We think of Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) first and foremost as the father of modern science fiction. He’s especially well-known for his Foundation Trilogy, and his Robot series. Even outside the world of science fiction fandom, I, Robot is recognized as a blockbuster film, and many of the ideas we have about robots came from him.
Asimov fans may also know that he used to be a biochemistry professor, was friends with writers such as Harlan Ellison, gave advice to his good friend Gene Roddenberry on the making of Star Trek: the Motion Picture (and appears in the screen credits), and had an asteroid named after him.
But we’re going to focus here on his mystery writing. Most of his mysteries took the form of a short story series, known as The Black Widowers Club. The Black Widowers Club is a male-only group that meets monthly over dinner in a private dining room. Asimov’s first short story, “The Acquisitive Chuckle,” describes the group:
…the Black Widowers, who monthly met in their quiet haunt and vowed death to any female who intruded – for that one night per month, at any rate.Each month, one member brings a guest for the evening, who is treated to a fine meal for the price of presenting a real-life puzzle (that he knows the answer to) which the members must solve. The group is modeled after a society that Asimov himself belonged to, The Trap-Door Spiders (basically guys getting away from their haranguing wives on a Friday night; very little mystery-solving was involved with the real group).
The first Black Widowers story was published in 1971 in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, with 65 more to follow – some published in EQMM or other magazines over the years, others collected into volumes (although all were eventually collected into anthologies).
Asimov was a big fan of the ratiocinative (thinking) armchair detective, rather than the fists-first, hard-drinking P.I. He enjoyed Agatha Christie’s detective, Hercule Poirot, and was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, a club comprised of Sherlockian aficionados. So it’s no surprise that his Black Widowers stories are in the style of cozy armchair puzzles.
There’s a definite formula to each of the stories:
- Opens with banter/light discussion between the regular members (of which there are 7 – plus the waiter, Henry), with a quick set-up of their various professions/quirks
- Introduction of guest
- drinks are served; dinner is served
- Guest is asked the following question: “How do you justify your existence?”
- Guest answers in some fashion, as a segueway to the puzzle to be presented.
- Puzzle is presented
- Henry is clearing the plates and listening
- Back-and-forth between members and guest to clarify points.
- Members make guesses, but are wrong/stumped.
- Members turn to Henry, who (very modestly) solves the puzzle, but doesn’t accept praise, claiming that the members had a hand in it by eliminating all of the other possibilities.