Thursday, September 24, 2009


Hunting Jacques Futrelle

A story was written late in 1911 or early 1912 involving mysterious messages, a locked-room murder, and the survivor of a shipwreck.  The survivor of the interrupted passage from Liverpool to Boston has frightful memories of, as the author repeats twice, “a titanic chaos of water.”  (This same author once wrote a novel involving a diabolical invention that the author described as “Titanic,” with a capital “T”).

“The Tragedy of the Life Raft” was never published during the author’s lifetime.  The author was Jacques Futrelle, a Georgia-born Boston newspaper writer, creator of the fictional detective Professor Augustus Van Dusen, known popularly as “The Thinking Machine.”  Futrelle died sometime after midnight, April 15, 1912, in a section of the Atlantic Ocean 400 miles south of Newfoundland, when the RMS Titanic rammed into an iceberg.

Whether Futrelle had any premonition of his own death when he wrote “The Tragedy of the Life Raft” is anyone’s conjecture.  But it’s certainly ironic that a man – one who had figured out how to escape an inescapable prison cell, how a car could enter a walled-in speed trap (yes, they had speed traps in 1905) and never come out the other end, and why a sane woman would voluntarily amputate a healthy finger – was not able to escape his tragedy at sea.

I came to Futrelle and “The Thinking Machine” rather late.  I read a lot of Scholastic Books as a child, and might very well have read “The Problem of Cell 13.”  But I don’t remember it.

Having encountered Professor van Dusen in some anthology or another, and having read the background of the author, I was entranced.  I began a hunt for his books, and soon discovered that at the time, nothing was in print, and even the used and antiquarian bookstores I haunted had none of his works. 

Then along came eBay.  I was able to track down a few novels by Futrelle – The Diamond Master, My Lady’s Garter, and The High Hand – as well as E.F. Bleiler’s two collections of “Thinking Machine” stories (Dover).  But years went by before I ever set my eyes on a copy of Futrelle’s 1907 collection, The Thinking Machine.

It was at a Bouchercon – memory fails which one – that I spotted a beautiful, clean copy of the collection bearing a picture of the high-foreheaded professor behind an etched on red scribble.  I was in paradise.  I purchased the book and gave it a good home.

Ironically, since finding that copy, I’ve come across numerous others.  But my copy is the prettiest, and like a first love, I prize it over all others.

Collecting Futrelle First Editions is a fairly easy task, as book collecting challenges go.  He only wrote six novels and the two short story collections.  There have also been numerous collections of the “Thinking Machine” stories, including the Scholastic Books edition, the two Dover collections edited by E.F. Bleiler, a recent collection edited by Harlan Ellison, and the beautiful and complete Thinking Machine Omnibus published by Battered Silicon Dispatch Box.  

For the serious Futrelle competist, getting a collection up to snuff isn’t nearly so simple.  The “Thinking Machine” stories first appeared in the Boston American newspaper, in Saturday Evening Post, and in The Sunday Magazine.  Tracking all of these down would be both challenging and pricey.  Almost by accident, I did come across a copy of the December 11, 1908 issue of Saturday Evening Post containing the first installment of The Diamond Master, a non-Thinking Machine novel involving a criminal conspiracy to undermine world economy.  What attracted me to the issue was the picture on the cover showing a skullcapped old man studying a diamond through a magnifying glass.  I suppose it was a sign of the times that to promote a story about diamonds and international conspiracy, the publishers chose a picture of a Jew.  In Futrelle’s novel, the only explicitly Jewish character is a pawnbroker consulted on the authenticity of a diamond.

Aside from the “Thinking Machine” stories and the non-series novels, Futrelle wrote other – presumably many other – short stories that appeared in various magazines and newspapers during his lifetime.  If anyone has compiled a list of these stories, I haven’t found it.  And I’ve looked.  There were likely some gems among these stories, but with a few exceptions, they are lost to us, as Futrelle was himself lost at the bottom of the Atlantic.


  1. I, too, first encountered Jacques Futrelle and the Thinking Machine with "The Problem of Cell 13" several decades ago. While the stories are not universally of that quality, they are a wonderful snapshot of life at the turn of the century, a time when technology was rapidly changing the way we lived.

    I was unaware of the existence of the Thinking Machine Omnibus published by Battered Silicon Dispatch Box! Thank you for that!

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