Review Asimov - The Black Widowers


Member: Rank 8
Apart from Sci fi and non fiction books, Asimov wrote a wonderful series of detective fiction books, the Black Widower series of short stories featuring the detective genius of Henry the waiter. I'll explain.
In real life Asimov belonged to a group called the Trap Door Spiders, a group of his friends , mainly other authors, who met once a month in a restaurant in Manhattan for an evening of chat and social niceties. Each month one member would be host, organizing the meal etc. and bringing along a guest.
Asimov used this as a template for his fictional group The Black Widowers. The fictional set up mirrored the real life group but with a difference of course. The guest would reveal a mystery that needed solving and after exhaustive questioning by the Black Widowers, the spotlight would fall on Henry the club's waiter , Asimov 's Poirot , to solve the mystery. Each of the five books in the series has about a dozen 20 or so page stories. I think he considered writing a novel but decided that the format only worked as a short story.
Best to explain further by detailing in highly skeletal form a story.
The Redhead
Most of the puzzles presented by the guests were of a reasonably trivial nature, occasionally there was a murder to solve, but usually Asimov brilliantly created a puzzle out of the mundane.
In this story the guest , Edward Harrison, ( can't remember the actual name used but it's not important), was a worried man. His withdrawn behaviour during dinner had led the Black Widowers( BW) to believe he had a problem and they'd be happy to help. Harrison's problem was his wife. A beautiful redhead with a fiery temper who loved to tease him. Her latest wheeze was to proclaim that she was a witch.
One evening in the lobby of a restaurant they had a blazing row, over something trivial that Ed couldn't even remember. His wife said " I'm leaving for home and I'll use witchcraft to get there" . The lady , Carla, then surprised Ed by instead of running to the street she dashed into the restaurant. Harrison told the listening BW that he stood stunned for only about twenty seconds then followed her in, but she was gone!.Harrison described the restaurant called The Living Room as accurately as possible. It was designed like a living room. A hearth was opposite the entrance, a fire, a couch facing the fire. A man was sitting on it with his back therefore to the door reading a newspaper. Harrison presumed the man was shortsighted as he held the paper up close and slightly raised. About twenty tables filled the room, drapes hung on the wall covering windows, but of Carla there was no sign. Harrison asked out loud if anyone had seen a woman with red hair come in. No one even bothered to reply except the man on the couch who politely turned and said no he hadn't seen her. Harrison even stormed into the kitchen, but no luck there, not even a cupboard big enough where she could hide. Eventually he went home and there she was. Harrison vent his fury "Where the hell have you been, how did you get out of the restaurant?"
" By witchcraft darling"
Harrison finished his story to the BW. As usual Asimov allows the Widowers five or six pages to question the guest and sort out the mystery.
Did she hide under the table?
No, the tables were bare, no cloth to conceal her.
What about behind the drapes?
No, the drapes covered fake painted on windows, all part of the design of the restaurant, and anyway you'd see a bulge.
On of the BW suggested as she ran in she pulled off her red wig and mingled at a table.
Definitely no! Carla never wore a wig, and had no place to conceal one. She only wore a skimpy dress and carried a clutch bag.
A page and a half to go, and the BW turn to Henry , standing listening by the sideboard of the basement restaurant that the BW meet.
" Any ideas Henry?"
Henry reveals the answer;

" Mr Harrison, do you not find it strange that the one person who couldn't possibly see your wife enter, the man on the couch sitting facing away from the door should be the only one to turn round and say he didn't see her? Your wife ran in and sat on the couch "
" Impossible, I'd have seen her head and shoulders above the back of the couch"
" On a chair you can only sit but on a couch you can lie down. I believe your wife laid down her head on the man's lap, fingers imploringly to her lips asking for silence. Very few men in that situation would refuse a lady , especially one in a skimpy dress.
You said the newspaper was up high and close to the man's head. Could that not be to avoid her head on his lap and then to further show gallantry he turns to you and shakes his head saying he hasn't seen her"
" Right Henry! I'll have it out with her right now!!"
Henry calmly said " I wouldn't Mr Harrison, let her have her victory, for the sake of family harmony. You know how it as done. It'll be her victory without your defeat"
I can recommend the Black Widower books.
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Member: Rank 6
I always enjoyed Asimov's mysteries, but I felt the Black Widower stuff too often relied on some fairly obscure trivia that I, as a non American from a different era to him struggled with. Mostly it was stuff that I would have had to research to find out (like the original lyrics to Yankee Doodle Dandy or the state of East Virginia). And doing research to solve a short story mystery never felt like it was worth the effort. I much prefer the type of mystery where all the clues are available and I fail to solve it because I'm too stupid, to one where solving it relies on me knowing something obscure.