Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Whiff of Death

A Whiff of Death
from A Whiff of Death & Murder at the ABA
© 1958 Isaac Asimov
Pp. 3- 146

"Death sits in the chemistry laboratory and a million people sit with him and don't mind. They forget he's there." 

Louis Brade is an assistant professor of chemistry, supervising PhD candidates and lecturing freshmen on the wonders of valence bonds. He is settled, sedentary -- not keen on attention, position, or great wealth, he only wants to pursue the research that interests him and fulfill his responsibilities to his students. It thus comes as a great shock to him to find one of his more promising wards dead on the laboratory floor, having apparantly mistaken a flask of sodium acetate for a flask of sodium cyanide.  It's a simple error, but not one any chemistry student worth his lab coat would make, and certainly not a graduate student approaching his university career's culmination. Though the university -- eager to avoid a scandal -- is quick to dismiss the death as an accident, or even possibly suicide, something about the situation doesn't sit right with Brade.  He has to find out what happened, but must proceed cautiously lest he attract the police's attention.

The story unfolds in less than a hundred hours.  While mulling over possibilies in his mind, Brade must lecture on carbonytes, spend time with his daughter, humor his demanding mentor's 'requests' to proofread a history of organic chemistry,  entertain a visiting  colleague, and avoid ruffling his wife's feathers -- and she, hell-bent on him achieving tenure, is considerably less than delighted at his decision to stir up trouble by looking into the boy's death.  Though the means of death is chemistry, Asimov's Brade explains it as neatly to the reader as to the very curious detective who takes an interest in the case and determines that if murder is involved, Brade's the only man with enough knowledge of the deceased' pecuilar work habits to do the job.

More a novella than a longer mystery story, A Whiff of Death is short and sweet. Asimov relies on his experience as a chemistry professor (at Columbia University, where he taught while building a reputaiton as a science and history populizer)  to give the reader an inside look into the world of biochemical acadamia.  I never suspected the killer, being put off-guard by Asimov's simple charms. The ending is particularly good -- not for the conclusion of the mystery, but in seeing how much Brade's character has grown in the short space alloted. A perfectly enjoyable afternoon diversion for me, and I think it interesting that the book is paired with Murder at the ABA in this collection: Asimov was a chemist by training and an author for a living, so this volume contains looks into both his worlds.

A Whiff of Death was originally known as The Death Dealers, though why the publishers referred Dealers to his Whiff I can't fathom. He tended to republish works under his own, preferred titles later on. The original cover amuses me, though: it's completely unrelated to the story within.  I suppose a beautiful woman, a smoking gun, and a dead body are more eye-catching than this, though.


  1. I *think* that I may have read this many years ago. I've certainly read a couple of his mystery stories in my youth..... I'll have to check on my shelves when I get home....

  2. Oh my dad loves Asimov. I haven't read a lot, myself, but do, eventually, plan to. I love this cover. too!

  3. @CyberKitten: You probably have; as far as I've found out, he didn't release many straight mystery novels outside these two. The rest are either short stories or have a SF element.

    @iwriteinbooks: When you get around to it, you have a lot to look forward to. I started reading Asimov on a regular basis a couple of years ago and have become a bit obsessed by him. ;-)

  4. Yup, I definitely have it - with neither of those covers [grin]


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