The Remarkable Life and Mysterious Heritage of Jacques Futrelle
Delphine Cingal, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Paris 2. She has a PhD from the Sorbonne for her research on P.D. James (Perversity and Perversion in P.D. James’s Whodunits, Presses du Septentrion, 2001.) She has been chevalier des Arts et des Lettres since 2009. She is also one of the organisers of the Week-end Noir festival in Neuilly-Plaisance, near Paris.
She is still doing research on detective fiction and has published many articles on the subject (including one on P.D. James for Clues in 2001). She is also the editor of ‘Zulma Classics’ (classics published in English for Zulma, a Paris publisher). She has organized two international conferences in 2005, one on detective fiction at the Catholic Institute (Paris) and one on Text and Image at Senate House (London). She is currently planning another one for Senate House in 2011 and creating an international detective fiction research center in France.
Jacques Futrelle (John Heath Futrell) was born on April 9th, 1875 (some sources now state 1873) in Pike County, Georgia, and died on April 15th, 1912 on board the RMS Titanic. His father was Harmon Heath Futrell, a teacher in Atlanta, and his mother was Linnie Bevill Futrell.
He was sent to the Pike County school, but was also taught at home by his father who taught him French among other things. The legend goes that the family was of French Huguenot descent but the name was in fact Futrell, and therefore English. According to his grandson Robert, he was born John Futrell. Here is a link which references a Futrell-Heath marriage. He adopted the name Jacques Futrelle as a literary pseudonym.
Futrelle’s initial career was as a journalist, but what gained him fame was his invention of famous literary detective Professor S.F.X. Van Dusen, ‘Ph. D., LL. D., F. R. S., M. D., etc., etc., etc.’, best known as ‘The Thinking Machine’ for his indomitable use of logic. ‘The Thinking Machine’ is a rather eccentric intellectual whose behaviour often appears to outsiders to be rather arrogant. He has a sidekick in his investigations, the newspaper reporter Hutchinson Hatch.
As a journalist, Futrelle first worked for the Atlanta Journal, then for the Boston Post. He returned to his first employer and worked for the for the sport section of the Atlanta Journal, a section which he had created. At the same time, he also wrote for the New York Herald.
In 1895 he married Lily May Peel who was also a writer and with whom he would have two children, Virginia and John Jr (who later called himself Jacques.) The family first lived in Scituate, Massachusetts (where he had a house built, called ‘Stepping Stones’ which overlooked the harbour). Although the family frequenltly moved, Futrelle kept ‘Stepping Stones’ where he spent most of his time until his death. Futrelle, who was always interested in science and technology, was the first person to own a automobile in Scituate.
In 1902, he became the manager of a small Richmond theater. He wrote several plays and even acted in a few of them. At the same time, he started writing detective short stories. He achieved fame when, moving to Boston, he worked for the local press, specifically the Boston American owned by William Randolph Hearst. Augustus SFX Van Dusen, aka ‘The Thinking Machine’, first appeared in 1905 in the Boston American with his first short story ‘The Problem of Cell 13’, a forerunner of the closed room mystery genre, in which the hero/ detective proved it was not impossible to escape a prison cell, just by using pure logic. This story was featured in crime writer H.R. F. Keating’s list of the best 100 crime and mystery stories and it was also selected by science fiction writer Harlan Ellison for Lawrence Block’s Master’s Choice.
‘The Problem of Cell 13’ was adapted for television several times, among which was a 1962 adaptation by Arthur A. Ross for the US series Kraft Mystery Theater with Claude Dauphin as The Thinking Machine (which was awarded the 1963 Edgar Award for Best Episode in a TV series.) ‘Cell 13’ was also adapted again as an episode of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes in 1973, with Douglas Wilmer as Van Dusen. (The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes also featured an adaptation, still with Douglas Wilmer, of ‘The Superfluous Finger’.)
In 1906, Jacques Futrelle decided to give up journalism altogether to concentrate on writing novels full-time (such as The Chase of the Golden Plate in which ‘The Thinking Machine’ has a minor role, The Simple Case of Susan, The Diamond Master, Elusive Isabel, The High Hand.)
His ‘Thinking Machine’ stories often concentrate on what was the most recent technology of the time (telegraph, telephone, etc.) In ‘The Problem of the Lost Radium’ which takes place in a laboratory at ‘Yarvard’, a combination of Yale and Harvard, Professor S.F.X. Van Dusen even crosses paths with famous French scientist Marie Curie and helps her solve the mystery of the disappearance of one ounce of radium. Futrelle probably chose Marie Curie because of his own French origins.
Futrelle’s fascination with technology probably accounts for his interest in the RMS Titanic, which he boarded on April 10th, after celebrating with friends in London what was to be his last birthday. The party ended late, but Jacques Futrelle and Lily May managed to reach Southampton on time to board the ship. His wife later regretted the fact that Futrelle never drank to excess since, had he been drunk that night, the couple would never have managed to reach the RMS Titanic in time for boarding.
Photographer Francis Browne took a picture of him on the Titanic before leaving the ship. This is the last picture of the writer, in front of the Titanic’s sports room. Futrelle and his wife spent their last days together in a first-class cabin, cabin C-123.
When the ship hit the iceberg, Futrelle refused to board a lifeboat and handed the rest of his writings to his wife, who escaped safely on board lifeboat 9. The last time she saw her husband, he was smoking with John Jacob Astor. Lily May was then rescued, along with others, by RMS Carpathia. Futrelle’s mother was so shocked by his death that she is supposed to have died of grief (she died three months after him.)
Futrelle’s last novels, My Lady’s Garter (in which his wife inscribed ‘To the heroes of the Titanic, I dedicate my husband’s book’) and Blind Man’s Bluff were published posthumously (in 1912 and 1914). L. May expanded The Simple Case of Susan (1908) into Lieutenant What’s-His-Name (1915) and The Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine published some uncollected stories in 1949 and 1950. Lily May Futrelle died in 1967, aged 91, and was buried in Sciutate. Their daughter Virginia died in 1981 and their son Jacques, after a career as an editorialist for the Washington Post, in 1979.
Had he lived, Futrelle, who was only 37 at the time of his death, would probably have become one of the major mystery writers of the Golden Age of crime fiction in the US. Max Allan Collins acknowledged Futrelle’s influence and made him the leading character in his The Titanic Murders (1999), a novel about murders taking place aboard the Titanic. Many of his stories are available on Project Gutenberg and futrelle.com. Some stories are available as printed editions. Between 1978 and 1999, a German radio station (RIAS) produced and broadcasted seventy-nine radio plays using the character of Professor Van Dusen.
By Delphine Cingal