A Whiff of Death is an early (1958) mystery by Isaac Asimov, a writer best known for his science fiction. It’s a classic, well-executed whodunit, complete with a surprise ending, and it fits the LabLit definition as well. If you’re a fan of this genre, it’s a great example of the scientist turned sleuth, especially because the scientist is portrayed realistically in an authentic setting. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a story about what motivates scientists to pursue their work like I am, this isn’t a very satisfying novel. The main character is forced out of his normal mode of activity as a scientist into the role of amateur detective. The story is about his success as an amateur, not a professional.
Assistant Professor Lou Brade, an organic chemist, stops by his student’s laboratory on his way home on a Thursday afternoon and finds him slumped under a hood (a structure designed to exhaust fumes from reactions out of the lab). Ralph Neufeld has breathed hydrogen cyanide fumes and died. After a disconcerting interview with a police detective, Brade uses his knowledge of his student’s project and work habits to establish to his own satisfaction that an accident is very improbable and that a carefully planned murder is very likely. (Asimov does an admirable job of explaining the chemistry and laboratory techniques to the reader.)
Although the death is initially interpreted as an accident, when Brade finally goes home and describes what happened to his wife, he says aloud what has been troubling him almost from the beginning. Not only is Neufeld’s death almost certainly the result of murder, but he, Brade, is the only plausible suspect! At this point, one would think that a person with a PhD would seek legal assistance. However, as always happens (and must happen for this type of murder mystery to succeed), the reader is asked to suspend disbelief and assume along with Brade that he will be able to figure things out without landing in court accused of the murder. As the central character, Lou Brade comes across in a very positive light (refreshing for any book aimed at a broad readership).
This is definitely not science fiction. Readers familiar with Asimov’s amazing literary output will know that he wrote two mystery novels and published collections of a total of a dozen short mystery stories. Real science and the ethics of scientific research are central to the plot of A Whiff of Death, although not quite in the way a reader with an understanding of either might expect. What makes this book so much fun to read is the steady parade of suspects Brade considers. He finds many chemists with the technical knowledge but not quite enough specific information about Neufeld’s work. He finds a few non-chemists whose motives might be strong enough to commit murder but lack the technical background. And, as a chemist, Brade comes to appreciate just how slippery his relatively naïve concept of human motivation can be. Meanwhile, the police detective pops up unexpectedly, seemingly circling in on Brade with growing suspicion.
It is difficult to praise A Whiff of Death too highly not only as an excellent mystery but also as an example of the highest level of craftsmanship and as a novel that well deserves it place on the Lab Lit List.