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The 4th story in the Black Widowers case files, Isaac Asimov wrote it for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (December 1972 issue), under the title of "The Matchbook Collector".
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Rubin is host tonight, and his guest is Ronald Klein, one of his publishers. The discussion during dinner turns to collectables and how Mr Klein had encountered a man who collected matchbooks. This immediately draws the attention of Trumbull, and he tells the club about his suspicion that Ottiwell is sending messages through matchbooks. Of course, none of them can deduce the method until Henry is consulted.

This story has been reprinted three times; Tales of the Black Widowers (1974), Ellery Queens Mystery Magazine Anthology (Spring/Summer 1976), and Ellery Queens Giants Of Mystery (1976).


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Examples

  • Adaptation Distillation: In-Universe, Halsted is adapting The Iliad into limericks, one book at a time. The second book goes as follows:
    Agamemnon's dream strategy slips,
    The morale of his troops quickly dips.
    First Thersites complains,
    But Odysseus restrains,
    And we next have the Cat'log of Ships.
  • Conversational Troping: The members are sidetracked by discussing writing tropes like Exact Words and First-Person Perspective. This annoys Trumbull who has recognized a mystery that he wants help solving.
  • Driving Question: How can matchbooks be used to send secret messages?
  • Everybody Smokes: Published in 1972, it was still common for restaurants to have matchbooks and ashtrays on every table, which facilitates matchbook collectors.
  • Exact Words: Conversational Troping, when Mr Kline mentions his inability to remember precisely what it was Ottiwell had said to him the other day. Halsted describes it as unrealistic in a First-Person Perspective.
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  • Fairplay Whodunnit: Trumbull hands out all of the needed clues, and the audience can deduce that the standard shape of matchbooks, two rows of fifteen matches, may be used to send secret messages in several ways.
  • Fancy Dinner: The Black Widowers meet every month at the Milano, a fancy restaurant in New York City, tonight's dinner is stuffed veal, with zabaglione for dessert.
  • Featureless Plane of Disembodied Dialogue: The Milano is sparsely described, along with minimal description of characters and meal.
  • First-Person Perspective: Conversational Troping, Halsted describes the ability of this perspective to provide Exact Words as an unrealistic element in any story.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Conversational Troping, Avalon claims the use of First-Person Perspective means the audience knows the viewpoint character will survive to the end of the story. The conversation is derailed as other characters dispute his claim.
  • Framing Device: The Fancy Dinner gives us a setting and characters to discuss decoding a method of passing notes with matchbooks.
  • Fun with Homophones: When Drake sees Halsted again (one or the other has been absent for the past three meetings), he announced "A, B" before trailing off. Halsted asks what he means, and Drake explains, "Long time, no C" (see).
  • The Jeeves: Henry is constantly flitting around the room in this story, up until the members get deep into tonight's mystery.
  • Kitsch Collection:
    • Mr Klein tells the group about Ottiwell, who he met at a recent dinner. Ottiwell collects matchbooks. So many that Trumbull jokes that he thinks the matchbooks own Ottiwell, rather than th other way around.
    • The story opens with discussion on Rubin's wife, who has bought another bull for her collection. A collection of wood, porcelain, tile, bronze, and felt bulls (or maybe cows, these sculptors don't go in for much anatomical accuracy).
    • Avalon describes the tendency of people to collect objects of a certain type as being affected by "collector’s mania". It is something with multiple delights, and therefore he collects stamps.
    • Gonzalo mentions an author friend who collects every published copy of his books, currently one hundred and eighteen different editions.
  • Literary Allusion Title: "Go, little book!" is a reference to Geoffrey Chaucer, Robert Southey, and Lord Byron. Each had used that line, building off of the previous artist.
  • Orwellian Retcon:
  • Phone-In Detective: Henry is able to deduce how to send secret messages through matchbooks without having access to the same sort of tools that failed Trumbull when he had been analyzing them.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: In-Universe, Halsted complains that the Catalogue of Ships is integral to the second book of The Iliad, but the only way to include it in the limerick is to call it the Cat'log of Ships.
  • Self-Deprecation: Gonzalo's "author friend" who collects their own published books is a habit from Dr Asimov.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Title Drop: Halsted quotes from Robert Southey, "Go, little Book! from this my solitude/I cast thee on the waters-go thy way!"
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: Dr Asimov had calculated the wrong number for 2 to the power of 30 when he first published the story, but a reader wrote him the correction, so he fixed it for the reprint.

Alternative Title(s): The Matchbook Collector

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