So I found this little gem at a thrift store. It was an Asimov book I didn’t own and hadn’t read. To be honest, I’d never heard of it. He published it back in 1958, and it wasn’t from any of his series, and it didn’t have robots and had nothing to do with the Foundation. But the prolific Asimov wrote a fair number of mysteries, too, and this is one of them.
The protagonist is Louis Brade, an unassuming middle-aged chemist at a university. In his career to date, he’s achieved nothing of note. One day, he walks into his lab, and finds his most promising graduate student slumped over dead in his fume hood. Chemistry is a dangerous occupation, so everyone will likely assume it was an accident – except Brade, who knows better, and observes quite quickly that his student was murdered. Moreover, he realizes that sooner or later, the police will realize this too, and when they do, Brade will be the only logical suspect.
In the course of his search for clues to solve the crime, Brade discovers how his own fears of confronting life have hobbled his work and his relationships with everyone around him. He will not only have to solve the crime to clear his name, but face down his fears to salvage his marriage and career.
I thought “A Whiff of Death” was one of Asimov’s best. It’s hard to call it science fiction; it obviously is fiction, and science plays a role in the mystery. But the story is firmly grounded in a real-world setting, and the drama revolves around a the plight of one man in a believable situation in the mid-twentieth century.
Asimov’s descriptions of the science involved are not only approachable but engaging. While he doesn’t spend a lot of time describing relationships, “A Whiff of Death” shows how well Asimov can write sympathetic characters and engaging scenarios. If you are at all an Asimov fan, I very strongly recommend this.
4.5 / 5 Whatzits.