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Literature / The Acquisitive Chuckle

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The 1st story in the Black Widowers case files, Isaac Asimov wrote it for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (January 1972 issue), a Mystery Fiction magazine.

Avalon is host tonight, and his guest is Hanley Bartram, a Private Detective. Unusually for most nights, Mr Bartram had asked for a chance to be present as a guest during their Fancy Dinner. While Trumbull is grilling him, he offers to share a mystery. Mr Bartram was hired by Anderson to figure out what his ex-partner, Jackson, had stolen from him. Bartram believes that one of the members here might be able to solve it for him.

This story has been reprinted three times: Tales of the Black Widowers (1974), Ellery Queens Crookbook (1974), and The Return of the Black Widowers (2003).


Tropes to make you laugh:

  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Mr Bartram admits that he was begging to be their guest, just so that he could solve the mystery of what Jackson had taken from Anderson.
  • Asshole Victim: Mr Bartram tells a story of two men, one honest moral character, and another who was acquisitive, shrewd, and ethically challenged. When the two inevitably dissolved their partnership, the conniving partner was convinced that something had been stolen, and no matter what it was, he was determined to find proof enough to bring criminal charges against his ethical ex-partner.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: Invoked Trope, by the name of "Beware the wrath of a patient man". Avalon uses it in reference to both Jackson's revenge and his own roaring frustration at not knowing what was stolen.
  • Death by Materialism: Convinced that his ex-partner stole something from his house, Anderson spends the rest of his life trying to find out what it was, putting a Private Detective on personal retainer, and dying from the stress.
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  • Driving Question: What did Jackson steal from Anderson?
  • The Face: Jackson's impressive honesty made him perfect for working with the clients. Anderson needed Jackson because otherwise his greed would scare people off.
  • Fairplay Whodunnit: The clues are all presented during the grilling, and the explanation as to what was stolen isn't given until after The Reveal of Henry's last name is Jackson.
  • Fancy Dinner: The Black Widowers meet every month at the Milano, a fancy restaurant in New York City, where Henry serves as their waiter, anticipating their drink order just before they're made.
  • Featureless Plane of Disembodied Dialogue: This being the first story, his characters are given plenty of detail, but their location is still sparsely described, having just caricatures of past guests hanging on the walls, and a stairwell to enter the Milano.
  • Framing Device: The Fancy Dinner and grilling provide a location and characters to hear about the crime second-hand, but the framing device quickly becomes part of the story when Mr Bartram turns to Henry and asks him to confirm the story, since he was the principal antagonist.
  • Greed: Anderson's "acquisitiveness" is why he was good at making money, but bad at convincing people to trust him. When he betrayed his partner by muscling him out of the business, he recognized the greedy chuckle Jackson made upon leaving for the last time.
  • Intangible Theft: 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.
  • The Jeeves: Henry is unobtrusive, helpful, and anticipates the requests of the other club members.
  • MacGuffin: 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.
  • Mr. Smith: Mr Bartram refuses to refer to the people in his story as anything other than Anderson and Jackson, both very common names. He admits that sharing more information would break confidential trust, and wishes to preserve the anonymity of his client as much as possible.
  • Orwellian Retcon: When packaging this story for his first Black Widowers collection, Asimov edited in exclusions to a few of the Plot Holes that readers had told him about (for instance, clarifying that the attache case itself was not the stolen item).
  • Paranoia Gambit: 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. He didn't stop searching for evidence of Jackson's theft until he died.
  • Phone-In Detective: 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 Widower's club meeting for help. But 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.
  • Plot Hole: Discussed Trope in the afterword to this story in Tales of the Black Widowers; several readers wrote to Dr Asimov about alternate solutions, so when he republished the story, he had his characters exclude those solutions.
  • Psychological Projection: Anderson heard a chuckle from Jackson just before he left the house. Anderson recognized that chuckle, because it's the same sound he makes when he has tricked someone into giving him something very precious for less than its worth. So he wonders what Jackson stole.
  • Revenge: Anderson was convinced that Jackson stole something in revenge for being muscled out of his partnership. When Bartram asks, he confirms that he did indeed steal something, Anderson's peace of mind.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Jackson is said to be extremely honest... to the point where he has trouble holding onto money. When his partner muscles him out of the company, he ends up having to get a menial job as a servant just to make ends meet.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Anderson is said to be extremely ruthless... to the point where he muscled his partner out of the company in order to avoid losing more money due to his "honest" decisions.
  • Service Sector Stereotypes: After getting kicked out of work by his own partner, Jackson lived as frugally as possible and still had to take a service job to make ends meet, one which put his honesty and his calm demeanor to good use.
  • Shout-Out: The toast used to open the meeting is in honor of "Old King Cole", the Nursery Rhyme.
  • Statute of Limitations: Anderson dedicated most of his remaining fortune to trying to figure out what Jackson had stolen on his last day, ostensibly to press charges. The value of the object would determine how long Anderson had to prove the theft. Unfortunately for him, he didn't figure out what it was before he died from the stress of searching. Since Jackson had stolen his piece of mind, the theft couldn't be prosecuted anyway.
  • Title Drop: Either version of the title would work, but Anderson's description of Jackson's chuckle after closing the case lends some emotional weight to the title's meaning, especially with the focus on it being the acquisitive chuckle.
  • Will Not Tell a Lie: 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.
  • Written-In Absence: Dr Asimov did not intend for the setting to become part of a series, but he did take time to mention that there were other members beyond the five present.