What do a cryptologist, patent lawyer, artist, writer, chemist, math teacher, and their waiter do when they get together? Why solve mysteries of course! At least, that is what they do in the mind and imagination of Isaac Asimov in his Black Widowers short stories. Each month this group gets together for dinner. They take turns bringing a guest. Inevitably, a mystery around the guest arises, and the Black Widowers attempt to solve it. No matter how much the others may try, it is always Henry, the waiter, who unravels the puzzle.
More known for his science fiction stories, Asimov began to experiment with mystery tales in the 1970s. For the next twenty years, he produced more than 120 mysteries and puzzles, 66 of which included the characters mentioned above. This group was often seen in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and six volumes of stories. The Return of the Black Widowers is Asinov’s last volume of this group, which was edited by Charles Ardai after Asimov’s death in 1992. It is a collection of his ten best Black Widower stories, as well as six stories that have never appeared before in a collection. (There is even a story of Bruce Wayne included.)
These stories of armchair detectives are somewhat simple in their approach. They are puzzle mysteries, solved by deduction rather than real investigation. Many of the puzzles are not difficult, and often the reader arrives at the answer before Henry. In that way they are, as a co-worker of mine stated, Encyclopedia Brown stories for adults. But it is the armchair detectives themselves that drew me to the stories. While none are truly fleshed out, you still get hints as to their character. Mr. Asimov based each person on a real life friend of his, so it is interesting to think if this friend truly acted this way or is it Mr. Asimov’s perspective. Regardless, it is their interaction with each other that brings the stories to life. They argue with each other, tease each other, provide entertainment for all, and are funny. The best is when they manage to disparage poor Mr. Asimov himself (which actually seems to happen a lot).
If you are tired of the hard-boiled and suspenseful mysteries of today, curl up with this and enjoy the puzzling mind of Isaac Asimov.