‘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 It’s one of four stories Futrelle left at  home among his papers, unpublished, as he and his wife sailed to Europe.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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