Authors: Jacques Futrelle

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Chase of the Golden Plate, 1906

The Simple Case of Susan, 1908 (expanded as Lieutenant What’s-His-Name by May Futrelle, 1915)

Elusive Isabel, 1909 (also known as The Lady in the Case)

The High Hand, 1911 (also known as The Master Hand)

My Lady’s Garter, 1912

Blind Man’s Buff, 1914 (romance)

Short Fiction:

The Thinking Machine, 1907 (also known as The Problem of Cell 13)

The Thinking Machine on the Case, 1908 (also known as The Professor on the Case)

The Diamond Master, 1909

Best Thinking Machine Detective Stories, 1973

Great Cases of the Thinking Machine, 1976


Jacques Futrelle (fuh-TREHL), in his creation of the Thinking Machine, Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, was one of the first mystery writers to give that genre scientific and intellectual respectability. Probably only his untimely death on the Titanic prevented him from achieving the same stature as such fellow pioneers of the mystery as G. K. Chesterton and R. Austin Freeman. Born in Pike County, Georgia, of French-Huguenot parentage, Futrelle became a theatrical manager in his early twenties and then settled in Boston as a journalist. He married L. May Peel, also a writer, in 1895 and later saved her life at the cost of his own by pushing her into a lifeboat ahead of him during the Titanic disaster.{$I[AN]9810001119}{$I[A]Futrelle, Jacques}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Futrelle, Jacques}{$I[tim]1875;Futrelle, Jacques}

While working for The Boston American, Futrelle conceived the idea of the Thinking Machine, a cultivated and intellectual detective. Also known as Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, Ph.D., LLD., F.R.S., M.D., the Thinking Machine took as his motto “Logic, logic, logic” and believed that any investigation could be followed to a successful conclusion. The Thinking Machine only superficially resembled his British predecessor, Sherlock Holmes. Professor Van Dusen was characterized by a congeniality and conviviality alien to Holmes, a characteristic which manifested itself in his love of good company and good food as well as in an appreciation for feminine beauty.

“The Problem of Cell 13,” the most famous and most frequently anthologized of Futrelle’s short stories, is a classic locked-room mystery which clearly delineates the Thinking Machine’s methodology. The first installment of this story appeared in The Boston American on Monday, October 5, 1905, with an invitation for the readers of the newspaper to enter a contest to see if they could provide an explanation of the Thinking Machine’s escape from his self-imposed imprisonment in a high-security prison cell. What began as a ploy to boost a week’s newspaper sales led to the publication of one of the best-known detective stories of all time. By the time the last installment of the story appeared, interest in the winners of the one-hundred-dollar prizes was nonexistent; the only explanation that mattered to the citizens of Boston was that of the author.

As in all of his Thinking Machine stories, Futrelle handled “The Problem of Cell 13” with a characteristically light touch. Professor Van Dusen, with his grotesque appearance and his numerous eccentricities, clearly follows in the tradition of C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, but he is both an amusing and a believable character in his own right. Locked at his own insistence in a cell on death row in the infamous Chisholm Prison, Van Dusen manages to escape, as he predicted he would, with the assistance of a can of tooth powder, twenty-five dollars in cash, and freshly polished shoes (not to mention the incidental cooperation of the rats which share his cell and an enterprising young reporter named Hutchinson Hatch). Along the way, his activities produce a confession by an actual murderer and baffle the prison authorities.

Futrelle’s reputation rests unequivocally on this one story. Subsequent stories featuring the Thinking Machine were, however, no less popular in their day, and critics generally regard the novel The Diamond Master, which details a plot to capture the international diamond market by the large-scale manufacture of synthetic gems, as Futrelle’s best novel. The lightness of Futrelle’s touch, the ingenuity of his plots, and the modernity of his settings indicate that had he not died so tragically and suddenly only five years after beginning his career as a mystery writer, he would now be remembered as one of its most celebrated practitioners.

BibliographyBenvenuti, Stefano, and Gianni Rizzoni. The Whodunit: An Informal History of Detective Fiction. Translated by Anthony Eyre. New York: Macmillan, 1979. Brief but valuable discussion of Futrelle.Bleiler, E. F., ed. Introduction to The Best Thinking Machine Detective Stories, by Jacques Futrelle. New York: Dover, 1973. Provides a detailed discussion of Futrelle’s work.Bleiler, E. F., ed. Introduction to Great Cases of the Thinking Machine, by Jacques Futrelle. New York: Dover, 1976. Provides a history and criticism of Futrelle’s work.Ellison, Harlan. Introduction to 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. New York: Modern Library, 2003. Characteristically provocative commentary on Futrelle’s work by the famous science-fiction author and pundit.Haycraft, Howard. Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story. 1941. Rev. ed. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1984. Brief but valuable discussion of Futrelle.Pederson, Jay P., ed. St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers. 4th ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996. Chronicles the development of the crime and mystery genre, placing Futrelle as one of its instigators. Dictionary of terms and bibliography.Reilly, John M., ed. Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers. 3d ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1991. Chronicles the development of the crime and mystery genre, placing Futrelle as one of its instigators. Dictionary of terms and bibliography.Roth, Marty. Foul and Fair Play: Reading Genre in Classic Detective Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995. A poststructural analysis of the conventions of mystery and detective fiction. Examines 138 short stories and works from the 1840’s to the 1960’s. Helps place Futrelle within the context of the genre.
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