Book Review: “The Grinning God” by Jacques Futrelle and May Futrelle

This is a short story in two parts. The first part is a ghost story, told by a young man who gets lost while driving one stormy night, and ultimately finds his way to a creepy house where terrifying events occur. He flees with a small carved statuette in the shape of the titular grinning god, which becomes his only proof that anything happened at all when he is unable to find the house again despite a thorough search in daylight.

The second part of the story involves Prof. Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen meeting the young man who recounted the events in the first part of the story, who by this time is raving mad. Prof. Van Dusen is nicknamed “The Thinking Machine” because of his relentlessly logical mind, which enables him to use pure reason to solve seemingly-impossible mysteries. Prof. Van Dusen’s formidable intellect goes to work, trying to determine a rational explanation for these bizarre events.

You know me: I like a good horror story that leaves things unexplained. Hence, you won’t be surprised to learn that I liked the first part of the story better than the second part.

But, what makes this particularly noteworthy is the story behind the story: the first part was written by May Futrelle, to set up a deliberately impossible problem for Prof. Van Dusen, a character created by her husband, Jacques Futrelle. Jacques then wrote the second part, where he tried to come up with a way to satisfyingly solve the unsolvable problem.

Apparently, Mr. Futrelle wrote a ton of these Prof. Van Dusen stories. He seems to have been the heir to Sherlock Holmes as a popular fictional detective, though he’s obviously not been as enduring. Futrelle likely would have written many more stories, but alas, he died at the age of 37, in the wreck of the Titanic. (May survived, however.)

Anyway, “The Grinning God.” Do I recommend it? Yeah, I’d say it’s worth reading just for the first part. The second part is more gimmicky, but it was still interesting. It was written in 1907, so it’s probably public domain, though I ended up just reading it in the collection linked above for the sake of convenience.

[Audio version of this post available below.]


  1. Prior to this review I had never heard of Prof. Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, and became a little sidetracked ‘Googling’ and looking through Amazon’s offers.
    Fascinating I shall have to look into this in more detail.
    Collaborations between writers (as opposed to a famous one headlining, while another does all the hard work) are interesting in how the dynamics work out. ‘The Grinning God’ does sound a most interesting read.
    Thanks again for another insightful review.

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