::Literate Blather::
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Literary Criticism: Isaac Asimov's "The Man Who Never Told a Lie"
(Summary: A group of six crusty, old men have a dinner club called The Black Widowers. They enjoy inviting guests to dinner in order to ponder over mysteries or puzzles. One of the widowers brings to dinner John Sands who regales them with a complicated tale. Sands, who cannot tell a lie, tells the group that he is accused of stealing money and bonds from his company. As a gambler, Sands says he was in dire need of cash and he is one of the few people with the combination to the safe. But he tells the widowers: “I did not take the cash or the bonds.” But after much questioning the club’s enigmatic waiter, Henry, figures out the puzzle with simple logic: “If we cannot lie, we must make the truth lie for us.” With Sands glowering on, Henry asks him one question: “Did you, by any chance, take the cash and the bonds?” Sands grabs his coat and departs, reminding the widowers that they cannot repeat dinner conversations outside of their club.)

Analysis: “The Man Who Never Told a Lie” was originally published in 1972 under the name “Truth to Tell” (it appeared in the collection of short stories about the Black Widowers called “Tales of the Black Widowers”).

Isaac Asimov, the prolific science fiction writer, created the Black Widowers for a series of mysteries that originally appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1971. The series became extremely popular and influential, especially among other mystery writers.

The group of six Black Widowers were based on an actual dinner club that Asimov belonged to called Trap Door Spiders. Each of the Black Widowers has a real life counterpart:

  • Geoffrey Avalon is based on L. Sprague de Camp (a science fiction and fantasy writer who is perhaps best known as reviving the Conan writings of Robert E. Howard).
  • Emmanuel Rubin is based on Lester del Rey (the science fiction editor and founder of Del Rey Books).
  • James Drake based on Dr. John D. Clark (a scientist and writer who also helped revive the Conan series).
  • Thomas Trumbull is based Gilbert Cant (a journalist who wrote for the New York Post and Time).
  • Mario Gonzalo is based on Lin Carter (a science fiction writer and editor).
  • Roger Halsted is based on Don Bensen.

“The Man Who Never Told a Lie” follows the predictable pattern of most of the stories in the series. The six members have a guest join them for dinner and they try to puzzle out the mystery the guest lays out before them. There’s much squabbling and digressions during the dinner. And then, per usual, Henry, the mysterious waiter, ends up cutting through the clutter to provide a simple and logical solution. While Henry isn’t based on any real-life character, Asimov was an enormous fan of P.G. Wodehouse and said Henry was inspired by Wodehouse’s character Jeeves.

The Black Widower stories are great fun – and while the tales hold up well alone, they are much better read in large chunks. That’s because Asimov has developed a supper club with complex and intriguing characters. The personality traits and histories of each of the Black Widowers get revealed slowly and carefully over the course of the series (until they begin to feel like old friends). The collection is like fine wine and gets more intricate and flavorful the longer it ages.

“The Man Who Never Told a Lie” is similar to the other stories in that it is fast-pace – and yet it seems leisurely at the same time. Asimov was a fantastic writer – a master of genre fiction for the thinking reader. His confidence and skill as a writer are in top form in this series. Readers can delight in the sidetracks and minor sojourns into the lives of the Black Widowers – without the stories ever losing focus on the mysteries.

Asimov died in 1992 and left behind more than books and about 9,000 letters. His science fiction (especially his Foundation and Robot series) was so influential and popular that it’s easy to forget that he was an excellent mystery writer as well. The Black Widower series is a great way to remember that and “The Man Who Never Told Lie” is a great starting point.

5 Writers Every Man Should Read

Literary criticism of Ring Lardner's "Haircut"

Lurid Confessions of a Man-Book Whore

Labels: , ,

Stumble Upon Toolbar StumbleUpon | Digg! Digg | del.icio.us | Reddit | Technorati Technorati | E-mail a Link E-mail
AddThis Social Bookmark Button
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
The Template is generated via PsycHo and is Licensed.