Isaac Asimov was best known as a science fiction writer, though many readers justly prize him for his ultra-clear writing of science fact.
Not so many readers realize that Asimov was also a prolific—stop there! “prolific” anything is redundant when talking about Asimov, who published over 500 books—a prolific writer of mysteries. Along with a variety of novels and other short stories, his 66 “Black Widowers” stories, written between 1974 and 2003, may be his best-known puzzle mysteries. I just re-read the third volume of these stories, Casebook of the Black Widowers, but it almost doesn’t matter, as we read these with the comforting knowledge that they are all intentionally formulaic. It’s rather like going to the restaurant that is most familiar to you, knowing exactly what is on the menu and ordering the same thing every time—not what you want for all your dining/reading, but wonderful to fall back on. If you happen to be a completist, like me, you may want to know the full list of compilations of Black Widower stories:
- Tales of the Black Widowers
- More Tales of the Black Widowers
- Casebook of the Black Widowers
- Banquets of the Black Widowers
- Puzzles of the Black Widowers
- The Return of the Black Widowers
Although the stories are delicious morsels, they also seem jarringly outdated in spots. First there is the blatantly sexist premise of a male-only club of intellectuals. But Asimov based the club on a real-life one to which he belonged, and both in real life and in fiction he made efforts to allow women to join, so at least the sexism is confronted, not ignored. Second is that one member of the small club is a smoker who smokes in the restaurant where the club meets, sometimes even during dinner! Third is the portrayal of the “gentleman waiter,” Henry, who contrasts vividly with most servers today. Henry, by the way—and I’m not really giving anything away here—is always the one who solves the puzzle each month. The formula requires that the club meets for dinner and conversation every month at the same restaurant, rotating the duties of official host, who always invites a guest speaker. By a strange coincidence each guest ends up presenting a mystifying real-world puzzle to the club members.
So now I’d better go back and read all six volumes in order. That’s how it’s done, you know.