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Asimov autobiography creates mystery
worthy of his books
May 11, 1998
I had just about knocked off my latest case when I hit a snag. Find a photograph of the perpetrator.
Sounded simple. But before I finished, my story about a mystery novel that began at UConn took a sudden twist.
The case began a few years ago when I read the second volume of Isaac Asimov's autobiography. Thick book. He was like that. Wrote science fiction. Wrote mysteries. Wrote nonfiction. Wrote nearly 500 books.
I was zipping through, when there it was. Asimov told of a commencement speech he gave at the University of Connecticut and how it figured in his mystery novel, Murder at the ABA.
I filed the information for future reference.
Jump ahead a few years to this week. I'm in my office, tapping out Web pages like crazy, when my editor walks in. "Where's that story?" she asks with a smile and a raised eyebrow. "Almost done," I lie.
That's when I remembered the Asimov thing.
The story went this way.
Murder at the ABA was published in 1976. Asimov didn't mention his UConn commencement address in the novel - he changed it to a talk at a temple - but he explained the circumstances in his autobiography.
The Good Doctor, as he was called, was scheduled to attend the American Booksellers Association convention in May 1975, to get background for a mystery about an author who gets wrapped up in the investigation of a murder at the annual ABA event in New York City.
Asimov planned to attend, beginning Monday, May 26, because of his speaking commitment on Sunday, but his publisher insisted he attend all four days.
"This introduced a slight complication," wrote Asimov in his autobiography. "The convention was to be held over the Memorial Day weekend, and it opened Sunday. ... On that day however, I was scheduled to give the commencement address at the University of Connecticut. I couldn't very well get out of giving the address so, after some thought, I decided I would cheat and miss the opening day (of the ABA convention)."
But then a friend asked Asimov to attend on May 25 to help with a 4:20 p.m. publicity event. "Well, you can't let a pal down," wrote Asimov, "so I calculated that if I left the university immediately after lunch and drove back briskly, I could make it with time to spare."
He arrived at his convention appointment "precisely at 4:20 p.m.," only to find that, due to a last minute change in schedule, the event he was to attend had just ended.
"I was annoyed at this combination of events that had worked to make my hurried trip from the University of Connecticut meaningless, but since I was now at the convention, I began to collect local color by attending a dinner party that very night," he wrote.
Only it didn't happen. At least not at UConn. And that was the twist.
To locate a photo of Asimov speaking at commencement, I went to the Dodd Center..
Big building. Lots of glass. Frequented by sitting presidents and Nobel laureates. The staff there are friendly. Helpful.
But the story wasn't adding up. Searching through photographs I found a mistake in Asimov's story. UConn's commencement in 1975 was May 18. Not May 25.
Could Asimov be wrong? I had to know. After all, there was a murder involved.
Some of the photographs for the 1975 commencement did not have identifications, but Asimov was one of a kind. Black frame glasses. Unruly hair. Mutton chop sideburns. You don't miss those. But this was the mid-1970s. Lots of people had 'em.
There were the graduates. There were the trustees. There were the faculty members. There was UConn's president, Glenn Ferguson. But no Asimov.
"What about the commencement program," asked Terry Goldich of the Dodd Center staff. Good call. We checked it out. Asimov's facts didn't.
Commencement, 1975. Speaker: Jill Conway, president elect, Smith College. I looked back at the photos. Had to be her. No mutton chops. I was on to something.
Now the path was leading to microfiche. I dashed out of the Dodd Center and over to Babbidge Library. Found the microtext desk and rang the bell. A fresh-faced staffer showed me the way. He threaded the film on the viewer. Gave me the once-over instructions.
I zipped through the pages of The Hartford Courant for 1975. Gerald Ford. Whip Inflation Now. Mayaguez. That sort of stuff.
I hit the May numbers and slowed it down. Then I saw it.
Asimov in cap and gown. May 26, 1975. Story in black and white. He said he spoke at a University of Connecticut commencement. But that wasn't right. He wasn't in Storrs that day. He was in New London. At Connecticut College.
The "Good Doctor" had made the classic Connecticut higher education gaffe.
So. The case wrapped up. Not UConn history, really. But a neat excuse to write in the style of those 1950s hardboiled detective pulps.
Asimov, who died in 1992, did make one trip to Storrs. For UConn's centennial in 1981, there was a conference on the future. As a noted futurist, Asimov was one of three speakers. And he didn't have to leave quickly - he stayed backstage at Jorgensen Auditorium for nearly an hour after his lecture to sign autographs.
I know. I was there. He still had the mutton chops.
A footnote. Since 1990, UConn has been included in a number of mystery novels as either a locale or the alma mater of a character. One of the most recent is M is for Malice (Henry Holt and Company, 1996), the 13th installment in the Kinsey Millhone alphabet mysteries. Author Sue Grafton made one of her characters a graduate of UConn.
Mark J. Roy
Sources: In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1954-1978, (Doubleday, 1980); Murder at the ABA (Doubleday, 1976). The Hartford Courant, May 26, 1975, microtext collection, Homer Babbidge Library.