Jacques Futrelle, a turn-of-the-century mystery writer whose life was cut tragically short

October 19, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

The last time anyone saw mystery writer Jacques Futrelle, he was standing next to John Jacob Astor smoking a cigarette while Astor puffed on a cigar. It was April 15, 1912, and the two were on the deck of the Titanic.

Futrelle was 37 years old and well on his way to becoming one of the giants of mystery fiction on this side of the Atlantic.

Futrelle had created as the main character in his mysteries Prof. Dr. Dr. Dr. S. F. X. Van Deusen a.k.a “The Thinking Machine.” Van Deusen was less flamboyant than Sherlock Holmes in solving the problems presented to him, but the problems he had to solve were far more intricate than the ones that Holmes tackled.

Futrelle was born in 1875 in Pike County, Georgia into an educated family with a love of literature. Futrelle began working at an early age as a printer’s devil and spent much of his formative years in newspapers, in Atlanta, New York, and Boston. He was also the manager of a theater in Virginia where he wrote, directed, and acted in plays the theater produced.

He is credited with forming the first sports department for the Atlanta Journal and was a telegraph editor for the New York Herald during the Spanish American War.

While in New York, he and his wife Lily May Peel, also a writer, lived in the Gramercy Park neighborhood that included novelist Edith Wharton and short story writer O. Henry.

All this time, Futrelle was writing and developing his stories and his main character. In 1905, his first collection of stories was published featuring the Thinking Machine. It was titled The Problem of Cell 13, taking the title from the first story in the book. The next year Futrelle quit the newspaper business altogether to live in Massachusetts and devote himself full-time to writing novels.

In an effort to expand the market for his work, Futrelle and his wife traveled to Europe in January 1912, but they cut their trip short to return to America aboard the maiden voyage of the world’s largest passenger ship. When the ship began to sink, Futrelle insisted that his wife take a final seat in a lifeboat while he stayed aboard the ship.

In a short article about Futrelle on CrimeReads.com, Olivia Rutigliano describes the last moments of Futrelle’s life:

Mrs. Futrelle gave a statement to The New York Times upon arriving to safety: “Jacques is dead, but he died like a hero, that I know. Three or four times after the crash, I rushed up to him in class to be in my arms and begged him to get into one of the lifeboats. ‘For God’s sake go!’ he barely screamed at me as he tried to push me away, but I could see how he suffered. ‘It’s your last chance, go!’ Then one of the ship’s officers forced me into a lifeboat, and I gave up all hope that he could be saved.”Later that year, she arranged for the publication of his final book. But she wrote the dedication, herself: “To the heroes of the Titanic, I dedicate this my husband’s book.” Source: Mystery Writer Jacques Futrelle Died Onboard the Titanic, but His Greatest Detective Creation Lives On | CrimeReads

Futrelle’s work is easily accessible today at a website devoted to his work and also at Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg. Some of his work is on audio files at LibriVox.

His stories are entertaining and well worth reading, especially if you are already a Sherlock Holmes fan.


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