's tales, compared to most of the works of the "scientific" school. They are more fairy tale like, and escapist. His tone is closer to such successors as Chesterton and Christie.


Futrelle wrote a couple of stories with an art world background, including the simple "Problem of the Stolen Rubens" and the more substantial "Mystery of a Studio". His depiction of painters and their work shows a certain knowledgability. Boston during his era was a center of American painting. All of this was before the Armory show introduced modern art to the American public.


Non-Impossible Crimes


Not all of Futrelle's tales deal with impossible crimes. "The Man Who Was Lost" is the earliest mystery story known to me dealing with amnesia. Futrelle rings many ingenious changes on this theme. He also delved in the mind of a man with delusions in "The Mystery of Room 666" (1910). This story, with its hero-narrator in prison charged with a crime, and with his strange dreams and fancies, seems anticipatory in its apocalyptic tone of T.S. Stribling's "A Passage to Benares" (1926). "The Mystery of Room 666" is the only non-Thinking Machine short story by Futrelle easily available today. E. F. Bleiler says that Futrelle also wrote sports stories and Westerns, but these have not been reprinted.


"Five Millions by Wireless" is an early kidnapping tale. Its solution will become a standard in works by later writers, such as Dashiell Hammett's "The Gatewood Caper" (1923). Like Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales where governments employ Holmes' help on a diplomatic crisis, this story expresses the middle class' strong skepticism about the aristocracy. This tale gets the Thinking Machine personally involved in adventure, as do "The Problem of the Cross Mark" and "The Problem of the Deserted House" (1907).


One year after the Thinking Machine's debut in "The Problem of Cell 13" (1905), Futrelle produced the only novella about his sleuth, "The Chase of the Golden Plate" (1906). This is the only non-short story to feature the Thinking Machine. The novella seems badly padded and slow moving, and is only occasionally interesting. It does build up a carefully constructed plot. This plot has affinities with two short stories Futrelle would write. Like "The Three Overcoats", "The Chase of the Golden Plate" deals with confusions of identity, long buried histories of conflict and questions of honor, and romantic issues. Like "The Problem of the Auto Cab", "The Chase of the Golden Plate" concerns a mysterious robbery during a society party, the return of the valuable loot, and gets Hutchinson Hatch unusually involved in leg work during the early stages of the case before the Thinking Machine is brought into the problem. Both of these brief tales are much better than the novella, with "The Problem of the Auto Cab" being especially delightful.


Some of Futrelle's non-impossible crime tales show the influence of Rogue fiction. Clever, dominating, well-dressed rogues appear in "The Three Overcoats", "The Jackdaw Girl" and "The Problem of the Cross Mark". The young businessman in "The Problem of the Vanishing Man" also falls into this tradition.


Futrelle's novels, which are mainly romantic melodramas, not mysteries, hold up much less well today. They seem thin, padded, and relatively plotless, especially compared to the short stories. His novella "The Diamond Master" (1909) is also a disappointment. The best parts are the first four chapters, which describe the diamonds themselves, with Futrelle's surrealistic flair. Despite some elements of mystery, this is basically a thriller, not a mystery story in any sense. Certain conventions of the thriller are satirized or burlesqued: following suspects (Chapter V), and the third degree (the end of the story). The hero of the story is not the much satirized private detective Mr. Birnes, but the young businessman. Futrelle idolized businessmen, and equated success in business, especially the robber baron, Captain of Industry mode, with male virility. This is odd contrast to his similar idolization of pure intellect, in the form of the decidedly different Thinking Machine. Together with the many dynamic, clearly sexually energetic women found in his work, it gives his stories a strong charge of sexual symbolism. This interest in sexuality is typical of the surrealist mode. One often feels in Futrelle's work that every sort of sexual idea is bubbling up and ready to explode from the subconscious.





The Chase of the Golden Plate (1906)

The Thinking Machine (1907) aka The Problem of Cell 13

The Simple Case of Susan (1908) expanded by May Futrelle as Lieutenant What's-His-Name

The Thinking Machine on the Case (1909) aka The Professor on the Case

Elusive Isabel (1909)

The Diamond Master (1909)

The High Hand (1911)

My Lady's Garter (1912)

Blind Man's Bluff (1914)

Best Thinking Machine Detective Stories (1973)

Great Cases of the Thinking Machine (1976)


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