by Sharon Tucker
“I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing—to be ‘clear.’” Isaac Asimov, “Nemesis,” (1989)
Let’s face it, there are few things Isaac Asimov didn’t write about. In the five hundred plus books he either wrote or edited, it’s no surprise that two mystery novels and six volumes of mystery short stories are among them. In fact, his robot novels including Caves of Steel (1953), which is the only one so far I have read, are couched in mysteries to be solved so it’s reasonable to suspect that mystery is a major element in his fiction. Even in his non-fiction writings he sets about explicating the sciences and other disciplines, “pluck(ing) out the heart of (their) mystery.” However, if you don’t care to dabble in his science fiction, A Whiff of Death (1958), Murder at the ABA (1976), and Tales of the Black Widowers (1974) place him squarely in the mystery genre and are written in the classic tradition of the mystery novels we love so well.
In keeping with Asimov’s experience in his first academic area of study, chemistry, a university chemistry department is the setting for A Whiff of Death. The death of a top graduate student, Ralph Neufeld, puzzles his advisor, Professor Brade, especially since it is termed a suicide. The problem is that Brade considers Neufeld a highly unlikely suicide in the first place due to his healthy ego and the commission of an elementary breach of lab protocols he would never have made. The equation does not equal suicide. Asimov deftly capitalizes on every non-tenured faculty member’s tenure anxiety to up the plot’s stakes and adds to it the personal pressure an ambitious spouse brings to bear, but what’s especially remarkable here is insight into how the scientific mind works.
Murder at the ABA is Asimov’s clever experiment in metafiction. The action of the novel occurs in slices of real time over the course of a four day American Bookseller’s Convention in New York. When the requisite murder of an author occurs, our first person narrator-soon-to-be-detective is Darius Just, a character loosely modeled on Asimov’s fellow science fiction writer and friend Harlan Ellison. The victim was well-known for writing a break-through novel with Just’s mentorship and who subsequently dumped both Just and their mutual publisher, leading the police to construe Just as the most likely subject of their inquiry. Fortunately for the sake of consistency in narration, Just has a bullet-proof alibi and decides to salve his guilty conscience by uncovering the true murderer. As he did with the university chemistry department in A Whiff of Death, here Asimov lets us in on the mechanics of book conventions with telling portraits of struggling publishers, arrogant authors, ubiquitous administrators, and egotistical Lotharios. I especially enjoyed the sporadic footnotes by both Asimov and Ellison that pull the reader out of the novel and into an ongoing dialogue between them from time to time.
Asimov belonged to a literary dining society, the Trap Door Spiders, on which he based his fictionalized dinner club, the Black Widowers. In Tales of the Black Widowers, we first meet the six club members and their superb waiter, Henry, all of whom figure in most or all of the succeeding collection. The usual format for the stories is the monthly gathering of the club members plus the hosting member’s guest at an Italian restaurant in New York. The guest would be introduced to the assembled club members and in the succeeding conversation, turned to problem solving with Henry, the acutest of observers, making the most discreet of contributions—exposition and solution in twelve pages on average. Asimov based his six characters/club members on the quirks and foibles of friends and fellow science fiction writers, except for Henry, who is a unique Jeeves-like character. He submitted most of his Black Widower stories initially to Ellery Queen Magazine and enjoyed writing them so much that he wrote fifty-four more, publishing them in five more Black Widower collections.
Isaac Asimov had a warm, engaging prose style that made the reader feel a part of the world of his novels, his guides to Shakespeare, the Bible or Milton’s Paradise Lost, and of course his scientific works. That he was a cultural omnivore is obvious in everything he wrote; he was fascinated by what is human and how we fit into the cosmos. His depth and breadth of knowledge was astounding and he applied that encyclopedic knowledge to everything he wrote about. That he was read and appreciated by writers and leaders in myriad professions is well-documented, among them J. R. R. Tolkien, Pulitzer Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, and countless science fiction writers who are either imitating him or studiously avoiding doing so. My favorites will always be the Black Widower stories because it’s fun to read the inimitable Asimov taking on a less familiar genre of writing and succeeding brilliantly.
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