Smack dab in the middle of The Tragedy of X, the 1930 debut of mystery writer Barnaby Ross, detective Drury Lane, a retired Shakespearean actor who is stone deaf, resides in a castle called The Hamlet, and employs a hunchback dwarf named Falstaff as a butler, is philosophizing with a group of men – one of whom will momentarily be murdered – on a train bound for Weehawken about the amazing things which the mind is capable of in the moments before death. Lane illustrates his ideas with a story, set in Vienna, about a man, murdered by gunfire who, in the seconds before death claims him, manages to drag himself seven feet across a hotel room floor, raise his body up to the table surface, reach into the sugar bowl and grab a handful of sugar crystals. All the men on the train agree that the murder victim’s agonized final act was an attempt to leave a clue to the identity of his assailant. Pleased with their acumen, Lane explains his subsequent deductions from this clue:
“Very well – observe. Was the sugar, as sugar, the clue? That is, was the victim indicating that his murderer was – to stretch the point to its most farcical implication – a lover of sweets? On the other hand, did it imply that the murder was a diabetic? Far-fetched, of course. I did not believe this; for the clue was undoubtedly left for the edification of the police, and it would seem that the dying man would leave a clue on which the police could work with a fair chance of success. On the other hand, what else could the sugar have meant – what does granulated sugar resemble physically? Well, it is a white crystalline substance . . . I thereupon wrote the Viennese prefect that while the sugar might have indicated that the murderer was a diabetic, the more probable explanation was that the murderer was a cocaine addict.”
Make of the Viennese Sugar Parable what you will – you either find Lane’s thought process brilliant or silly – but the story serves to introduce the Concept of the Dying Message into the canon of Barnaby Ross, whom mystery lovers should know was the alter ego of Ellery Queen, the master of the dying message. The good fortune of Lane discussing this concept is two-fold: for the characters, it will be helpful, as one of them is about to die and put the theory to the test by leaving a dying message for Lane to ponder. For the reader, it serves as a starting point to a discussion of one of the most intriguing – and most maligned – of detective story clues.
More important than what happened in that Vienna hotel room is the conclusion Lane draws about the human mind at the brink of death:
“What interested me was the psychology of the murdered man. He could not have possessed an ordinary intellect. Somewhere within his brain was the spark of ingenuity. He left the only clue to his murderer’s identity, which was available to him in the brief interval before he died. So you see – there are no limits to which the human mind cannot soar in that unique, god-like instant before the end of life.”
At this moment, we have one of those Robert Frost “two roads diverged” opportunities before us. We could talk about the psychology. Would a man who had just been shot really lie there thinking, “Henreid . . . shot me . . . coke-filled haze . . . cocaine . . . sugar . . . sugar bowl!!!” Why not dip a finger in his own blood and scrawl “Henreid” on the floorboard? Perhaps the human brain puts things together more obliquely when one has been shot!
Or we could talk about the utilization of the dying message as a clue by writers. I’m inspired by the recent announcement by friends JJ at The Invisible Event and Ben at The Green Capsule of their intention to read through the Queen canon. (If you’ve been following JJ on his nascent journey, we are now laying odds that he doesn’t get past the First Period!) Also, Karl over at Yet Another Murder Mystery is a big fan of Queen’s and has dabbled in a little short story writing himself, often including a dying message. Keep it up, Karl!
Karl and I need no convincing; however, should Ben and JJ manage to get through Queen’s output, the problem of the dying message will crop up again and again, and I feel some heated discussion will arise over the efficacy of this tactic. On the one hand, we can’t ignore that psychological point from above. Standing back from the urgency of a criminal case, it seems downright ridiculous that somebody would leave an opaque clue to his killer when what one wants in a moment such as this is utter clarity. Thus, in every case, it behooves Queen and his associates to come up with a variety of reasons as to why such a clue would be left. I can think of three that have cropped up:
- The victim had no choice. Like that guy in Vienna, an opportunity presents itself for some sort of indicator, and the victim grabs at it while he can. He – or she – sees and opportunity that, in their dying haze, makes total sense and seizes upon it.
- The killer is nearby, and the victim has to be subtle. He can’t simply scrawl the culprit’s name or initials without being seen, so he comes up with something more subtle and prays somebody will figure it out!
- The victim thinks he’s being clear, and in his mind he has uttered or written a clue that crosses everyone off the list. Unfortunately, the clue could be interpreted in a variety of ways, and the victim, in his delirium, didn’t consider that problem.
My first encounter with Queen’s use of the dying message was in The Siamese Twin Mystery. The victim is found with a torn playing card in his hand, which clearly indicates one person in the household. Unfortunately, Ellery Queen is on hand to show that matters are far more complicated, and the permutations of the dying message seem endless. I say “unfortunately” because there’s a forest fire encroaching on the house, and Ellery’s endless deductions endanger everyone’s life and bring delicious suspense to this, perhaps his best First Period novel.
Yet this was not my introduction to the dying message. In 1963, the folks behind the publishing behemoth that utilized Alfred Hitchcock’s name in their writings came up with a winner. Alfred Hitchcock’s Solve-Them-Yourself Mysteries contained five stories that allowed readers to match wits with the young detectives – all kids – who set out to solve the crimes.
I was no stranger to the “challenge to the reader” format, having amassed an enviable collection of Encyclopedia Brown stories. But while Encyclopedia preoccupied himself with figuring out how Bugs Meany had stolen the lemonade or what was up with that kidnapped kid’s balloon in the tree (hint: no helium), the Solve-Them-Yourself stories included tales of theft, kidnapping . . . and murder!!!! This was heady stuff for even a precocious eight-year-old; I wonder if my parents would have let me read this book if they had bothered to check the ghoulish events contained therein.
Two of the stories featured a dying message at their center. The different way each tale handled this classic trope seems to me to form the crux of the argument about this technique. In “The Mystery of the Seven Wrong Clocks”, a clockmaker is attacked while winding up the clocks on display in his shop. With his remaining strength, he winds the clocks in a way that is meant to leave a clue to the identity of his killer. Thus, this tale is all about the dying message. It takes our sleuth a while to figure out that the passing of time between the attack and the discovery of the clockmaker’s body had affected the clarity of the message. Once that happens, the detective is able to crack the code and name the assailant. Of course, this story was written for kids, so I hope you don’t mind my spoiling things when I say that, after all the code stuff is worked through and the culprit named, it is pointed out that only one of the suspects had a name containing seven letters, and all the rest is moot. (The Ellery Queen TV series used a similar device in its first episode.) In a sense, the whole dying message business in this story is a cheat. Yes, the victim was being every clever in his final moments, just as Drury Lane said happens to some brilliant folks. But in the end his cleverness is undermined by a simple letter count!
Far more enjoyable to me was the second example: “The Mystery of the Three Blind Mice.” This follows the classic situation of a group of people trapped together in a British castle on a stormy night, where the lord of the manor is attacked in his bedroom. Being an invalid, he has installed a loudspeaker system throughout his home to alert the servants of any trouble. When he is assaulted, he manages to flip on the loudspeaker and cry out, “Heeelllppp! Heelpp! I’m being murdered. I suspect miiiiccccceeeee………..” Cool! thought this 8-year-old wannabe detective! The dead guy left a message, and if I can figure out what that message means, I’ll be able to spot the killer!
Of course, it turns out that the suspects include “my sssson,” “my ssssister-in-law,” and an old chum with the odd name of Muyskins!!! In other words, the dying message could apply to anyone! Since this similarity essentially renders the dying message useless as a pointer toward the killer, the detective has to use other, more traditionally ratiocinative methods to prove whodunit. Once that happens, the connection to the dying message becomes clear. Better than clear, in fact because . . . SPOILER: in the end, the killer turns out to be none of these three suspects, but a fourth character whose connection to the dying message is far more complex and interesting, although it requires a bit of specialized knowledge.
If these were the first examples of dying messages that came my way, the most recent occurred with the reading of my first Henry Wade mystery, 1930’s The Dying Alderman. A rather tiresome village bureaucrat is found at his post, dead, and in his final moments, he managed to scrawl some initials. Once again, the letters could possibly refer to several suspicious characters, so it’s up to the detectives – there are three of them here, all at odds with each other – to seek out other evidence in order to find the killer. Once that is accomplished, the dying message is explained in the final page.
And that is pretty much how it goes with the technique. It tends to be more of a tantalizing tidbit than a major clue, unless you’re dealing with short stories. Ellery Queen wrote a wealth of them centering on the enigmatic final message. Some examples are more like the punchline of a joke (“Diamonds in Paradise” from Queen’s Full.) Others tend to reduce the story to a logic puzzle. In “The President Regrets,” (published in Q.E.D.: Queen’s Experiments in Detection), Ellery is told that, of the four men suspected of killing the beautiful Valetta Van Buren, three of them have something in common with her and the fourth is the killer. Stories like these are pure puzzle, without any detours into characterization or even much emotional heft. I’m not being critical of them; rather, I quite enjoy these exercises in detection.
The device worked even better in radio, where I imagine a huge number of episodes of The Adventures of Ellery Queen contained it. I say “imagine” because one of the greatest misfortunes for mystery and radio fans is that most of this series, which ran for ten years, is lost. But many of the episodes I have heard (or read in Crippen and Landru’s marvelous collection of Queen radio scripts, The Adventure of the Murdered Moths) have wonderful dying messages in them. Done in performance rather than on the printed page, the dying message can be truly emotive; plus, a twenty minute radio show provides the perfect length for a dying message to be the predominant clue.
I’ll admit I can see how some fans might find the dying message a rather cheap device – sometimes over-clever and other times trite or even ridiculous. Queen rarely made it the “be-all and end-all” clue in a full-length novel – at least, until the latter part of their career. The first example I can recall occurs in The Scarlet Letters (1953), an odd mystery where murder doesn’t occur until the very end of the novel. It’s not vintage Queen, although I do happen to like the central conflict: it reads more like a dysfunctional romantic melodrama with some surprises. And the dying message, although clever, strikes me as an odd way for the victim to get his meaning across.
Later Queen novels like The Fourth Side of the Triangle (1964, and actually ghost written by Avram Davidson) and Face to Face (1967) both feature women who, for whatever reason, think it’s clever to weave messages into their work as, respectively, a fashion designer and a singer. The author plays games here, though, and the dying messages prove unreliable in cutting a clear swath toward a solution.
In 1970, Queen wrote one of his worst mysteries and simultaneously brought the dying message to such depths of ridiculousness that I don’t know whether to tell readers to skip it entirely or to read it for the jaw-dropping experience it is. It’s impossible to explain why The Last Woman in His Life offends so without spoiling it – which I am sorely tempted to do – so I will just say this about the dying message aspect: it certainly gives credence to Drury Lane’s theory that purveyors of the dying message have to possess great acumen, but the idea that the victim’s thought processes could actually embrace such a complex set of perambulations in order to come up with the perfect message defies belief. And after all that the guy goes through as he lies on his deathbed, trying to figure out what the heck he should say, the message he does utter flies over the heads of all the detectives and, I would wager, most readers. Halfway through the book, I got a horrific glimmer of the truth and was put in the awkward position of wishing I was wrong. But not, the Queens went there. They went full force, and they left scars.
I will be the first to admit that it’s often hard to take a Queenian dying message as more than a lark. There’s a lack of seriousness to most of them, and one is often hard pressed to justify a victim’s use of the technique. In the novelette “Mum’s the Word,” one has to wonder why Godfrey Mumford would provide such a worthless message when every single person in his sphere could be connected to the word “Mum.” The dude even raises chrysanthemums! It’s hard to take it seriously.
I can’t remember a single dying message in Carr. Agatha Christie used the device sporadically but in a different, more realistic way. In A Murder Is Announced, the last words anyone hears poor Amy Murgatroyd utter are, “She wasn’t there.” Amy isn’t dead – yet. She’s just trying to explain to her friend Miss Hinchcliff, in her muddled way, what was wrong on the night of the murder at Miss Blacklock’s. When she is found killed and the message is remembered, Miss Marple has to first figure out how the sentence was uttered: placing the emphasis on a different word alters the meaning of the message – and the potential list of suspects the message might cover. A wholly different example occurs when Tina Argyle is attacked in Ordeal by Innocence. Being at death’s door does something to her mental facilities and, rather than try to utter a name, Tina murmurs two phrases. In pondering the possible meanings of Tina’s message, the members of the family tend to wander pretty far afield before a logical – and quite simple – answer presents itself.
I had hoped to end this treatise with a promise that I would be putting together an attempt at a short-short story of my own to illustrate the technique. I have to say it’s a very hard thing to strip a tale of all but its essentials. It makes me even more respectful of Queen’s success at the short story. No doubt I’ll keep practicing and come up with some attempt at a later date. In the meanwhile, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the dying message – I fully expect some snorts of derision in the comments section below – and I urge those who are interested to seek out the short tales of Ellery Queen. Some of them are absolutely wonderful, and in them you will find that the dying message abounds!