Jacques Heath Futrelle was born to Wiley H. H. Futrelle and Linnie Bevill Futrelle of French Huguenot descent on April 9, 1875, in Pike County, Georgia. Recorded information about his early life is scant. Evidently he read widely in Poe, Doyle, and François-Eugène Vidocq and developed a love of logical detail. It is also clear that he had a considerable depth of knowledge in the sciences and criminology. He first worked for a newspaper in Richmond, Virginia, at the age of fifteen and briefly served as a theatrical manager while there (1902-1904). Later he moved to Boston to join the editorial staff of the Boston American newspaper (1904-1906). He married L. May Peel, also a writer, on July 17, 1895.
Futrelle gained prominence when the Boston American serialized his famous short story “The Problem of Cell Thirteen” from October 30 to November 5, 1905. The story was used to encourage readers to write in and suggest possible solutions, with prize money of one hundred dollars for the best possible answer. Most of the Thinking Machine stories appeared in this newspaper, but some, no one knows how many, are presumably lost among stacks of old papers tied in huge bundles at warehouses.
Futrelle began to attract attention as a freelance writer and published his first novel in 1906. Although he wrote both Westerns and detective stories successfully, by the time of his death he had become known internationally as a writer of light, lush romances and so-called Edwardian novels. Since that time, however, his popularity as a writer of romantic fiction has waned. The Diamond Master, published in 1909, is generally considered his best novel, but the weight of criticism lies heavily in favor of his short stories.
For the remainder of his life he resided in Scituate, Massachusetts, until his heroic death April 15, 1912, aboard the Titanic, which was returning from England. Seven of his stories went down with him in the Atlantic Ocean. Always a gentleman and a devoted husband, Futrelle put his wife aboard a lifeboat as the Titanic was sinking but refused to take his place on the boat until others were taken care of first. Such courtesy cost him his life.
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.
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...
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