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A Whiff of Death

A Whiff of Death cover image Cover Artist: not identified
By: Asimov, Isaac
Publisher: Lancer Books
Place of Publication:New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 423: PS3551 .S5 W44 1958
Contributor: J. Lukin


Era: 1950s
Author as on Cover: Isaac Asimov
Original Date: 1958
Setting: urban; university campus, with excursions to faculty homes and the zoo

Plot Summary

After 17 years in the chemistry department, Lou Brade still has not been awarded tenure. But his anxiety over his job diminishes in the face of more pressing problems when he finds a dead graduate student in his lab. Brade correctly reasons that it won't be long before the police discover that the student would never have been so inept as to kill himself accidentally during a routine experiment. Brade must find the young man's killer before the police finger him as the likeliest suspect. But what does he know of the psychological forces that could turn routine dislike (which the victim seems to have inspired in nearly everyone) into premeditated murder? How can he conduct an investigation without uncovering so many faculty intrigues and departmental resentments that he further jeopardizes his own job? And, when he nearly escapes an attempt on his own life, how can he persuade the police that the peril was genuine and not an attempt to divert suspicion from himself? Lou Brade must find the courage to suspect his closest colleagues and learn that tenure doesn't only come from a committee.

Major Characters

Louis Brade adult male, 42 years old, dark-haired, medium build; assistant professor of organic chemistry

Jack Doheny middle-aged male, plump, jowly with a deep, raspy voice, rumpled and faux-naf police detective -- a kind of proto-Colombo

Otto Ranke middle-aged male, short, bald and irascible; renowned physical chemist

Doris Brade adult female, near 40, tall and dark-complexioned, pessimistic housewife, an "essentially non-creative person"

Jean Makris adult female in her 20s, horse-faced, vindictive; secretary

Cap Anson elderly male, about 70 years old, small and imposing, obsessed with the remote past when he ruled organic chemistry

Roberta Goodhue adult female, in her 20s, plump and hirsute, graduate student in organic chemistry

Merrill Foster adult male in his mid-30s, chunky with a florid face and piercing voice, lecherous organic chemist

Level of Violence

one person is poisoned, an attempt is made at exploding another. Violence is described with distance and circumspection.


Professor Brade, the point-of-view character, thinks about sex with clinical detachment. No sex or seduction is depicted.

Gender Roles

all the men depicted are professionals; most of the women are housewives. The two women who have aspirations outside of home life are ugly. No difference between men's and women's levels of intelligence or sobriety is suggested.


the characters are almost all generic European-Americans. It is suggested that the murder victim was a Holocaust survivor, but his ethnicity is not specified.

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

there is a little social drinking. Alcohol is also used to calm the protagonists' nerves.

Law Enforcement

the sole police officer to play a part in the story is shrewd, personable, and intelligent

Subject Headings

Teachers/ College Life/ Murder/ New England/ Mental Illness/ Chemists

Psychological Elements

both detective-figures spend a lot of energy trying to psychologize the characters of others. They attempt to figure out who has a personality-type that, when sufficiently provoked, would react with violence. They uncover paranoid, depressive, envious, and compulsive characters. The murderer turns out to be a megalomaniac whose crazed mental state will prevent the case from coming to trial.