Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Titanic, Jacques Futrelle, and "The Thinking Machine"

While on my vacation last week, one of the books I read was an interesting little bit of mental junk food (and I do not use that term as a negative) called "The Titanic Murders" by Max Allan Collins.  Collins is one of these incredibly prolific writers who has written hundreds of novels, short stories, screenplays, even comic books and comic strips over the course of his career, and he's still going strong.  This book was a part of what he terms his "disaster series" wherein he takes an actual historic event (Pearl Harbor, the London Blitz, the Hindenburg crash), uses actual people who were there at the time, and fashions a fictional mystery story.

This 1999 book, obviously, takes place on the ill-fated first voyage of the luxury liner, Titanic.  Collins comes up with a story about two murders that took place upon the ship during that voyage, and how the crime was solved before the ship hit the iceberg, and how the story came to light so may years later.  The "detective" who solves the crime is mystery writer Jacques Futrelle.

Now you have to be really old, or a real mystery story nerd to know the name Jacques Futrelle, but in the first decade of the twentieth century he authored a number of short stories and at least one novel featuring a character named Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, a man of such towering intellect, that he was able to solve crimes merely by using his incredible brain.  So great were his abilities in this area that he was dubbed "The Thinking Machine".   At the time, Futrelle was seen as the American rival to Arthur Conan Doyle, and Van Dusen as a rival to Sherlock Holmes.  Well, Doyle's Holmes' stories continue to be read to this day, while Futrelle and his Thinking Machine have been pretty much forgotten, but 105 years or so ago, he was pretty big stuff, and one of his Thinking Machine stories, "The Problem of Cell 13" is to this day almost always included in any "Best Mystery Stories of All Time" anthologies.

Reading "The Titanic Murders" made me do a little research, and it seems that Jacques Futrelle actually was on the Titanic, and he was one of the fifteen hundred or so lives lost on that night to remember.  It is also reported that about a half-dozen brand new Thinking Machine stories went down with the ship as well.  He was traveling with his wife who did survive that night.  Of all the famous people who died from that sinking, I had never heard that Futrelle was among them.  I also went to the Kindle store to see if any of Futrelle's works were available in digital format, and it  turns out that that indeed they are.  I was able to download a complete collection of Thinking Machine stories for $1.99.

I read a few of the stories, including the famous "Problem of Cell 13", and you can see the parallels between these and the Sherlock Holmes stories (a newspaper reporter named Hutchinson Hatch serves as Van Dusen's Watson).  Van Dusen can also be seen as the precursor to any number of fictional detectives, from Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot to Jefferey Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme.  Admittedly, Futrelle's writing style seems a bit dated, but I am not sure that he deserves to be so completely forgotten today.

As for the Max Collins novel, all the characters are real people who were on the Titanic.  You know who they were - Isadore Strauss, Benjamin Guggenheim, John Jacob Astor, Molly Brown, Captain Smith, Bruce Ismay - and, he does fashion a mystery story about two murders that maybe, possibly, could have been committed on that infamous voyage.  I thought that this would be a piece of fluff, but when you read the Epilogue and the acknowledgements that Collins writes, it is kind of an impressive piece of writing.

Like a lot of mystery stories, "The Titanic Murders" is not great literature, but it is entertaining and fun to read, and what more can you ask, especially when sitting around a swimming pool?  It can be all yours for $4.99 if you have a Kindle, or free if you visit the library.  I am sure that I might now be prompted to check out a couple Collins' other Disaster Series novels as well.

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