We all know Isaac Asimov as the father of Three (sorry, Four) Laws of Robotics and the creator of the two Foundations, but he also created one of the most memorable groups of amateur detectives, The Black Widowers.
Although the name sounds like an assassins’ cabal, or a menacing secret society (or maybe a support group for serial killers), the reality is far from that. The Black Widowers is a men-only dining group, who gather together once a month at the Milano Restaurant, joined by a guest (chosen by the host of the month). There they spend the evening having a nice gourmet dinner, served by their deferential waiter Henry, followed by “grilling” the guest.
But once it so happens that the guest has a puzzle, a crime he cannot solve. The Black Widowers gladly sink their teeth into it, trying to find the solution. And since they enjoy the experience so much, it becomes routine for the host to seek out a guest with an unsolvable “crime” to narrate, and for the Widowers (along with their unofficial member Henry) to puzzle it out.
The disadvantage of the short stories is that the characters have very little time to take shape. The advantage of a series is that the characters start to emerge from a diverse group into an artist, a patent lawyer, a cryptographer, a math teacher, a chemist and a mystery writer, not to mention the Jeeves-like Henry (no last name known). Each of them brings to the table their individual way of thinking, attitude and of course, cribbing and fights, and with time, their own practical/romantic/cynical ways of looking at the puzzles.
Most of the stories take place in almost the same setting (the restaurant dining room) and follow almost the same format throughout all the books. Even though this makes for a repetitive structure, it also places the whole focus on the crime being discussed (and gives a whole new meaning to the term “armchair detectives”). They get to solve a whole range of crimes, from forgery, espionage, space warps to murder over the series of 66 stories. The guests too cover a whole range of spectrum, from graduate students, spooks, plumbers and so on.
Oh, and Asimov does spread enough clues over the pages for the aspiring detectives to follow (and try to overtake) the Black Widowers. So don’t forget your thinking caps to the dinner.
With Iliad in sonnets, and nice cozy mysteries to mull over, if you are in market for some short (around a dozen pages long) light detective stories, do eavesdrop on a Black Widowers dinner. And if you are lucky enough to be a guest, remember to be ready for a grilling with questions like “how do you justify your existence?”
Quote of The Day:
Thomas Trumbull: It is a rule of the Black Widowers that all members are doctors by virtue of membership. A doctor for any other reason is…
Arnold Stacy: A doctor doctor.
Emmanuel Rubin: You can count honorary doctorates too. But then, I would have to be called Doctor Doctor Doctor…
Read reviews of other books from Mystery genre.