Best “Thinking Machine” Detective Stories, by Jacques Futrelle: A Review

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Best “Thinking Machine” Detective Stories, by Jacques Futrelle. Edited by E.F. Bleiler (Dover Books, 1973)

At the turn of the 20th Century, detective stories were big business on both sides of the Atlantic. Authors and magazines alike were eager to cash in on the popularity of the genre, which had been given its first major exemplar in Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. But as Doyle wearied of writing the Holmes stories, and longed to return to what he considered to be his more important historical novels, other authors hurried to fill in the void left by the absence of the Great Detective. Many of these writers are little-known today, some justly, and others not. Often, individual tales contemporary with the reminiscences of a certain Dr. Watson will be collected in volumes like The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.

In the case of Jacques Futrelle’s curious creation, we have the first of two collections published by Dover Books in the 1970s. The stories date originally to between 1905 and 1912 (a range which we can date with certainty, as will be made clear shortly), and feature Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, the titular “Thinking Machine.” Van Dusen is portrayed as a largely unattractive figure, with an unusually large head and blond hair, spectacles, and an abrasive manner. He is portrayed as a scientist and logician, living in the area of Boston in the early days of the twentieth century. In these twelve stories, no discussion of his history or antecedents is given, and he appears to be a largely unemotional, unattractive, and unlikeable character. He is aided in his investigations by Hutchinson Hatch, a local reporter who seems to view the Professor with a mixture of awe and indifference; the Thinking Machine must be good for copy. Hatch as the Professor’s legman definitely seems to get the short end of the deal, and is routinely threatened, shot at, and otherwise endangered for his troubles. The pairing is far odder than that between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, for example (and here I’m solely discussing the written canon, not the bizarre Moffat-Gatiss bastardisations). In the latter case, there was some genuine comraderie between the two men, but in the case of the Thinking Machine and Hatch, the pairing feels artifical, like a device written stiffly by Futrelle in an effort to follow a convention. Even editor E.F. Bleiler calls Van Dusen a “fascinating monster-genius.”

Of the twelve stories in this volume, several have dated rather badly even since their republication in the 1970s. While the period details are fascinating, the puzzles vary from the interesting to the frankly ridiculous, and this is not a book for most casual readers of the 2010s. Hardened fans of the mystery and detective fiction genres interested in the Edwardian era response to Sherlock Holmes may find some interesting bits and pieces here. Although I will supply brief synopses of the dozen stories, I will – as always – leave other readers to make their own judgments about their quality and value.

• The Problem of Cell 13 – an early version of the locked-room puzzle, in which the Thinking Machine arranges to have himself incarcerated in the formidable Chisholm Prison, promising to use only his intellect to engineer his escape. Édmond Dantès he is not, but the Professor arranges what can only be considered an almost unbelievable escape, relying unduly, in this reader’s opinion, on the unpredictability of rats for his escape.

• The Crystal Gazer – a man appears to see his own death forecast in a crystal ball. In an age all but entirely devoid of motion picture technology, how do you make someone see an image that isn’t there? The Thinking Machine discovers an ingenious and deeply 19th century solution.

• The Scarlet Thread – another tale bound up very closely with the technology of the day, which now seems quaintly out-moded: by choosing gas over electric lighting, has a man sealed his own fate?

• The Flaming Phantom – Hutchinson Hatch is called in to investigate a house which appears to be newly haunted by a devilish ghost. But how is the supernatural appearance connected to the decades-old mystery of a lost family treasure?

• The Problem of the Stolen Rubens – the shortest tale in the book is also one of the least satisfying, suggesting that the best way to steal a painting in oil is to paint a watercolour over it. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the materials involved to say whether or not this is possible, but it certainly sounds suspect.

• The Missing Necklace – If I were to suggest that a thief use homing pigeons to move a valuable necklace from his hands to his accomplice’s hideout, you’d think that I was taking the mickey, wouldn’t you? Well don’t worry, Futrelle beat me to the punch.

• The Phantom Motor – when is a motor car not a motor car? When it vanishes between two traffic wardens down a walled stretch of road, the only opening in which is just big enough for a man to walk through.

• The Brown Coat – a thief is unable to communicate to his wife where he has hidden the loot from his latest crime. His insistence that she go home to mend his coat might be something of a clue, though…

• His Perfect Alibi – a murdered man accuses his killer in his own blood, but the accused party was quite clearly nowhere nearby at the time, having woken a dentist to attend to a painful problem in orthodontia, and consulted a policeman on the way.

• The Lost Radium – for a scientist, Professor Van Dusen certainly has a problem telling the difference between atoms and molecules. The treatment of radium in general in this story is quaint and odd-sounding to us now, but at the time it was written, this story must have been right on the extreme edge of the new discoveries of the day. Despite this, the story is interesting for being the only fictional appearance of Marie Curie (if only by proxy) that I can ever recall reading.

• Kidnapped Baby Blake, Millionaire – This tale contains the most singularly ridiculous solution to an allegedly serious detective story that I have ever read. When the scion of a rich family is abducted under impossible circumstances, the Thinking Machine fears that the child is dead. What will it take to bring him back, alive and unharmed? Sometimes, when you think an author has just given up entirely on reality, you encounter a story like this one and all of your suspicions are confirmed.

• The Fatal Cipher – Pomeroy Stockton, a wealthy inventor, apparently dies of poisoning, but his adopted daughter is unconvinced, and goes to the Thinking Machine for assistance. In what is perhaps the most Sherlock Holmes-like of the stories in this volume, Van Dusen and Hatch set out to discover if the man met his death by fair means or foul. Was a secret formula for the hardening of copper, lost since the days of the Pharoahs, a motive for murder?

Thinking back on these stories, it strikes me that not only was the first decade of the 20th century a time of wonders, but that in many of these cases, Futrelle sought to exploit the public’s hunger for wonder by introducing the most up-to-the-minute topics as foils for his logical anti-hero. Much as the early 21st century’s obsession with technological nonsense and gadgetry has made it an age of shallow veniality, so too was the character of early 20th century America, as represented in the Thinking Machine stories.

It is therefore a crowning irony that Jacques Futrelle, born in 1875, should have elected to travel on his return journey from England in 1912 with his wife aboard another technological wonder of the age, RMS Titanic. Although his wife survived, having been placed in a lifeboat with the wife of John Jacob Astor, Futrelle and the Thinking Machine perished in the Titanic disaster (along with, it was later alleged, some five further stories of the Professor’s exploits). The very quest for wonder and novelty, which seems to underlie many of these stories (and which, to a certain extent, undermines them as well), would prove ultimately to be their creator’s undoing. This is a shame, for if they had held up better, Jacques Futrelle’s stories – if not even the man himself – might be better known and better respected even today, instead of serving largely as an interesting footnote in literary history. Three and a half stars.

Reviewed 2 March 2016.

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About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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One Response to Best “Thinking Machine” Detective Stories, by Jacques Futrelle: A Review

  1. Pingback: The Witch of the Low-Tide: An Edwardian Melodrama, by John Dickson Carr: A Review | Books, Reading, and Me: a bibliomane blog

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