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Literature / Black Widowers

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This collection of Mystery Fiction in the Short Story format is based around a small fictional men-only dining club, created by Isaac Asimov. Initially a one-shot, Ellery Queen introduced "The Acquisitive Chuckle" in the January 1972 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as "the first of a new series", so Dr Asimov continued to write new stories with the same setting. A total of sixty-six stories were written by Dr Asimov, and two additional stories were printed with permission of the Asimov Estate.

The format mirrored a real-life club that Dr Asimov participated in, called the Trap Door Spiders. The characters meet monthly in a private dining room at the Milano in New York City. Hosting responsibilities, which include bringing along a new guest each evening, rotate each time. Guests were not allowed to pay for their meal (this is part of the host's responsibilities), usually did not return (though exceptions were made), and could not be a woman (no exceptions allowed on this point). The meal is served by the incomparable waiter Henry Jackson — almost invariably referred to as simply Henry — whom the regulars look upon with high regard and have often insisted on his being a full member of their organization.

At some point after the table has been cleared of dessert, the host rattles his spoon on his water glass for silence. They appoint another Widower as "griller" for the night, who then leads the rest in a semi-formal interrogation of the guest. The first question directed to the guest is to "justify his existence". In the course of the subsequent interrogation/conversation, it always comes out that the guest has a problem, varying from personal issues, to problems at work, and even to actual crimes. The club members try to solve the problem, raising various related aspects in the course of the conversation, but are unable to come to a satisfying conclusion or resolution. In the end, it is Henry who provides the correct, and usually very simple, answer, obtained from details mentioned in their conversation.

Not all of the members are present at each meeting, but the recurring characters are as follows:

  • Geoffrey Avalon, a patent attorney with a very precise and measuring demeanor (he has exactly one-and-a-half glasses of brandy each meeting).
  • James Drake, an organic chemist with a love for pulp fiction.
  • Mario Gonzalo, an artist, who draws a caricature portrait of each evening's guest.
  • Roger Halsted, a high school mathematics teacher, fond of jokes and limericks, introduced in the third case.
  • Emmanuel Rubin, a talkative mystery novelist and acquaintance of Isaac Asimov.
  • Thomas Trumbull, a grumpy expert in cryptography for the United States government.
  • Henry, the waiter and completely honest man.

Collections of the Black Widowers:

Uncollected works also set at Black Widowers meetings:

Tropes served at the Milano:

  • Animal Metaphor: The group named themselves "black widowers" in reference to the black widow spider. Widower is the masculine form of widow, and while they are present at the meeting, none of them have wives or girlfriends.
    the Black Widowers, who monthly met in their quiet haunt and vowed death to any female who intruded for that one night per month, at any rate. — "The Acquisitive Chuckle"
  • Anthology: Dr Asimov would sell the short stories individually, and once he had twelve new files, he'd reprint them in a collection, and add commentary about the publication process. A few stories were published in the collection first, because Dr Asimov didn't have the patience to wait on other people's rate of publication.
  • Apple of Discord: In "To The Barest," the late ex-Widower Ralph Ottur invokes discord and alludes to the mythological example when he leaves a large sum of money in his will "to the barest" of the current Black Widowers, whatever that means with the additional caveat that if they are smart enough to refuse to argue, the money will go to the American Nazi Party. (For extra points, Ottur deliberately chose a lawyer named Parris as his executor.)
  • Beauty Contest: In "Miss What?", the guest tells the story of a religious fanatic targeting a beauty pageant called Miss Globe and planning to murder one of the contestants. The Miss Globe contest had entrants representing geographical regions as well as countries.
  • Beneath Notice:
    • In "Out Of Sight", the guest knows that the person who photographed sensitive documents he was carrying had to have been one of the people at his table at dinner. The spy turns out to be the waiter, who he had completely forgotten about. Naturally, Henry is able to point this out.
    • In "Seasons Greetings", the person attempting to steal a Christmas card turns out to be the mailman. Asimov acknowledged that this story owed a debt to G. K. Chesterton's "The Invisible Man".
  • Book Safe: In "The Unabridged", a valuable postage stamp is hidden inside a book. The puzzle for the Widowers is to figure out which book (or, at least, narrow down the selection).
  • The Case of...: The third collection of stories is Casebook of the Black Widowers.
  • Clear Their Name: In "Friday The 13th", the guest is attempting to prove that an ancestor of his wife who was executed for attempting to assassinate Calvin Coolidge was actually innocent.
  • Clock Discrepancy:
    • In one mystery, a character is woken up by a phone call at a time that is actually an hour later than he thinks it is (because he hasn't yet set his clock forward for Daylight Savings Time) and thus unwittingly provides a false alibi.
    • In one mystery, a discrepancy between 5:50 (which would exonerate the accused) and "half past five" (which incriminates him) is resolved in favor of the former — the witness reporting the latter was an accountant used to decimal numbers who unconsciously interpreted the digital clock display as "five and a half".
  • Cut-and-Paste Suburb: In "The Wrong House", four identical houses provides the setup for the mystery.
  • Distracted by My Own Sexy: In "No Smoking", the guest is a man whose specialty is job interviews. He keeps a variety of objects on his desk, and judges people's character by how they interact with those objects. The fashion-conscious Mario Gonzalo asks how he did on his interview, and the guest replies that he never reveals his secrets, but he will mention one thing: "There was a mirror in the room."
  • Doing In the Wizard: "The Obvious Factor" and "The Haunted Cabin",
    • "The Cross of Lorraine" features a Lawyer-Friendly Cameo of the Amazing Randi, who disproves mystics for a living.
  • Driving Question: Each of these mysteries is framed around a puzzle that drives the questioner to seeking answers.
  • Dying Clue:
    • In "The Sports Page", the guest relates the tale of a Russian spy working for the West who left a dying message that nobody had been able to interpret: the letters E P O C K from a Scrabble set. No useful anagram could be found, so the spy's intention had been a mystery for more than twenty years. As always, Henry the waiter solves it, pointing out that the letters could be meaningfully rearranged to form 'CKOPE', which in the Cyrillic alphabet spells the word 'score'. This, along with a newspaper opened at the sports page (the scores, gettit?) implied that the agent was trying to communicate the number twenty. The Widowers' guest is thunderstruck at this — in the code they used at the time, '20' meant "Government in firm control" and if they had known this, the Bay of Pigs invasion could have been called off.
    • In "The Pointing Finger", a man who has just suffered a stroke points at the Complete Works of Shakespeare as a clue to where $3000 in bonds are hidden. He was actually pointing at the bookcase. The bonds were taped to the back of it.
    • In "The Curious Omission", a dying man leaves a friend a legacy and says that the location of the safe deposit box where it is held can be found in "the curious omission in Alice". Justified as the dying man loved games, and wanted to leave his friend one last puzzle to solve.
  • Earth-Shattering Kaboom: In "The Ultimate Crime", Henry speculates that in Sherlock Holmes, Professor Moriarty's treatise Dynamics of an Asteroid describes an explosion of a planet between Mars and Jupiter that created the asteroid belt. And that Moriarty might have had dreams of doing the same thing to Earth.
  • Embarrassing First Name: The solution to "The Fourth Homonym" hinges on the real name of the dying man's eldest son, Frank. His given names are B. Franklin. The Widowers assume that the B stands for Benjamin, until Henry points out that he would have no reason to be embarrassed by the name Benjamin, or not to use Ben as a nickname. His father was fascinated by Roman history and his eldest son's first name was actually Brutus.
  • Everybody Smokes: Drake is the only character to smoke on a regular basis, but the trope still applies because smoking during dinner is seen as acceptable, and it's only during the grilling that members are required to snuff out their cigarettes.
  • Exact Words: The resolution of "Truth To Tell" hinges on the exact phrasing of their guest's answers. Their guest that evening, who claims to never tell a lie, is suspected of a robbery and repeatedly insists "I didn't take the cash or the bonds". This is shown by Henry to be true; he took the cash and the bonds.
  • Expy: Each of the Widowers owes more than a bit to a member of a literary club Asimov belonged to known as the Trap Door Spiders: Avalon is based on L. Sprague de Camp, Rubin on Lester del Rey, Drake on John Drury Clark, Trumbull on Gilbert Cant, Gonzalo on Lin Carter, and Halsted in Don Bersen. Henry himself is a homage to P. G. Wodehouse's eternal Jeeves character.
  • Fair-Play Whodunnit: The stories generally include all of the clues needed for the correct deduction before Henry is prepared to give The Summation.
  • False Reassurance: In "Truth To Tell", a man renowned for never telling a lie denies an allegation of theft by repeatedly claiming he did not take the cash or the securities from the safe. People are reassured, until Henry asks if he took the cash and the securities from the safe.
  • Fancy Dinner: The characters meet at the Milano, a high-class establishment with a private room for their meetings. They're served pre-dinner drinks, appetizers, a main course, dessert and coffee, and after-dinner brandy before the grilling starts.
  • Good Samaritan: One story is titled "The Good Samaritan", and focuses on a victim trying to locate her Good Samaritan helper to repay him.
  • Having a Gay Old Time:
    • Asimov sometimes uses 'diddle' in its old meaning of 'swindle'.
    • Additionally, the term "molest" is used to describe muggings.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: The gang does not hate women, but rather appreciates their time without them. They avoid discussion of their own wives, and never invite a woman to their meetings. As long as they are at the meeting, they are "widowers", men whose spouses are dead.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight:
    • "The Cross Of Lorraine" hinges on discovering where a Cross of Lorraine appears in everyday life without anyone noticing. It turns out it's part of the Exxon company logo.
    • "Quicker Than The Eye" had a spy somehow pass a small object to his contact at a restaurant without being seen by the counterspies carefully watching for just such a transfer. The object was roughly the size and shape of a coin, and no one thought anything of the spy tipping the doorman as he left.
  • Infallible Narrator: Averted in "The Next Day", the solution is obscured because the guest didn't have this sort of memory and paraphrased what people said rather than using Exact Words. It was played straight in most of the other Black Widowers tales, though.
  • Intangible Theft: In "The Acquisitive Chuckle", Jackson let himself into the home of his untrustworthy ex-partner in order to return a few papers, the keys, and to steal Anderson's peace of mind.
  • Ironic Echo Cut: There's an unspoken echo when a very forgetful man has misplaced the card on which he'd written some information he desperately needs. The Widowers agree not to ask Henry, despite all his previous successes, because there's no way he could just "pull the answer out of a hat" in this situation. Then Henry enters with the card in question; the guest had absentmindedly handed it to Henry when he arrived, along with his hat and coat, and Henry tucked the card into the man's hat for storage. So he did pull the answer out of a hat — but no one points this out.
  • The Jeeves: Henry is unobtrusive, helpful, and anticipates the requests of the other club members. The stories praise him as the best possible waiter.
  • Least Rhymable Word: One character tries to summarise The Iliad as a series of limericks, but grinds to a halt over the difficulty of rhyming Diomedes.
  • Luxurious Liquor: Before dinner, characters order mixed drinks. After dessert, coffee and brandy is served (except for Avalon, who already drank his limit before dinner). The easily available alcohol helps demonstrate to the audience that the Milano is a high-class establishment.
  • MacGuffin:
    • In "The Acquisitive Chuckle", Anderson isn't certain what it was that Jackson put in his attache case before leaving, but is convinced it was valuable. For his part, when Jackson is confronted with the accusation of theft, he admits that the case was empty.
    • "Sunset on the Water" had the out of print books.
    • "The Lucky Piece" had a lucky coin.
    • "The Alibi" had "the data", and the government agent explains that the details of "the data" are unimportant, but still secret.
    • "Northwestward": Mr Pennyworth is carrying the most valuable part of Mr Wayne's Batman memorabilia in a single suitcase. Although he doesn't lose it, he does have a couple of close calls.
  • Mathematician's Answer: In "Truth To Tell", the monthly guest, a man who never tells a lie, is suspected of a crime which it seems only he could have committed, but he continually denies it, saying: "I didn't take the cash or the bonds." An 'exclusive or' question means the answer is 'yes' if one and only one of the two things are stolen. Henry asks him: "Did you take the cash and the bonds?" The guest declines to answer and leaves.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: In "The Old Purse", a woman had her old, inconspicuous purse stolen from her, and then all its contents brought to her home, minus the purse. It was stolen by terrorists who wanted an inconspicuous container for a planted bomb.
  • Mistaken for Murderer: In "Nothing Like Murder", the guest is a Russian writer with a less than perfect grasp of English who is convinced that he overheard two men plotting a murder on a college campus. It is up to Henry to determine what he really heard.
  • Monster of the Week: The stories have a "mystery of the month" format, where each meeting has a guest who provides a puzzle for the characters to solve. Meetings where there is no mystery simply don't have stories written about them, but are implied to exist.
  • Mr. Smith: "Can You Prove It" is about a man who, after someone drugged and robbed him in a foreign country, had trouble proving to the police that his name was, in fact, John Smith.
  • Named Like My Name: The mystery in "Second Best" involves a dying soldier who had the same name as a US President, but died before he could tell the guest what it was. The Widowers attempt to figure out which president from the cryptic clues the soldier dropped. It was Grover Cleveland, the "second-best vote-getter" who won the popular vote in three elections (second to FDR's four) but lost the electoral vote in one of them.
  • Of Course I Smoke: In "No Smoking", the guest specializes in job interviews, and he relates the story of a man who nervously lit up in the middle of an interview, suffered a coughing fit, and admitted that he really didn't smoke—he was just trying to look cool. Of course, the job went to the other candidate. However, the Black Widowers deduce that the man was an ex-smoker who staged the scene in order to force the interviewer to choose the other candidate; they were accomplices in a plot to embezzle money from the company. He faked the coughing fit, but forgot to conceal the fact that he could light a match with one hand.
  • On One Condition:
    • In "To the Barest", the founder of the Black Widowers, Ralph Ottur, dies and leaves a will requiring them to solve a pun riddle. They must determine which of them is the "barest", and that person gets $10,000. If they fail, the money will go to the American Nazi Party. The kicker here is that Ralph Ottur hated the American Nazi Party. He picked them as the next-in-line heir to make sure the living Black Widowers put enough effort into solving the riddle.
    • In "The One and Only East", the members have to help a friend whose eccentric uncle required him to solve a riddle in order to receive an inheritance. If he fails, the fortune will go to charities that the uncle knows his straitlaced nephew will disapprove of.
  • Orphaned Series: The series was probably expected to continue indefinitely, when Dr Asimov's death ended it early. To subvert this trope, the Asimov Estate gave Charles Ardai permission to edit a satisfying conclusion to the series.
  • Paranoia Gambit: In "The Acquisitive Chuckle", Jackson chuckled to himself just before Anderson caught him having been alone for hours. Anderson is convinced something must have been stolen, because he would always laugh the same way when he had finally gotten something expensive. Actually nothing physical had been taken. What the thief had 'stolen' was his former partner's peace of mind, as he knew the man's mindset would cause him to obsess over discovering what had been stolen to the exclusion of all else.
  • Phone-In Detective: Henry solves the mystery based on the guest's description and the other members' batting around various possibilities.
    • In "The Acquisitive Chuckle", Mr Bartram has gone over the crime scene with a fine-toothed comb, and has given up on solving the mystery before coming to the Black Widowers' club meeting for help. Subverted because he doesn't really believe they can solve the mystery, he came to ask the thief for the solution directly, since the thief can no longer be prosecuted.
    • In "Ph as in Phony", Henry is able to deduce the mystery of Faron's cheating by figuring out how Faron could create the test rather than stealing the test.
  • Picky Eater: Rubin is the go-to character for being suspicious of the quality of dinner. He never finds it objectionable after he's eaten, but will often make some sort of complaint when the dish is served.
  • Priceless Paperweight: In "The Iron Gem", a person is puzzled about why someone offered him five hundred for an old family heirloom—an iron meteorite—and then never made another offer or even tried to contact him. It turns out the man managed to distract the owner and walk away with the original package—which had a stamp on it. And since the package dated from 1856, a stamp from that time would be valuable indeed.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: The one time a complete stranger was allowed to ask for help, it was a guy looking for the bastard who slept with his mentally challenged sister. The girl didn't even realize what was actually happening.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: "Where Is He" was the subject of many letters criticizing Asimov for such an outlandish and far-fetched plot. Asimov responded that the very thing happened to him, with the locations of the hotel and the office building unchanged.
  • Service Sector Stereotypes: The guests are frequently surprised to learn that the club considers the waiter Henry a member, and the most intelligent one at that.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: In "The Unabridged", the guest mentions that his aunt would never use a simple term if a longer, fancier-sounding one was available; believing that this made her sound educated. Naturally, this habit plays a vital role in the ultimate solution to the mystery.
  • Silly Will:
    • In "To the Barest". When Ralph Ottur (the founder of the Black Widowers club) dies, he leaves a will which requires the members to solve a riddle in order for one of the members to receive a bequest. To raise the stakes, if the riddle wasn't solved, the money would go to the American Nazi Party.
    • In "The One and Only East", the members have to help a friend whose eccentric uncle required him to solve a riddle in order to receive an inheritance. If he fails, the fortune will go to charities that the uncle knows his straitlaced nephew will disapprove of.
  • Spotting the Thread: "The Missing Item" is about a man whose wife joined a sect promising spiritual reincarnation on Mars. They call themselves the Tri-Luciferians, referring to the fact that while Earth has two morning stars (the original meaning of "Lucifer"), namely, Mercury and Venus, Mars has Earth as a morning star as well. The wife is reasonable enough, however, to leave the sect if someone will point out a logical impossibility in the teachings of the sect. The logical place to look would be the descriptions of Mars, but the leader is careful not to give too much detail, and what he does give is consistent with the current scientific knowledge. Finally, it is pointed out that Mars would not have three morning stars. It would have four, since the Moon would be both too bright to miss, and far enough from Earth to be seen as a separate object.
  • Strictly Formula: The Widowers meet in the Milano with a guest for a Fancy Dinner, waited upon by Henry Jackson. The guest has a problem that he tells the widowers about. The Widowers discuss possible solutions, all are shot down by the guest. Then they turn to the waiter, Henry. The guest is surprised about this, but it is explained Henry is considered a member of the club. Henry then solves the case.
  • Take That!: In "The Missing Item", Asimov delivers one to Erich von Daniken, as well as the Ancient Astronauts trope in general, having one of his characters state that belief in these ideas shows just how gullible people are.
  • Team Title: The stories of the Black Widowers revolve around the Fancy Dinner meetings of the eponymous group.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Manny Rubin and Mario Gonzalo. In "The Wrong House," the guest of the month points it out:
    Levan: Whenever I hear two people spar like that, I am certain that there is actually a profound affection between them.
    Rubin: (revolted) Oh, God.
    Gonzalo: You've hit it, Mr. Levan. Manny would give me the shirt off his back if no-one were looking. The only thing he wouldn't give me is a kind word.
  • Who's on First?: In "The Next Day", an employee of a publisher asks the group to help him figure out why an important manuscript had yet to arrive when the author had announced that it would be delivered tomorrow several weeks before. There was a rival publishing firm called "Morrow and Company" which received the manuscript.
  • Will Not Tell a Lie:
    • In "The Acquisitive Chuckle", Jackson is described as someone so honest that they could not tell a lie. No supernatural pressure is suggested, just that their honesty is unquestionable.
    • The guest in "Truth to Tell" has a reputation for never telling a lie; not even white lies told for social convenience. This makes his Exact Words the key to solving the mystery.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Discussed Trope in one of the stories. During the course of their wide-ranging discussion, one of the Widowers (most of whom would regard themselves as gentlemen) asks—with some bafflement—what kind of man would hit a woman. Henry, their all-knowing waiter, replies in his usual calm fashion that in his experience, there are two kinds.
    Extreme misogynists. And husbands.
  • Writers Suck: Asimov loves to have the character Emmanuel Rubin insult him, mocking Asimov's conceit. One of the stories also had a mention of Lester del Rey, and Rubin says, "Never heard of him." Rubin was based on Del Rey.