Asimov’s Mysteries (1968) by Isaac Asimov

“You should never judge a book by its cover” is the old adage, and this volumeAsimov gives weight to that argument. I’ve no idea what it is supposed to represent but I think this edition was published at a time when Isaac Asimov was science-fiction and so as long as it said “Asimov” on the cover, it didn’t matter what else was on there.

Following the success of his futuristic detective novel The Caves of Steel, Asimov wanted to demonstrate that short-form sci-fi mysteries were also possible and so penned the following thirteen short stories between 1955 and 1967.

The Singing Bell

This inverted mystery shows master criminal Louis Peyton committing the first murder on the Moon. His non-alibi seems unbreakable until the case is brought before Dr. Wendell Urth, an extraterrologist, who eschews all forms of transport except walking, and consequently never leaves the university campus, let alone Earth.

I love the simplicity of the way in which Urth proves the case against Peyton and this is one of the few solutions that I remembered from a previous reading.

The Talking Stone

Wendell Urth has to find a hidden treasure in the asteroid but without a map to guide him.

What’s in a Name?

One of the “Twin” Librarians made the coffee for both of them and then one of them died – but was it suicide or murder?

The Dying Night

Villiers was the best in his class but a bout of rheumatic fever left him unable to go into space. Despite being Earthbound he claims to have out done his former classmates. Which of them has stolen his research?

Pâté de Foie Gras

A shaggy dog story – feel free to skip this one.

The Dust of Death

Everyone wants to kill Llewes but only Edmund Farley actually puts his feelings into action. This is similar to some of the Inspector French short stories where a minor error on the part of the killer proves fatal, as once observed, it gives the investigator a starting point that ultimately leads to the truth coming out.

A Loint of Paw

A two page joke but one which raises an interesting philosophical question.

I’m in Marsport without Hilda

Galactic Service Agent Max has planned an illicit liaison in the fleshpots of Marsport when he is recalled to duty to deal with an urgent matter. Can he identify the VIP smuggler in time to keep his date?

Marooned off Vesta & Anniversary

The first of these stories, as explained in Asimov’s linking material, was the first of his stories that was ever published. He was asked to write a sequel twenty years later to mark the occasion. This reduces the tension somewhat in the first part where three men have to figure out how to survive the aftermath of an asteroid strike as we know that at least two of them must make it through.

The second story is the actual mystery and features Multivac, which is effectively the internet, thirty years before it was invented.

Obituary

A previously unsuccessful scientist finds a way to read his own obituary and achieve scientific immortality. But is he doomed to fail once again?

Star Light

Brennmeyer had planned the perfect crime for thirty years – what could possibly go wrong?

The Key

Karl Jennings is dying but manages to hide an alien artifact from his killer. H. Seton Davenport eventually realises what half Jennings’ final message means and takes it to someone else to decipher the remainder. 

This feels quite like a Black Widowers tales which often involve messages or symbols with multiple possible meanings, which only make sense when looked at from the right angle.

The Billiard Ball

James Priss has two Nobel prizes but Ed Bloom has millions of pounds. When the latter tries to publicly humiliate the former no one is prepared for what happens next.

It’s a brilliant idea with a great final line but on re-reading I feel Asimov should have tweaked the first few paragraphs and better hidden the ultimate point of the story.

Summary

Not all the stories were quite as good as I remembered but there is enough here to satisfy both sci-fi and mystery fans and secondhand copies are easily and cheaply available. The linking material provided by Asimov is entertaining and shows how later discoveries can impact on a story – see also “Strong Poison” by Dorothy L. Sayers – and how consistency between stories involving the same characters can be quite difficult.

I re-read this in preparation for reading “Future Crimes”, the latest anthology in the British Library Science Fiction Classics. A review of that book will appear at some point soon.

3 thoughts on “Asimov’s Mysteries (1968) by Isaac Asimov”

  1. I’ve always been disappointed Asimov never used Wendell Urth in a novel-length SF mystery. There’s something appealing about an earthbound space detective who uses Earth as the biggest, most comfy armchair in the universe. Just imagine a novel-length treatment of “The Talking Stone” with its extraterrestrial dying message.

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    1. Good idea. I was disappointed there were only 4 Urth short stories. I misremembered that about half the stories featured him – although at least one of the others could have had Urth in, which I think Asimov himself says.

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  2. I love the introduction to this, in which Asimov holds forth with typical erudition on how SF and detection go far more hand-in-hand than many might think at first glance. Looking through the synopses you provide I don’t actually remember many of the details of each tale (I rememeber the one that relies on a scientific belief at the time which has since been disproved — and Asimov’s joking about that at the start). Dunno what that says about them as a collection…

    Thanks for flaggin up Future Crimes, too. That had escaped me, and contains some interesting work by some interesting authors.

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