The Black Widowers Club

There were six of them. Professional men and their waiter. They gather at the Milano Restaurant once a month for good food and good conversation. But lately the Black Widowers have added a new entertainment to their meetings. They have begun to solve mysteries, murders, and conspiracies of seemingly impossible dimensions.

With all the skill of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot combined, these six men and their ever-faithful waiter, Henry, take on challenging cases that will tease your deductive skills to the limit—and keep you guessing to the very end.

This is the first of the anthologies of “Black Widower” mysteries, a series of short stories generally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, F&SF or Asimov’s. The stories tend to be highly formulaic (with some exceptions): they all take place at the monthly banquets of the stag club, The Black Widowers, which are always held at the same restaurant with the same waiter, Henry. At each meeting there is a guest who is supposed to talk about his life and whose life always seems to include a puzzling mystery. The various Black Widowers discuss the problem, follow false leads, and in the end find themselves unable to solve it until Henry gently comes up with the correct solution.

(The club was based loosely on the Trap Door Spiders, an organization to which Asimov himself eventually belonged, and all of the regular Black Widowers were based on some of Asimov’s friends.)

For some reason, I tend to have trouble keeping the characters straight. It may well be that they all appear together. This may account for the fact that I can distinguish and remember some of the guests better than the five hosts. Despite my assertion in an earlier version of this review, they are distinct individuals and generally well drawn. Still, these stories aren’t about characters—they’re puzzlers, brainteasers, odd little problems Asimov challenges us to solve.

(The stories also frequently come with commentary as Asimov describes how and when the story came to be written. As elsewhere, I’m ambivalent in my feelings on his doing this. On the one hand, it provides interesting and often entertaining information about Asimov himself, while on the other it tends to wreck the illusion that we’re reading “real” stories about real people.)

As a rule, I’m not a big fan of this kind of story. I never try to solve them myself before reading the solution. If I did try to work out the solution, either I could, in which case I would feel contempt for the author’s not being able to outsmart me, or I couldnt, in which case I’d be humiliated. It’s easier just to read the story. As a result, the Black Widower stories are not among my favorites by Asimov, although I don’t dislike them by any means and enjoy most of them a great deal.

This first collection is far from the weakest. The first story isn’t one I particularly like (although the gimmick involved is clever), since Henry doesn’t solve the problem—Henry is the solution to the problem. Some of the other stories are among my favorites, however, such as the chilling “Early Sunday Morning.” “Ph as in Phony” is clever, as is “Truth to Tell.” And I remember without trouble (and with pleasure) several of the others, such as “The Lullaby of Broadway,” “Yankee Doodle Went to Town,” and “Out of Sight.”

One strength of this collection, however, is its inclusion of my single favorite Black Widower mystery, “The Obvious Factor.” This is definitely stretching the canons of “fairness” on Asimov’s part, since the mystery turns on the fact that the person describing the problem to be solved is making it all up as he goes along, but Asimov strews clues along the way that this is case and it certainly is a wry observation on the nature of puzzle stories like this in general.

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