Cover of The Return of the Black Widowers
Book 513 Mystery Collection 2003
It’s Been a Good Life    
3 spaceships-and-suns
Asimov fan
2 spaceships-and-suns
Target reader

In the 1970s the widely popular and prolific science fiction writer Isaac Asimov began to dabble in the art of the mystery story. Over the next twenty years, until his death in 1992, Asimov wrote more than 120 ingenious tales of detection and deduction, and in 66 of them he presented a group of armchair detectives—the Black Widowers—with mind-teasing puzzles that they strove in often quaarelsome conversation to solve.

Now the Black Widowers club is meeting again. In a private dining room at New York’s luxurious Milano restaurant, the six brilliant men once more gather for fine fare impeccably served, as always, by that peerless waiter, Henry. They will of course also be joined by a special dinner guest with a mystery to challenge their combined deductive wit: a man whose marriage hinges on finding a lost umbrella, perhaps; or a debunker of psychics unable to explain his unnerving experience in a haunted house; or a symphony cellist accused of attacking his wife with a kitchen knife.

In addition to six stories that have never before appeared in any collection, the volume includes the ten best-ever Black Widowers cases, among them the very first to be published (in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine) as well as the first brand new Black Widowers story to appear in more than ten years. So pull up a chair and partake of the perplexity. An Asimovian feast is about to begin.

This is the first book of Asimov’s previously unanthologized fiction published in the twenty-first century, the first published in eight years, in fact, and the first Black Widowers anthology in over a decade. Edited by Charles Ardai, who contributes a story of his own, this contains eleven stories from previous Black Widowers collections and six more which were written too late to be included in the previous collection, Puzzles of the Black Widowers.

Two additional stories are included, an homage by William Brittain called “The Men Who Read Isaac Asimov,” and a new Black Widowers story by Ardai himself, “The Last Story.” And if that weren’t enough, we also have selections from I. Asimov and Banquets of the Black Widowers on the series, and an introduction by Harlan Ellison®, who seems to have ascended from mere mortality to achieve apotheosis as a registered trademark.

Ardai let me know early in 2003 that this book was being published, which was most kind and for which I thank him. Given the astonishing reluctance on the part of publishers to put out volumes containing Asimov’s published works which have yet to appear in his books, I think he deserves kudos for getting this book out.

(An aside: It truly is surprising that companies such as Doubleday have been so unwilling to produce new books containing Asimov’s works since his death. Not only did it take over a decade to get the remaining Black Widowers stories into book form, but there are also enough F&SF essays left for a book, some unanthologized Union Club mysteries, and various other works. And, of course, the Complete Stories series could be resurrected. Alas, but just as Hollywood looks for the blockbuster, so publishers seek for the bestseller and would rather do without the minor, but real, profits that a posthumous book by Asimov would achieve.

(It’s perhaps telling that this book wasn’t published by Doubleday. Doubleday definitely seems to have cooled on Asimov late in his career for reasons unknown to me. They—or, rather, their current corporate overlords, Random House—do maintain a copule of dozen Asimov books in print, but the days are long, long past that they would publish virtually anything with the name “Isaac Asimov” on the cover.

(Doubtless, however, one of the problems here is the reading public, because story collections do not do as well as novels. An unpublished Asimov novel would obviously do very well indeed, but a collection of stories or science essays has less hope for major financial success. I note, for example, that although I have two children who are avid readers of novels, it takes a major effort to talk either into reading an anthology, which is their loss.

(Yet, despite this, Christopher Tolkien has managed to turn his father’s unpublished notes into a successful series of books. There is, methinks, no rational reason why Asimov’s published but uncollected materials would fare worse.)

The volume is a handsome one, with only one publishing glitch: “The Obvious Factor” contains its afterword from Tales of the Black Widowers. Of the three non-Asimovian contributions, “The Men Who Read Isaac Asimov” is cute, but slight, whereas both Ellison®’s introduction and Ardai’s story are quite good and distinctly add to the book’s value.

The former isn’t Ellison’s first public farewell to the Good Doctor by any means, but it’s clear that a decade hasn’t done much to ease the pain in his heart at Asimov’s passing. Ellison is an excellent writer, and some of his non-fiction has an almost stream-of-consciousness fluidity to it yet manages to flow always towards Ellison’s literary goal, and this piece exemplifies that.

As for Ardai’s story, it’s pretty impressive. Ardai very nearly mimics Asimov’s style and provides a nice puzzle which links into Asimov’s own life. (And, by the way, Ardai’s own avatar, Gary Nemerson from “Lost in a Space Warp” is the guest. There are no repeat guests in the canonical Black Widowers stories, and so this is a bit of a departure, but it’s a forgiveable one under the circumstances.)

The new stories are wlecome, all comfortably in the Black Widowers groove. Of the remainder, the first ten are intended to be the ten “best,” and although the inclusion of “The Acquisitive Chuckle” is pretty obligatory and the remaining nine aren’t going to be the same as would be the case if I were the one making the list, it’s not a bad set at all. For me, the one story in the collection which I don’t really care for is “The Woman in the Bar.” It’s included because its guest is Darius Just, Ellison’s fictional counterpart, and it’s therefore there for Ellison’s sake. Although the story isn’t my own personal cup of Ovaltine, I won’t count its inclusion against the book.

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