‘What seems beyond comprehension to the police is mere amusement to the professor.’ – Jacques Futrelle’s Thinking Machine stories

February 23, 2019 at 12:18 am (Mystery fiction, Short stories)

The American author Jacques Futrelle wrote mystery short stories in the early years of the 20th century. His name often appears in the ranks of those authors referred to as creators of the rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Others  often considered to be among this cohort are Arthur Morrison (Martin Hewitt), R. Austin Freeman (Dr. John Thorndyke), and G.K. Chesterton (Father Brown).

Futrelle’s protagonist is Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, more widely known as The Thinking Machine. He’s described thus on the Mysterious Press website:

Slender, stooped, his appearance dominated by his large forehead and perpetual squint, Van Dusen spends his days in the laboratory and his nights puzzling over the details of extraordinary crimes. What seems beyond comprehension to the police is mere amusement to the professor. All things that start must go somewhere, he firmly believes, and with the application of logic, all problems can be solved.

I’ve read several of the stories  featuring The Thinking Machine, and have enjoyed each of them. Most recently I read one entitled “The Problem of the Stolen Rubens.” It has an opening line that I love:

Matthew Kale made fifty million dollars out of axle grease, after which he began to patronize the high arts.

Here’s the rest of the paragraph:

It was simple enough: he had the money, and Europe had the old masters. His method of buying was simplicity itself. There were five thousand square yards, more or less, in the huge gallery of his marble mansion which were to be covered, so he bought five thousand square yards, more or less, of art. Some of it was good, some of it fair, and much of it bad. The chief picture of the collection was a Rubens, which he had picked up in Rome for fifty thousand dollars.

I also recommend “The Phantom Motor” and “The Problem of Cell 13.” The official Jacques Futrelle site has links to the full text of both of these (as  well as to “The Stolen Rubens).”

Then there’s “The Tragedy of the Life Raft.”

It is difficult to say exactly when this was written. It’s one of four stories Futrelle left at  home among his papers, unpublished, as he and his wife sailed to Europe.

In much of the writing of that era, there is a sense of an inexorable destiny lying in wait for the characters. This is true of the nonfiction as well as the fiction of that period. (That sensibility is, for instance, very much at work in”“A Memorable Murder,” Celia Thaxter’s account of the murders on Smutty Nose Island in 1873.) Futrelle’s story, though, points the finger of fate directly at the author himself. For he and his wife had booked their passage back to  the U.S. aboard the HMS Titanic.

This line appears near the story’s beginning:

Slowly, as he looked, the sky became a lashing, mist-covered sea, a titanic chaos of water; and upon its troubled bosom rode a life raft to which three persons  were clinging.

Futrelle’s wife survived. He did not. His body was never recovered. He was 37 years old.

To read the complete article, click here.here.

Jacques Futrelle 1875-1912




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Book Bash: AAUW Howard County Branch members celebrate the written word

February 12, 2019 at 8:49 pm (books)

Each year, our branch of AAUW presents a program entitled Book Bash. It’s just what it sounds like: a celebration of books. Naturally I love this kind of event and am always glad to participate. Ever since going to work at the library in 1982, I’ve taken great pleasure in telling people what to read! (And before that too, actually.)

This year Susan, our program director, selected as our  theme “Exceptional Women.” Volunteer speakers could choose any book they wanted that would elucidate that concept. Here’s what we ended up with:

The subtitle of The Hidden Giants is 4,000 Years of Women in Science and Technology. And the presenter was author herself!

Sethanne chose to highlight two of the entries in her book. The first was: The First! Her name is En’Hedu’anna; she lived, approximately, in the year 2300 BCE:

She was the chief astronomer-priestess and as such managed the great temple complex of her city of Ur. She controlled the extensive agricultural enterprise surrounding the temple as well as those activities scheduled around the liturgical year. Although we do not have technical works from her we know that she was a learned, diversely talented woman of power.

She was also an accomplished poet. An example of her work can be found here.

Sethanne passed around a replica clay tablet on which was incised En’Hedu’anna’s name in cuneiform script:

This was certainly the niftiest visual aid I’ve encountered in quite some time.

Votive disc of En’Hedu’anna, found at the Ur excavation, ca.2300-2275


Possible likeness of En’Hedu’anna

Leaping forward several millennia, Sethanne then shared with us the story of Ellen Eglin. An African American woman well acquainted with the rigors of doing laundry in the 19th century, she invented wringers as a feature of the washing machine.

She obtained a patent for her invention, but later sold it for $18, explaining

“You know I am black and if it was known that a Negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer. I was afraid to be known because of my color in having it introduced into the market, that is the only reason.”

While I had no trouble finding a picture of Ms Eglin’s invention, I had no luck locating a picture of the inventor herself. Kudos, anyway, to Sethanne Howard for bringing these and numerous other “Hidden Giants” out of the shadows and shining a bright light on them and on their achievements,.

Diane gave a fascinating presentation on the life and accomplishments of aviator Beryl Markham as described in her memoir West with the Night.

Most of us are fairly well acquainted with the life story of Jackie Kennedy. Fewer know very much about  Lee Radziwill. So it was interesting to learn about this younger sister who was always – well, the younger sister, perforce dwelling in the shadow of her more famous and glamorous sibling. Jean related the highlights of this dual biography in a way that made us eager to know more:


Deb shared her admiration for actress/singer Jenifer Lewis. Currently featured in the TV show Blackish, Lewis had to fight to overcome bipolar disorder, and she describes her struggle to achieve this and other milestones in her memoir The Mother of Black Hollywood.
Via her smartphone, Deb shared with us the sound of Jenifer Lewis’s exceptionally rich and plummy contralto voice.

  Barbara gave us some of the highlights from Michelle Obama’s blockbuster memoir. Just about everyone in my circle of book loving women has read and enjoyed this book; I’m still waiting for my reserve to come in.

  My choice for this program was In Byron’s Wake by Miranda Seymour, a book which tells the story of Ada Byron Lovelace and her mother Annabella Milbanke Byron. Click here for my blog post on this eminently readable tome.

In the course of reviewing for this brief presentation, I discovered several delightful children’s books about Ada Lovelace:

The topic of “Exceptional Women” has made me think of how many women I’ve encountered in my recent reading that definitely fit that description. To wit:

In After Emily:

The dazzling, mercurial, and mysterious poet, Emily Dickinson

Mabel Loomis Todd, beautiful and determined

Millicent Todd Bingham, Mabel’s equally stalwart daughter

In Beneath a Ruthless Sun:

Mabel Norris Reese – a woman who made me want to stand up and cheer!

In Mrs. Sherlock Holmes:

Grace Quackenbos Humiston, and her resourceful associates

In The Riddle of the Labyrinth:

Alice Kober, a stellar academic who labored in obscurity to solve a fiendishly difficult puzzle

In Schumann: The Faces and the Masks:

Clara Wieck Schumann, luminous concert pianist and loyal mainstay in the life of her equally brilliant , yet troubled and afflicted husband, Robert


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Schumann: The Faces and the Masks, by Judith Chernaik

February 4, 2019 at 10:00 pm (Book review, books, Music)

  As I write this, I am listening to Robert Schumann’s Romance for Oboe and Piano.

For about two weeks, I have been reading Judith Chernaik’s new biography of this great composer. Ron and I have been immersed in this wonderful music. In addition, I’ve been absorbed in the story of Schumann’s life. That life was a turbulent mixture of frustration, disappointment, elation, and deep love. And through all of it, glorious music, one piece following another, first almost exclusively for solo piano, then piano accompaniment for singers, then chamber groups and full orchestra.

Robert Schumann was born in 1810 in Zwickau, in the kingdom of Saxony, in Germany.

Robert Schumann’s birthplace, now the Robert Schumann House Museum. The author’s researches were greatly aided by the papers relating to Schumann collected and kept here.

Schumann’s exceptional musical talent having become evident early on, a teacher was found in Leipzig to take him in hand. This was the German pianist Friederich Wieck. Wieck believed that Schumann had ahead of him a great career as a concert pianist. Unfortunately, while experimenting with a device to strengthen his fingers, he injured himself irrevocably. He could still play, but his opportunity to ascend to the concert stage was gone.

(Although Chernaik includes this story in her book, there are those who believe that the problem with Schumann’s hand may have had another cause. Click here for more on this article from the WQXR blog.)

Despite this setback, Schumann continued his studies with Wieck, concentrating more now on composing. Wieck had a daughter Clara who was an extremely talented musician. She began giving concerts while she was still a child. As she entered adolescence, her gifts became even more pronounced. She and Schumann were inevitably thrown together on frequent occasions. He was nine years her senior.

Clara  was not only prodigiously gifted but remarkably independent. She was her own person, free from the usual restraints suffered by young girls. She was already acclaimed as an artist; she moved in sophisticated circles in Paris and Vienna. As a child, she was passionate and willful, with a wild temper and strong opinions.

Clara and Schumann fell in love. When Clara turned sixteen, they informed her father of their wish to be married. To their shock and dismay, he opposed the idea. In fact, he flat out forbade the union. Clara was a minor; despite her vaunted independence, she could not marry without her father’s consent. For four years he did everything he could to place obstacles in the way of their plans. (Meanwhile, at her father’s behest, Clara was giving concerts all over Europe, all the while earning good money.) Ultimately, Robert and Clara had to go to court and sue for the right to marry. This they did, finally becoming husband and wife on September 12, 1840.

It should be noted that while all this was  going on, both Robert and Clara were making strides creatively. She was constantly concertizing as well as  composing; he was composing as well as writing for and editing the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik (The New Journal for Music) which he had founded in 1834.

The first half of the biography is taken up with this crisis and its felicitous albeit hard won resolution. Incurable romantic  that I am, I was so outraged by Friedrich Wieck’s obstinacy and cruelty that I could barely contain myself. When the couple were finally wed, I cheered out loud!

Robert and Clara Schumann, 1847

As a married couple, Robert and Clara continued their relentless work of giving concerts, composing music, writing and reviewing the works of other composers, and having musical evenings in their home. Add to that the children: they just kept coming;

Six of the Schumann offspring; a seventh, older daughter Julie, was living with Clara’s mother at the time this photograph was taken. An eighth, Emil, died at sixteen months in 1847.

Clara was the more famous of the two during their lifetimes, but Robert had many advocates in the musical community. Among them were his close friend Felix Mendelssohn and the fiery pianist and composer Franz Liszt. But his greatest champion was Clara.

Plagued by ill health all his life, Schumann was at length placed in Endenich Asylum near the city of Bonn. One of his chief consolations at that time was to go into Bonn (accompanied by an attendant) and stare up at the statue of the city’s most famous son, Ludwig van Beethoven. After two excruciating years at Endenich, Robert Schumann died. The year was 1956; he was 46 years old.

Clara received constant support from other musicians during this extremely stressful time. One was the gifted young violinist Joseph Joachim. The other was a youth of whom great things were expected. His name was Johannes Brahms.

Johannes Brahms, age 20

The exact nature of the relationship between Clara and Brahms has been an  endless subject of speculation down through the years. One thing is certain: they both worked tirelessly to keep Schumann’s music before the public and to win for him the recognition he deserved. In 1877, Clara signed a contract with  publisher for a thirty-one part edition of Robert Schumann’s Collected Works. Brahms was a great help to her in this endeavor. The resulting volumes have been reprinted on numerous occasions. And Judith Chernaik divulges this welcome news:

A new scholarly multi-volume Urtext edition of the collected works, collating all the early publications, Schumann’s autograph scores, and manuscript drafts is close to completion.

Chernaik concludes with this statement:

The works contained in these volumes are Schumann’s enduring gift to the world.

Here is a large helping of that gift:



The lovely Traumerei was one of Vladimir Horowitz’s favorite encore pieces. I love the shots of the audience in this video; they are so deeply moved.


Schumann’s mighty Second Symphony. The sadness of the third movement is heartrending, yet the finale blazes forth in triumph! (Ron and I both have a special love for this work.)


Paradise and the Peri is a little known work of Schumann’s, technically termed a secular oratorio. I love  these few minutes of it:


Finally, the Piano Concerto in A minor.  As with all of his piano music, Schumann composed this with Clara in mind. Judith Chernaik says of this piece:

It remains to this day a joyful expression of love between a supremely gifted composer and an artist of the first rank, delighting listeners at the time and ever since.

This was among a handful of works that, many years ago. first taught me to love classical music:




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