I SUSPECT MICE: A Discourse on the Dying Message

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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38 thoughts on “I SUSPECT MICE: A Discourse on the Dying Message

  1. I can’t remember a single dying message in Carr.

    There’s a dying message in Patrick Butler for the Defense, but it’s a pretty bad one and goes to show how difficult they really are if even Carr was hopefully out of his debt with them. I also believe this is why there are so few, if any, iconic dying message novels or short stories. You can point to a ton of monumental locked room mysteries, closed-circle whodunits, inverted detective stories, etc, but there are only few dying message stories with a somewhat similar stature. Because they’re harder to do than most people assume.

    I suppose most would tag Tragedy of X as one. However, I believe the dying message has not aged very well. You could probably guess the meaning when the book was first published, but not today. Personally, I always loved the simplistic dying clue from one of Queen’s short-shorts, “Diamonds in Paradise,” which are the words muttered by a dying thief about the stashed loot. They also wrote another delightful story, “My Queer Dean,” that plays around with misunderstood words (…”with a blushing crow…“).

    It’s one of the reasons why nearly everyone loves their short stories. We’re all divided about the novels, but love the short ones. Anyway…

    So are there any iconic dying message novels or short stories? Well, sort of. Bruce Alexander’s Murder Points a Finger made a noteworthy attempt: a police detective is shot in the gut and as he lay dying he spelled out the murderers name with a stack of nearby fingerprint cards. On the surface, it looks very complicated, but has a very simple explanation. I suppose this is one of the best examples of an incomprehensible looking dying message with a simple answer attached to it.

    One of the best and most believable dying message can be found in a Columbo episode, Try and Catch Me, in which the murderer locked the victim up in a walk-in vault and left him there to do die. But the victim has more than enough time to hide a clever and very clear dying message in the vault. The dying message here is used as a final piece of evidence against the murderer, rather than as a clue, but it’s still very clever one.

    So, yeah, they are far more difficult to do than most people think. On the one hand, the dying clue has to be simple, or practical, enough to convince the reader a dying person could have left it, but, on the other hand, they can’t be too simple that they give the entire game away – or are so simple that they don’t have weight at all.

    Yea, this added very little of substance to your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I do like dying message stories in general, even if they often feel so artificial, especially in those Queen short shorts (The Tragedy of Errors has a few of them too, IIRC). Mystery fiction is often artificial, and while dying messages often turn into a contest of imaginative interpretation even more confusing than a game of charades, a good dying message story manages to instill a sense of agreement, similar to how now normal person would usually try to conjure up a super complex locked room murder, but it still ‘makes sense’ within the fictional world.

    Arisugawa’s The Moai Island Puzzle (mandatory disclosure message: I translated it) has an short Dying Message Lecture near the end of the book; you don’t see those often, so I thought it was worth mentioning.

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    1. I should have mentioned TMIP, Ho-Ling, as I enjoyed it very much. In fact, this whole post was a trap! JJ, Sergio, TomCat, Ben and I have you surrounded so that we can beg you to translate more shin honkaku mysteries into English. I know Japanese readers still revere Queen even as his reputation has faded in the States, and it’s horribly frustrating and unfair. Okay, rant over! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. This reminds me, I have an old translation on my blog of a dying message short story. it’s the novelization of the first episode of the TV drama Furuhata Ninzaburou, one of the greatest Japanese detective dramas, which was highly inspired by Columbo and (TV show) Ellery Queen. This particular story takes its cues from the Columbo episode Try and Catch Me, but IIRC the dying message in that episode goes not as deep into dying message discourse as this story.

        The story feels a bit short, as the episode is the main production and the novelization (by the creator/screenwriter of the show) was more an afterthought, but I still like it: http://ho-lingnojikenbo.blogspot.nl/2010/10/blog-post_23.html

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  3. I recall the dying message for Ellery Queen’s ‘Face to Face’ – and yes, the victim must have been overly optimistic to think that the message could have been decoded…

    I suppose the tension, from the standpoint of a victim, would be to come up with a message sufficiently cryptic – such that it wouldn’t be erased by the culprit – and yet sufficiently solveable – such that it would actually lead the detective to the culprit. From the standpoint of the misery writer, the tension would be to come up with a message that would be plausible for the victim to leave behind, and yet sufficiently cryptic for the reader to feel confounded by. Like any other plot twist, the best dying messages must be simple yet cryptic. And ‘Face to Face’ certainly didn’t offer one like that.

    Having said that, I thought ‘Face to Face’ was actually one of Queen’s stronger novels – it was very enjoyable apart from the disclosure as to what FACE actually meant.

    For me, my favourite dying message that ticked all the boxes was the one in the first murder in an anime that I found out through Ho-Ling’s blog: Dangonronpa Season 1.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I liked Face to Face too, John. It was my first exposure to a denouement Queen used not once, not twice, but THREE times. Still, the dying message is pretty ludicrous. I think the way it’s woven into The Fourth Side of the Triangle is more holistic. Again we have a professional woman who provides information through her work product. But here the message is not created at the point of death; rather, it’s part of a ritual she has. However, due to its nature, the information has to be parceled out in small drips or the whole thing will be too obvious. Thus, this message is hidden from our view and used more for dramatic effect than as an actual fair play clue.

      The televised adaptation of this novel tossed out this whole aspect of the plot and substituted an actual dying message, which was mildly clever but no match for the wordplay, and the emotional impact, of the original.

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      1. Yes, now that you mention it, I can remember that sort of ending happening in another Ellery Queen novel – but can’t think of a third instance. Now I’ll be exceptionally sensitive when the closing chapter involves that kind of event or ceremony… 😛

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  4. I can’t remember a single dying message in Carr.

    There’s a dying message in Patrick Butler for the Defense, but it’s a pretty bad one and goes to show how difficult they really are if even Carr was hopefully out of his debt with them. I also believe this is why there are so few, if any, iconic dying message novels or short stories. You can point to a ton of monumental locked room mysteries, closed-circle whodunits, inverted detective stories, etc, but there are only few dying message stories with a somewhat similar stature. Because they’re harder to do than most people assume.

    I suppose most would tag Tragedy of X as one. However, I believe the dying message has not aged very well. You could probably guess the meaning when the book was first published, but not today. Personally, I always loved the simplistic dying clue from one of Queen’s short-shorts, “Diamonds in Paradise,” which are the words muttered by a dying thief about the stashed loot. They also wrote another delightful story, “My Queer Dean,” that plays around with misunderstood words (…”with a blushing crow…”).

    It’s one of the reasons why nearly everyone loves their short stories. We’re all divided about the novels, but love the short ones. Anyway…

    So are there any iconic dying message novels or short stories? Well, sort of. Bruce Alexander’s Murder Points a Finger made a noteworthy attempt: a police detective is shot in the gut and as he lay dying he spelled out the murderers name with a stack of nearby fingerprint cards. On the surface, it looks very complicated, but has a very simple explanation. I suppose this is one of the best examples of an incomprehensible looking dying message with a simple answer attached to it.

    One of the best and most believable dying message can be found in a Columbo episode, Try and Catch Me, in which the murderer locked the victim up in a walk-in vault and left him there to do die. But the victim has more than enough time to hide a clever and very clear dying message in the vault. The dying message here is used as a final piece of evidence against the murderer, rather than as a clue, but it’s still very clever one.

    So, yeah, they are far more difficult to do than most people think. On the one hand, the dying clue has to be simple, or practical, enough to convince the reader a dying person could have left it, but, on the other hand, they can’t be too simple that they give the entire game away – or are so simple that they don’t have weight at all.

    Yea, this added very little of substance to your post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. No, you’re fine, TomCat, and thanks for contributing. I think your final paragraph illuminates why the dying message is so problematical: it’s such an artificial construct, requiring both simplicity and obfuscation. That’s the nature of plenty of clues- perhaps the whole basis of the classic detective novel. But here we have the added pressure of believability- that a dying man would have the brains and/or guts AND/OR opportunity to leave such a clue. The confluence of the right idea coming into his head AND the right materials being at hand is hard to swallow. Add to that the pressure that the message be solvable but stay mysterious until the end. No wonder it tends to be the coup de grace, the cherry on top of a sundae built of more reasonable clues. But they are a lot of fun, and I think Queen’s short-shorts contain some awfully clever ones, like those you mention plus stories like “A Lump of Sugar.”

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      1. Sorry, I just noticed my first attempt at a comment wasn’t swallowed by wordpress. Ever since my comments get queued by most wordpress/blogposts, I save my comments in a word document. So when I checked back and saw it had completely disappeared, I decided to post it again. Once again, sorry for the double post.

        Anyway, you might want to know I just posted a review of a two-part Kindaichi episode that contained a good and simple dying message.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Regarding the sugar cubes – I assumed that the dying man wasn’t leaving a message. Rather, in his fleeting moments of life, he reached out for his one available source of enjoyment. A comforting childhood memory. Kind of like that “sweetest strawberry” parable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Honestly, I’ve never read a mystery where the dying message is ultimately interpreted as, “Oh, I wasn’t giving out information! I was just lying here, bleeding out, when I started to think about how much I really love salad! And do you know how hard it is to find a ripe avocado in the supermarket? So before I pass on, I wanted to make sure that you got this perfect specimen in your hands for tonight’s dinner. I thought about squeezing it open and writing the killer’s name in guacamole, but I don’t know how to spell Dyddanwy Cothi (she’s Welsh) and besides, there’s nothing worse than an over-ripe avoc – ” (It was here the victim expired.)

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  6. You address a lot of the issues with the dying message above, and I’m struggling to think of a genuinely great example that I’ve read…but I can’t. I have a vague memory of a TV show in which a man is shot and manages to trace the word HELP in the dust only for that to turn out to be a clue to his killer, but I also remember the explanation being a bit…weak, which minda kills it, really.

    I suppose the difficulty is in the acknowledged scope for interpretation; there’s so much in GAD that is open to interpretation but then eventually gets whittled down to a clear pointer by weight of accumulating evidiec,e much like TomCat implies about that Columbo message. Dying messages on their own, or as a brick in this wall, are always suspect to me, and I’m yet to encouter one with anything close to the joy that most other GAD trope elicit in me. Usually I just hope the author doesn’t embarrass themself too much and we can all move on quickly…

    That said, you’ve thrown a lot of light upon an area I’ve not given much active thought to, and I’m always grateful for that. I shall go awa and mull this and probably get back to you in a few months when everyone else has forgotten what I’m going on about. Watch this space!

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    1. We could all probably get into a fascinating discussion about clueing – the nature of it, the types of clues, etc. Obviously, some clues point directly to one person, while others are so open to interpretation that they offer little clarity until put together with OTHER clues. The dying message is almost always of this latter variety. I prefer them when they are of the former, like in “The Seven Clocks” above. There’s great mystification over what the victim was trying to do, but then there’s something so utterly simple about the message – here it’s the number of letters – that it succeeds in eliminating all but one person in the end. Even then, the whole thing feels rather silly next to the evidence of what was found by the body and what witnesses/suspects said. Silly – but great fun for me!

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      1. Well, most of the genre is silly: who would actually stretch to the efforts expended in the likes of The Hollow Man or Peril at End House? How likely is it that six amateurs could expound theories as intelligently as in The Poisoned Chocolates Case? Why would anyone listen to Mrs Bradley? If you look at any of it in any depth, it’s all sort of silly.

        I guess the dying message is something it’s hard to fudge, since it needs to very clearly imply one thing eventually, but in order to do so it requires the message to be obscure (so as not to be recognised and destroyed) and yet alarmingly specific. The Seven Clocks thing sounds perfect, but I wonder if there’s an upper limit on how successfully it can be used — like the Birlstone Gambit, you sort of feel people are pretty wise to this sort of shenanigans.

        Hmmm, I must go and do some more thinking on this.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Um . . . . we have a rule in this place, Mister. Nobody – but NOBODY – is allowed to mention the Birlstone Gambit! I bloody HATE the Birlstone Gambit! I think it’s the biggest cheat ever perpetrated on an unlucky public! Carr did it once, and Queen smeared it all over his canon. (Wait – that sounds dirty – erase that!) So please, sir, in the future, if you feel you MUST discuss the Birlstone f**king Gambit, kindly refer to it as the BFG!

    Muchas gracias!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I had hoped you wouldn’t bring that up, Santosh! However, I think Christie accomplished it perfectly well . . . AND she had the decency to wait till the latter quarter of the novel to set the trap. I don’t want to mention the other examples, say from Queen, that come to mind for spoiler reasons. Perhaps they indeed “play fair,” but they don’t FEEL fair . . . or much fun.

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  8. I love a dying message, even though it is always ridiculous and unreal – but then so are locked rooms, and ridiculous alibis, and blackmailers-who-are-the-next-victims. I love trying to solve the problems, while simultaneously criticizing them. For instance, when I read the title of your post, I wondered if ‘I suspect mice’ was an anagram, now I’m thinking an anagram would be a good dying clue…
    Great post Brad, terrific fun.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ellery Queen used an anagram in FOURTH SIDE OF THE TRIANGLE to great effect, Moira. I’m sure others have as well. (He also used spoonerisms in a wonderful way, and he had a field day with a victim with a stutter.

      The blackmailer question is fascinating. Clearly, every mystery must exist in its own world, or all those butlers, neighbors, cleaning women, secretaries, and the like would know that you can’t threaten a GAD murderer and expect to live high on the hog off the payments!! In THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE, Christie included TWO blackmailers, and both of them got bumped off. It’s the one weak point in an otherwise lovely mystery.

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  9. This is a superb essay and resource, Brad. Very much appreciated.

    And many thanks for the reference! By the way, do all of you more experienced bloggers know how to put “Blogs I Follow” on the side of the page? I’d like to return the favor somewhat and identify all of your blogs.

    I was recently in a(n online) “discussion” with someone about dying clues and messages (believe me, not something that happens everyday!), and of course my recently-posted “Ruby Red” hinges on them, so it is quite timely, too. (Confound you, Harry Stephen Keeler!)

    While my correspondent liked mysteries too, his reading was limited mainly to British authors–Christie, of course, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham, etc., and just a smattering of the transatlantic Carr (no Dicksons, for example). He’d never read Queen and had never really heard of the dying clue, so when I sent him “Thirteen at Dinner,” he expressed his incredulity that someone would ever do what my victim in the story did. Another poster and I tried to explain the concept to him, but he still thought it silly, in the main.

    I pointed him to the few real-life dying messages–“Omar m’a tuer [sic]” comes to mind–but on the whole you do a better job of explaining the concept than I did. Moira expressed well, too, the fact that many of the premises of our beloved genre are indeed unlikely or improbable–but, then, as Carr put it, much of mankind’s liking for fiction is based (despite the protestations of dogmatic “realists”) on its improbability. “I cannot find a story enthralling solely on the grounds that it sounds as though it might really have happened. I do not care to hear the hum of everyday life; I much prefer to hear the chuckle of the great Hanaud or the deadly bells of Fenchurch St Paul.”

    With that said, ideally a writer should try to justify his impossible crime, unbreakable alibi, or dying clue. While our plots may be improbable, our characters, and their actions, should never be–lest we voyage off into the outer space of incertitude, without connection to actual human experience.

    On that, I find your first option–“the victim had no choice”–to be the most likely and explicable. If we combine it with option 3–“victim thought he was being clear”–we are left with what Drury Lane might have called the mystery of the human brain before death, as the will to live and, too, will to seek revenge take precedence. We may then have option 4: “victim thought he had no choice.” That is to say, he means to come up with some kind of indicator, and he is unsure that everything else will be as determinative, especially as he can die at any time. What if he dies in the middle of the murderer’s name?

    Thus he points potential hearers of the message to something that may not be determinative at first hearing but more definite when finally understood. (I used this kind of thing in “Thirteen at Dinner.”)

    Hope that all makes sense!

    –Karl

    P.S. Pace TomCat, I do think The Tragedy of X holds up as the dying message novel par excellence. I think the clue is still comprehensible even if not as clear as it would have been in the ’30s–far more so than the similar, unintended clue-business in The Chinese Orange Mystery.

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    1. Regarding the “Blogs I Like” deal, Karl, I found it on the Admin page of my blog. It offers you the option of showing a number of things, including this.

      Wow! If I could meet a “correspondent” who liked to talk about that stuff online, I would consider it a relationship!! Lucky you! And look how you opened his eyes to a whole new (and better) world, one with Queen in it.

      I do understand TomCat’s point; it came up in another context with Ho-Ling regarding cultural references. Some Japanese amime mystery series make frequent use of the dying message, and I almost never understand it because it is language- or culture-based.

      I also know whereof Carr speaks. He considered “reality” anathema to the style and tone of his writing and plotting. But he created a “reality” where the choices people made in these extraordinary circumstances seemed credible. Most real life murder is sordid and unplanned. Most people – victims and murderers – do not leave clues behind, just evidence. But GAD creates a world where the victim IS avenged, the detective (and the reader) offered a clearcut path to the solution and the re-establishment of social order. So why NOT make it crazy fun rather than “Dragnet”-style “realism?

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      1. Well, as for the discussion about mysteries, that was between Tarathian123 and yours truly here (http://imdb2.freeforums.net). It’s a pretty great resource for discussing film and that kind of thing. I also had an e-mail correspondence with Nick Fuller for a long time, but he’s in India, without wifi, as of his last e-mail (and it seems he has sadly deleted “Escape to Adventure,” a great resource).

        That GAD fiction offers a clearcut path to the re-establishment of social order–and, more than that, a sense of order in the universe–is, indeed, its greatest literary defense, if it so requires, that is.

        Thanks for helping with the blog bit–will do!

        KJS

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  10. Hi Brad, I know I shouldn’t make irrelevant posts… But I did promise to keep you updated as to what I make of ‘It Walks by Night’. Definitely heavier in emotion, sexual matters and atmosphere than virtually every other Carr novel I’ve read, perhaps apart from ‘Plague Court Murders’. A comment made in a review I read meant that I was slightly more alert to certain geographical considerations than I normally would, which prepared me for the a key aspect of the resolution.

    In general, when it comes to Carr, I prefer less histrionics and more mechanics, but on the whole I quite liked ‘It Walks by Night’, and I quite enjoyed the ride. Definitely not one of Carr’s best, but I think I liked it better than ‘Plague Court Murders’ and ‘Crooked Hinge’.

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    1. Wow, John, that is high praise in my view! Crooked Hinge is one of my favorite Carrs, and if you like IWbN better . . .!! I had the murderer down almost immediately here, whereas Hinge kept me guessing till the end. And for all that piled on atmosphere, I was more unsettled by the bucolic countryside of Hinge where all that creepy stuff took place!

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  11. I like dying messages, but even I have to admit that some of them stretch credulity to the fullest. Ellery Queen’s “The Bearded Lady”, for example, is preposterous. I think even EQ realised the artificiality of the whole thing and that’s the whole reason for the short story “E = Murder”.

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    1. And yet he kept them up to the end of his career, Christian, and they got sillier and sillier! The one in The Last Woman in His Life will leave you gasping with incredulity when Queen explains what the victim went through before he gasped out his dying word!

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  12. I don’t fully remember “The Last Woman…”, though I know it’s silly, but I don’t think it beats “E = Murder”. It really is the epitome of a silly dying message.

    Quoted from the story:
    ” “Agon’s left a clue to his murderer’s identity.”

    The General grunted at such outlandish notions. “Why couldn’t he have just written the name?”

    “The classic objection. The classic reply to which is that the he was afraid his killer might come back, notice it, and destroy it,” Ellery said unhappily, “which I’ll admit has never really satisfied me.” He was scowling at the symbol in great puzzlement.”

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  13. Brad–

    I’ve been thinking about it, and I think there’s another option–Option 5, if my post above makes any sense. Simply put, the victim was not intending to identify his murderer. Rather, the victim was identifying a code, a clue, a secret, or something else (I’m once again thinking of The Last of Sheila, though it doesn’t exactly fit my criteria here), and that was the intended meaning of the dying clue.

    Naturally, Mike Grost identified this option before I did (the first comment at https://gadetection.wordpress.com/2008/09/28/dying-clues/), and Scott Ratner referenced another example, The Da Vinci Code, in the main mini-essay at that link.

    I think that’s an interesting, albeit little-used, “dying clue” gimmick that would explain away many of the problems with the traditional “dying clue,” because a secret/code/etc. is too long to explain just before death.

    I can’t think of many that use this type–besides Da Vinci Code, in fact, only EQ’s “The Last Man Club” comes to mind, but then I don’t know many of the examples that Mike provides there–but it’s something to ponder. 🙂

    Best,

    Karl

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  14. Not trying to clog up your blog with my own musings–mea culpa–but I just remembered that there’s another example of the “dying clue” (well, not dying per se, but “incomprehensible uttering”) that AC used in A Murder is Announced. (I only recently read Ordeal by Innocence–and quite liked it, too–and yet cannot seem to remember the dying clue you cite. Probably says more for my memory than anything.)

    In the 1935 mystery-comedy Star of Midnight–not great, but a fun little picture–sleuth William Powell has to interpret how a man said the word “this”–e.g., “this is…,” “this [object] is…,” or something else. Kinda clever, especially for a Thin Man knock-off (which Star certainly is, but it’s a good one).

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    1. Regarding A Murder Is Announced, I just assumed you were talking about Amy’s statement, which I referenced in the article. Is there ANOTHER “incomprehensible uttering” besides “She wasn’t there?” In Ordeal by Innocence, Tina makes two references after she is stabbed. The interesting thing is that bystanders immediately associate her utterances with poetry, but she is actually being quite direct. And in this case, she’s not indicating whodunit, only something that struck her as really weird – and which then points right to the who in a rather clever fashion. What I like about Christie is that her dying messages aren’t plays on words or things that could cast doubt on multiple suspects. They are genuinely baffling utterances whose meaning MUST be deciphered in order to point toward the killer. In Queen, most of the dying messages are always “extra” clues and merely reconfirm what other evidence has already led toward.

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