Another academic mystery, this time by Isaac Asimov.
Yes, Asimov was a prolific writer of science fiction and science fact, but he also wrote mysteries — mostly related to science fiction and science fact. A Whiff of Death was one of those mysteries. It’s an easy read, and good for these pandemic times.
Writing instructors often tell people to write what they know, and Asimov’s PhD in biochemistry certainly shows that he followed that advice in this case. We have here a novel about a chemistry grad student who is killed in an apparent accident in his lab, and his advisor plays the role of the traditional amateur detective. It all takes place in a very thinly disguised Columbia University. I have just now re-read this 1958 novel, which I probably first read in 1959, and it hasn’t changed a bit since then.
Well, maybe a bit. It’s clearly a product of ’50s academia, where characters can say things like “He’s one of the best men in the department” and blithely smoke in a chem lab. So it’s a bit dated, but otherwise it feels fresh enough. I was interested to read Asimov’s own comments about it in his memoir (aptly titled I, Asimov). First we have his experience with it at Doubleday:
But soon it was published by Avon, with lackluster commercial results until it was republished by Walker: