While dated with only hints of sex and no violence, this book is still a good read forty years after it was written. It begins with a graduate student possessing a nasty personality being killed by the inadvertent sniffing of cyanide during a research experiment. Given that the student was meticulous in his work and showed no suicidal tendencies, murder is immediately suspected. As a former and currently part-time academic, I found the description of academic politics and the push for rank advancement to be the most interesting part of the book. It seems clear that Asimov is describing some of his experiences in the academic world.
The main character is a competent instructor of chemistry whose only goal is to rise to the rank of associate professor, an aspiration that he has held for eleven years. It was his doctoral student who died and in an attempt to salvage his career, he embarks on a quest to determine what happened. Most of his actions are those that would normally happen during the course of his professional activity. The only difference is that now he is the logical suspect in what was obviously a murder.
Included in the story is a dictatorial professor nicknamed Cap who is retired, but is legendary as a dictator who demanded that students work long hours, even during holidays. One wonders if this is also a description of someone Asimov encountered as a student.
I lent my copy of this book to a chemistry professor friend of mine and he enjoyed it as well. His comment is an excellent way to end this review. “It was nice to read a story that combines a well-designed mystery with the nastiness and pettiness of academic politics. I t brought back memories of my time as a graduate student.”