Jacques Futrelle and The Thinking Machine

Jacques Futrelle
A titanic talent
Jacques Futrelle, a journalist and fiction writer, was born to French Huguenot parents in Pike County, Georgia in 1875. As a young man he moved to Boston and worked at The Boston American, where many of his stories first appeared. Over his brief career, Futrelle’s detective fiction featured many sleuths such as Fred Boyd, Doctor Spence, and Garron and Louis Harding, all of whom have been long forgotten. Still, his mystery novels received wide acclaim, especially The Diamond Master (1909) and My Lady’s Garter (1912).

Futrelle’s most famous creation, Professor S.F.X. Van Dusen, known as The Thinking Machine, still has a readership today. Van Dusen is a scientist who possesses a peculiar and decidedly unemotional personality combined with a superior intellect that he applies in a most technical manner to solving crimes. A newspaper reporter, Hutchinson Hatch, functions as Van Dusen’s assistant and often is the one who introduces the mystery to the professor. In “The Problem of a Dressing Room,” Van Dusen confidently says he can’t play chess but that he could defeat a master player if he had only a few hours of instruction. The test ensues and Van Dusen beats his opponent. The man responds, “Mon Dieu! You are not a man; you are a brain—a machine—a thinking machine.”

And the nickname was born.

The Thinking Machinem, Adventures of a Mastermind, by Jacques FutrelleFutrelle developed the ingenuity of Van Dusen’s unique thought process combined with intuitive thinking to create a brilliance of deduction rarely seen in crime fiction. As a result, Van Dusen is one of the most cerebral and purely analytical of fictional detectives. Of the forty-some-odd novels and short stories featuring Van Dusen, Futrelle’s most famous short story “The Problem of Cell 13” is considered to be one of the finest crime short stories ever written. It has been anthologized repeatedly over the past one hundred years, assuring that Futrelle will never fade into obscurity.

Jacques Futrelle and his wife were among the passengers on the fatal first voyage of the Titanic. This quote is abbreviated from Futrelle’s obituary as published in the New York Times on April 16, 1912.

The Author of “The Thinking Machine” and Many Short Stories, Jacques Futrelle is well known as a writer of fiction, having contributed many long and short stories to magazines. His first important contribution to fiction was “The Chase of the Golden Plate,” published in 1906, but he won the most substantial success of his life with “The Thinking Machine,” a novel of a fanciful type that attained wide popularity and established its author firmly in the ranks of successful producers of light fiction.

Following “The Thinking Machine” he wrote a number of novels of a similar type, among the best-known of which were “The Simple Case Of Susan,” “The Thinking Machine on the Case,” “Elusive Isabel,” and “The Diamond Master.” In addition to these he wrote many short stories.

Futrelle’s wife, the former Lily May Peel, told the press that when she last saw her husband, he was standing on the Titanic deck smoking a cigarette with John Jacob Astor.

And so, with his writing career cut short, we will never know how much further Futrelle would have developed Van Dusen’s character, or what other characters he had in store for us. According to his wife, he’d written some stories during their stay in Europe, but those, too, went down with the Titanic.

For Terrie Farley Moran, writing short mystery fiction is nearly as much fun as hanging out with any or all of her seven grandchildren. She is editor of the recently released Sisters in Crime New York/TriState chapter anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices and blogs at Women of Mystery.


  1. Clare 2e

    Wow- what a fascinating end Futrelle’s own story has! I think I’ve read a Professor S.F.X. Van Dusen story, but I can’t remember which, so I’ll have to look him up!

  2. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    Wow is right! Amazing. Sad. Inspiring. Intriguing. I’ll be looking for these stories as well. Thanks Terrie.

  3. Deborah Lacy

    Great post Terrie. I have never heard of Jacques Futrelle. I can almost picture him next to Astor on the deck of the Titanic.
    How did you first hear of him?

  4. Terrie Farley Moran

    @ Clare and @ Leslie–fascinating, sad, inspiring, etc. You have all the right words to describe Futrelle’s life and work. He was thirty seven when he died. I’ve often wondered what magnificant work he might have produced over the course of the next thirty or forty years. @Deb, some years ago I picked up an old anthology in a second hand shop and one of his stories was in it. After that I looked for his stories when I prowled ancient bookstores looking for anthologies.

  5. Terrie Farley Moran

    Since this week we are commemorating the one hundreth anniversary of the fatal maiden voyage of the Titanic, Jeffrey Marks wrote an article about Jacques Futrelle on Mystery Scene’s blog. You can [url=http://mysteryscenemag.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=37:blurb-jaques-futrelle-and-the-titanic&catid=46:feature&Itemid=157]read it here[/url].

  6. Deborah Lacy

    @Terrie – There have been so many interesting articles this week about the Titanic. I thought that part was great. Here’s the link to the original article of the Titanic sinking from the NYT:http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0415.html#article

    I was surprised at how many companies — including the New York Times – were selling Titanic commemorative items. I wonder if there is really that much demand for these things.

  7. Terrie Farley Moran

    @Deb, I know. I was amazed by the hoopla surrounding the 100th anniversary of the Titanic. I thought I was one of the few who remembered Jacques Futrelle and am delighted that some others acknowledged his contribution to the mystery field. But some of the commemorative stuff seemed a little over the top.

  8. Laura K. Curtis

    Terrie –

    I am glad I am not the only person who thought some of the anniversary stuff was a little nuts. I mean…I read about a restaurant in TX putting on a “Titanic dinner” where they recreate the menu from the Titanic (and the setting of the super fancy dining room) for $1000 a head. I mean, seriously?

  9. Terrie Farley Moran

    Laura, it doesn’t end–in June a local community college is touting a two day ” history” seminar about the Titanic for a fee. Why do this when many libraries have covered the same material for no cost. Yikes!

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