JACQUES FUTRELLE (1875-1912)
Critics agree that when Boston journalist Jacques Futrelle went down with the «Titanic» at the age of thirty-seven, the world lost an innovative master of the short story. The Georgia-born author also penned novels that have not stood the test of time. But his short stories gave us his great achievement: the American prototype of the scientific sleuth.
There is no doubt that Futrelle was building on the creations of Eugene Francois Vidocq, Edgar Allan Poe, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, when he invented Professor S. F. X. Van Dusen, Ph. D., LL. D., F. R. S., and M. D. However, no reader is likely to mistake Van Dusen for Sherlock Holmes, despite their cerebral similarities. With his outsize cranium, his mane of yellow hair, his petite body, and his arrogant freakishness, Van Dusen can't be imagined as welcome among the upper-crust British. And Van Dusen's character fits the American mould. His superlative reasoning powers are accompanied by a 'can-do' attitude that leads him to declare, "Nothing is impossible."
"How about an airship?" his friend challenges him.
"That's not impossible at all," Van Dusen asserts. "It will be invented sometime. I'd do it myself, but I'm busy.
Dubbed 'The Thinking Machine' by the press after 'a remarkable exhibition at chess,' the professor is aided by newspaper reporter Hutchinson Hatch, who runs the research and rescue operations while Van Dusen does the thinking. Setting the stage for sidekicks like Archie Goodwin in Rex Stout's later Nero Wolfe stories and Paul Drake in Erie Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason mysteries, Hatch is the more physically active partner.
Futrelle was on the editorial staff of the «Boston American» when «The Problem of Cell 13» made him famous. Like most of his Thinking Machine stories, it was first published in that newspaper (the predecessor of the present-day «Boston Herald),» with a challenge to the reader to furnish a solution. The story demonstrates the author's forte in the locked-room branch of detective fiction, with The Thinking Machine taking up a challenge to escape from a maximum-security prison cell with nothing but "shoes, stockings, trousers and shirt"-and, of course, his power to think.