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Literature / Truth to Tell

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The 3rd story in the Black Widowers case files, Isaac Asimov wrote it for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (October 1972 issue), under the title of "The Man Who Never Told a Lie".

Gonzalo is host tonight, and his guest is John Sand, a horse-race buff known for never telling a lie. The members warmly welcome Halsted, who missed the previous two meetings, and learn about his new hobby, adapting The Iliad and The Odyssey into limerick form. He shares the first book before Gonzalo even arrives. When he does, he tells everyone present that Drake has some family business to take care of.


The discussion tonight is about how dishonesty is used for social defenses. After dinner, Gonzalo dispenses with the traditional grilling format and directs Mr Sand to describe their problem. Mr Sand has been accused of stealing, despite his insistence that he didn't remove the cash or the bonds from the safe.

This story has been reprinted twice; Tales of the Black Widowers (1974) and The 50 Greatest Mysteries Of All Time (1998).


Tropes that have been verified:

  • Adaptation Distillation: In-Universe, Halsted is adapting The Iliad into limericks, one book at a time. The first book goes as follows:
    Agamemnon, the top-ranking Greek,
    To Achilles in anger did speak.
    They argued a lot,
    Then Achilles grew hot,
    And went stamping away in a pique.
  • Beneath Suspicion:
    • Mr Sand mentions that the most trustworthy member of the company was one of the people who might’ve had oppourtunity to commit the theft.
    • Mr Sand mentions that he had oppourtunity to commit the theft, but only Henry suspects him of committing the crime.
  • Driving Question: The club members are trying to figure out who stole the money and bond receipts from the firm's safe.
  • Exact Words: The group's guest, Mr Sands, tells a story about being suspected of a robbery and repeatedly insists "I didn't take the cash or the bonds". The earlier disclosure of his consistent, and known, honesty kept Henry carefully listening to his claims, then asks if he took the cash and the bonds. He declines to answer and hastily leaves.
  • Advertisement:
  • Fairplay Whodunnit: Halsted insists that the problem before the club is a logic puzzle, to be arrived at from hearing about the various employees at Mr Sand's firm.
  • Fancy Dinner: The Black Widowers meet every month at the Milano, a fancy restaurant in New York City, tonight's dinner is artichokes and steak, with baba au rhum for dessert.
  • False Reassurance: 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. This lasts until Henry, asked him if he took the cash and the securities from the safe.
  • Featureless Plane of Disembodied Dialogue: The Milano is sparsely described, along with minimal description of characters and meal.
  • Flash Fiction: When this story was published in Tales of the Black Widowers, Dr Asimov mentions that it was written in the hospital just before his first surgery.
  • The Jeeves: The narration refers to Henry as the only waiter the club members would accept to serve them.
  • Mathematician's Answer: 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." However the waiter, Henry, asks him: "Did you take the cash and the bonds?" The guest declines to answer and leaves.
  • Metaphorically True:
    • The most obvious meaning of "cash or bonds" is at least one of the two. However, the exclusive or means only one of the two. Mr Sand kept responding to questions about the theft by specifying he didn't take one or the other.
    • Henry explains social lies hold more truth than just their literal meaning. As an example, he points out that Trumbull’s request of "[A] scotch and soda for a dying man." is getting a bit Cliché, but saying that would imply that he didn’t like Trumbull, which would be a lie.
  • Orwellian Retcon: Dr Asimov didn't like the title that the magazine gave this story ("The Man Who Never Told a Lie"), so he changed it back when editing Tales of the Black Widowers.
  • Phone-In Detective: Due to the success the club has had in the previous meetings, Gonzalo offers to bring Mr Sand as a guest to solve his little problem.
  • Running Gag: Henry calls out Trumbull's habit of arriving late and claiming to be a dying man in search of a drink is becoming tiresome.
  • Service Sector Stereotypes: Mr Sand suspects that Henry might engage in discussion with the other servers.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Will Not Tell a Lie: The guest 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.
  • Written-In Absence: While welcoming absent character Halsted, Gonzalo mentions that Drake will be absent due to family obligations.