Jacques Futrelle (1875-1912)

jacques-futrelleJacques 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. He adopted the name Jacques Futrelle as a literary pseudonym. He worked for the Atlanta Journal, where he began their sports section, the New York Herald, the Boston Post and the Boston American.  

In 1895 he married Lily May Peel who was also a writer and with whom he would have two children. 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.

Returning from Europe aboard the RMS Titanic, Futrelle, a first-class passenger, refused to board a lifeboat, insisting Lily do so instead, to the point of forcing her in. He perished in the Atlantic and his body was never found. There’s a possibility Futrelle boarded the Titanic with six unpublished Thinking Machine stories in his suitcase that were lost forever. His works include: The Chase of the Golden Plate (1906), The Simple Case of Susan (1908), The Diamond Master (1909), Elusive Isabel (1909), The High Hand (1911). His last work, My Lady’s Garter, was published posthumously in 1912. (Excerpts from  The Venetian Vase and Wikipedia).

Jacques Futrelle is the protagonist in one of Max Allan Collins’ historical “Disaster Series” novels, The Titanic Murders, which is very well done tribute to the man. (Beneath the Stains of Time)

Jacques Futrelle’s tales of the Thinking Machine are some of the best detective stories even written. The Thinking Machine, a professor who received his nickname from the press for his intellectual acuity, appeared in a series of around 50 stories, from 1905 to Futrelle’s death on the Titanic in 1912. Even the less successful Thinking Machine tales have features which make them enjoyable and worth reading. (Mike Grost)

Mike Grost’s article on Jacques Futrelle is at A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection.

futrelle-thinkingFor the world’s most brilliant criminologist, every mystery has a solution

His name is Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, but to the newspapers he is known as “The Thinking Machine.” 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.

Whether unraveling a perfect murder, investigating a case of corporate espionage, or reasoning his way out of an inescapable prison cell, Van Dusen lets no detail elude his brilliant mind. In this highly entertaining collection, featuring many of the stories that made The Thinking Machine a national sensation, ingenious criminals and ruthless villains are no match for an egghead scientist. (Source: Mysterious Press)

The Thinking Machine has been reviewed, among others, at Vintage Pop Fictions and Ontos.

Melville Davisson Post (1869 – 1930)


Melville Davisson Post (1869 – 1930 ) was an American author, born in Harrison County, West Virginia. Although his name is not immediately familiar to those outside of specialist circles, many of his collections are still in print, and many collections of detective fiction include works by him. Post’s best-known character is the mystery solving, justice dispensing West Virginian backwoodsman, Uncle Abner. The 22 Uncle Abner tales, written between 1911 and 1928, have been called some of “the finest mysteries ever written”. Post’s other recurring characters include the lawyers Randolph Mason and Colonel Braxton, and the detectives Sir Henry Marquis and Monsieur Jonquelle. His total output was approximately 230 titles, including several non-crime novels.

Post was born on 19 April 1869 in Harrison County, West Virginia, the son of Ira Carper Post, a wealthy farmer; his mother was Florence May (née Davisson). Post earned a law degree from West Virginia University in 1892 and was elected the same year as the youngest member of the Electoral College. His first published Uncle Abner story was in 1911, and they appeared in newspapers throughout the country. His collection of Uncle Abner stories was first printed in 1918 and remained in print (at its original price) for two decades, which Craig Johnson believes made him the highest paid and most commercially published author of that time. Collier Books reprinted the stories in 1962 and the University of California Press in 1974.

In 1903, he married Ann Bloomfield Gamble Schofield. Their only child, a son, died in infancy, after which Melville and Ann travelled in Europe. Ann died of pneumonia in 1919. Post, an avid horseman, died on June 23, 1930, after falling from his horse at age 61. He had published 230 titles, most of them crime fiction. (Excerpts from Wikipedia)

Uncle Abner, the most famous literary character created by Melville Davisson Post, is a righteous amateur detective, a keen observer of human actions with profound knowledge and love for the Bible. On his journeys around the backwoods of West Virginia, long before a proper police system is in place, he is confronted by murders and mysteries that cannot be ignored. He helps to solve them with his impressive intuition and deductive skills. Abner’s adventures are populated with peculiar characters and intriguing adventures set in the rough but fascinating land ‘where men concealed their feelings as one conceals the practice of a crime; and one would have stolen his neighbor’s goods before he would have intruded upon the secrecy of his emotions.’ This collection of eighteen stories, first published in 1918, with the pivotal character of justice-dispensing Uncle Abner connecting them all, is often considered among the most important American detective and crime fiction. (Source: Bloomsbury) Uncle Abner Master of Mysteries: A Collection of Classic Detective Stories (1918) is listed in The Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones of Detective Fiction]

Further reading:

  • Articles on Melville Davisson Post at Mystery File
  • “The Man of Last Resort”: the Outrageous World of Randolph Mason by Michael Mallory at Mystery Scene
  • Mike Grost’s article on Meville Davisson Post is at A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection
  • Charles A. Norton has written a fine biography and critical study of Post, Melville Davisson Post: Man of Many Mysteries (1973). It covers Post’s whole output of short fiction in great depth, story by story.

‘There is a case to be made that the Uncle Abner stories — the twenty-two tales of the Virginia hills written by Melville Davisson Post from 1911 to 1928 — are among the finest mysteries ever written. Ellery Queen certainly thought so, calling the stories “an out-of-this-world target for future detective-story writers to take shots at.” In Cargoes for Crusoes, a failed 1924 attempt to teach literary critics about the quality of popular magazine fiction, Grant Overton called the 1914 appearance of Post’s “The Doomdorf Mystery” a major literary event. In a later survey of the genre — the 1941 Murder for Pleasure, a book that succeeded where Overton’s had failed in convincing critics to take mysteries more seriously as literature — Howard Haycraft declared that Uncle Abner was, after Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin, “the greatest American contribution to the form.” When William Faulkner, discouraged by slow sales of his highbrow fiction, tried his hand at thrillers, Post was the model to which he turned.’ (Excerpt from Washington Examiner, you can read the entire article here)


(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. D. Appleton and Company (USA), 1918)

Summary: First published in 1918, Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries is an anthology of detective stories written by Melville Davisson Post. The popular stories within this collection were serialized in national magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post in the early twentieth century.

Uncle Abner is an amateur detective in present-day Harrison County, West Virginia. Throughout his journeys around this antebellum wilderness, long before the nation had a proper police system, the honest Uncle Abner is confronted by murders and mysteries that cannot be ignored. With uncanny intuition, impressive logic, and keen observation of human actions, Uncle Abner is Melville Davisson Post’s most celebrated literary creation and is considered to be one of the most important texts in American detective and crime fiction.

This new edition contains an introduction by Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire novels. (Source: West Virginia University Press)

The adventures of a true American original—a detective who puts equal faith in his Bible and his brains

In the backwoods of West Virginia, years before the Civil War, a man arrives with gold in his purse and evil on his mind. His land too barren for farming, Doomdorf builds a still and grows rich selling high-proof moonshine to anyone with a bit of change in his pocket. As drunkenness and debauchery run rampant across the countryside, the locals turn against him. They are preparing to exact frontier justice when the bootlegger is found dead, shot through the heart in a room locked from the inside. At the scene is Uncle Abner, a folksy sleuth who uses a keen eye and steadfast beliefs to solve the mysteries of Appalachia. In this landmark story collection, Abner contends with hunchbacks and drunkards, killers and thieves. In a time and a place beyond the rule of law, justice belongs to the Lord—and Uncle Abner is His instrument. (Source: Mysterious Press)

Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries has been reviewed, among others, at Classic Mysteries.

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