"They also serve who only stand and wait."- John Milton (On His Blindness)
"See if you can beat Henry to the right solution," challenges the back cover of Isaac Asimov's Banquets of the Black Widowers (1984), a fourth collection of short stories originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, comprising of twelve of their feasts with puzzles for dessert.
The Black Widowers consists of the patent attorney Geoffrey Avalon, chemist James Drake, code-breaking expert Thomas Trumbull, high school teacher Roger Halsted, novelist Emmanuel Rubin and the artist Mario Ganzalo – and the last two amuse themselves by exchanging snappy remarks as if they were running a private detective agency on West 35th Street.
Once a month, they gather in a private room at an Italian restaurant, Milano, to relish a sumptuous meal and fine drinks, while discussing a variety of topics and grilling the guest of the month. Alternating between members from month to month, they've to bring along a guest and after dinner, they'll ask him to justify his existence and has to answer every question that is put on the table. Unavoidably, they lay bare a problem or an unexplained episode that's fretting their guest, and as proper hosts, they try to find a remedy, but the correct answer always comes from Henry.
Henry is the personal waiter and honorary member of the Black Widowers and perhaps the only "Armchair Detective" who spends an entire story on his feet.
Regrettably, the characters and their conversations are often more interesting than the problems they examine, because you've to be a polymath like Henry in order to solve most of them – often hinging on obscure or arcane knowledge. There are a few that you can solve, but the fun in these stories comes from attending their monthly banquets as an unofficial, eight member of the group and sitting in on their discussions. I often sympathize with Geoffrey when he feels that a problem is intruding on the conversation or breaking up the verbal duel between Rubin and Mario. I have the same warm feelings for these characters as I have for Rex Stout's Wolfe, Archie and Fritz. They're just fun stories to read, even if they don't always excel in the plotting department, but lets take them down from the top.
Sixty Million Trillion Combinations
Tom Trumbull is the stand-in for the guest in the first story from this collection, because he wants to run a problem through them that involves a feud between two brilliant mathematicians – attached to the government and therefore eager to have it resolved. The problem facing him lies in convincing an eccentric mathematician that his rival, and everyone else for that matter, could've cracked his password with sixty million trillion possible combinations! I buy the explanation of how someone working close enough with him could've eventually stumbled to the password, but not in the way Henry figured it out within an hour.
The Woman in the Bar
The protagonist from Murder at the ABA (1976), Darius Just, brings a tale from the Hardboiled School to the table and tells the story of the night that he lied to a beautiful woman in a bar about living and breathing baseball – cumulating in an eventful evening in which he saves the girl without ever knowing what was going on. What a great idea to split a plot between two of your detectives, but if you don't know anything about baseball (note that I'm raising my hand here), it's nearly impossible to solve it yourself.
In the after word, Asimov wrote that Frederic Dannay rejected this story, not once, but twice and I can understand why, but the premise and discussions, at least, were interesting: an astronomer tells the Widowers about an international conference on SETI and the search for extraterrestrial life where a driver was killed after drunkenly stumbling in front of a car. Conspiracies and spies abound, but the weakness, as usually, is in the solution.
The Good Samaritan
The Black Widowers is a club exclusively for men and when Mario brings along a woman as his guest, they begin to bicker and fight, before they can help the lady find the young man who helped her after being mugged during her visit to Manhattan – wanting to repay the money he lend her. Alongside "To the Barest," from The Casebook of the Black Widowers (1980), this is one of the rare stories from this series that I did not like to read at all. Hostility among the Widowers strikes a false note, here about a woman and in the other an inheritance from a member we've never heard about before, and their solutions didn't made up for any of it.
Note for the curious: in the after word, Asimov explained that he played around with variations on the rigid format of the series and listed some possibilities: "I have sometimes thought about getting them out on a picnic in Central Park or having them attend a large convention en masse, or separating them and having each do a bit of detective work with Henry pulling the strings together at last (I may try that last bit if I ever do a Black Widower novel, which somehow is not a thought that greatly attracts me)." If that humanoid-looking, fiction producing machine had been given ten more years to operate, that novel had been a fact!
The Year of Action
Their guest of this month, Mr. Herb Graff, wants to make a screen adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, but before they can go into production an argument has to be settled, in which year did it take place – in 1873 or 1877? Henry compares the text from the operetta with history to answer Mr. Graff's question. Not bad, but only solvable if you know your history and your G&S.
Can You Prove It?
This was for me a new and now one of my favorite Black Widower stories, in which John Smith has a strange adventure in an Eastern European country, tugged away behind the Iron Curtain, when he has trouble identifying himself to a policeman after being mugged – who nonetheless believes him and lets him go. How did the policeman know he was telling the truth and was not a spy? The fairly clued and clever solution made this, for me, a standout in the series.
The Phoenician Bauble
A story full of skullduggery, looters and shady business connections in the world of museums caught in the meshes of international trafficking of ancient artifacts – like a cup of gold and enamel from 1200 B.C. The most interesting aspect of this story is that the Widowers help a curator in retrieving an item that was smuggled out of the Cyprus and purchased on the black market.
A Monday in April
A rather weak and trivial story, in which the Black Widowers probe their guest to find a problem that he did not qualify as such and possibly mended broken relationship in the process.
Neither Brute Nor Human
As unsolvable as most of them, but definitely a lot of fun to read and wholeheartedly agree with Asimov's sentiment in his after word about doing these crackpots in the eye – even if they are fictional ones. Their guest has a sister who's dying from cancer and under the influence of the Cosmic Order of Theognostics, who expel the presence of malevolent aliens with prayer and incantations. How that would stop any being capable of crossing the stars is a mystery Asimov never acknowledged. Anyway, he doesn't care about the money she's leaving them in her will, well supplied with that himself, but he wants to prevent them from gaining their ancestral home and has been posing as a convert to regain possession of the house after she passes away. But to convince her to put him in her will, he has to experience enlightenment that tells them where the aliens originated from and she gave him some vague clues. The story also includes discussions and links with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Conan Doyle and other (early) mystery writers, and a good false solution that will probably be everyone's first guess.
From all the Black Widower stories I have read, this one has always been my favorite ever since reading it in The Return of the Black Widowers (2003), a compilation and tribute volume, and best of all, it's a genuine locked room mystery. A guest is unsettled by his redheaded wife claiming to be a witch and after an argument in a lobby walks into a restaurant with one-way in-and out and promptly vanishes into thin air. The solution is simple, but absolutely believable and original, and the idea was came to Asimov in a dream – premise and conclusion all wrapped after a refreshing sleep.
The Wrong House
An interesting premise, a man who lives in one of a group of houses known as the Four Sisters, which all look identical on the outside, stumbles into the wrong house one night to find a group of counterfeiters. Asimov plays scrupulous fair in this story and, ironically, that's what did this story in, because they shouldn't have needed Henry to solve this one.
Just when they were having banquet without a puzzle to untwined, a man storms into the room who has heard of their reputations and wants them to help find the man who took advantage of his mentally sister. They understand that helping the man will have repercussions, however, Henry has some wise, if cruel, advice for what to do with the man. Not a very pleasant of good story to round to this collection out with.
I picked the post-title for this review from the chapter Agatha Christie contributed to The Floating Admiral (1931), a round-robin novel she did with members of The Detection Club, which seemed really appropriate to use since Asimov was also a big Christie-fan.