Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

September 28, 2008

Dying clues

Filed under: Ellery Queen — Jon @ 2:32 am

One difficulty I have in liking a lot of Queen stories has absolutely nothing to do with stylistics or characterization (the usual complaints regarding this author). My problem is that I just don’t find the concept of a dying message motivationally believably, except in very rare cases. For in truth (as history has shown), people will continue in a vain, unrealistic attempt to stay alive long after they have any real chance of surviving . They will usually expend every last breath in this hopeless effort, even if clear-headed reason would tell them they haven’t a chance. Sure, if they were really certain that they had no chance to survive, then they might move on to their second highest desire: to have their death avenged. But if there is even a glimmer of hope (or, if they can even *imagine* a glimmer of hope), they will cling to that glimmer (for, after all, if they do survive, they can probably achieve *both* of their aims).

In the Tragedy of X, Queen goes to impressive lengths to impress upon the reader the motivational believability of someone leaving a dying clue, and through these efforts does a fair job of convincing us. But in subsequent Queen works, it is just taken as a given: people who have been fatally injured will spend their last moments trying to identify their killer. It just doesn’t work for me, and it usually too central to the plot to be overlooked as a flaw.

Often derided as it is, The Da Vinci Code is one of the few books that have ever satisfactorily justified (for me) the dying clue. This is primarily because the reason for leaving the clue in that case is not to identify the killer, but rather to carry on an import secret.

This all said, I just included a dying clue (with four different interpretations) in my recent musical whodunit “Murder on the High C’s.” But my story was a farcical endeavor in a cartoon-like musical comedy world (my victims were given false directions that lead them to unwittingly jump overboard, and were electrocuted en masse in musical kicklines, etc…), and I do believe that makes an important difference.

– Scott


  1. One variation on the “dying message” is perhaps a bit more plausible. This is a message, or bunch of objects, or strange document, that contains some sort of Hidden Meaning. The sleuth and reader have to figure out what it means. Such messages or objects don’t have to be created by someone dying. They can be a code, or a warning, or an artifact of some activity. Jon L. Breen has used this approach in some of his puzzle plots. It shows up in an early section of his novel “Triple Crown” (1985), and in some of his recent short stories. It gives lots of flexibility. Plus it encourages authors to come up with ingenious background situations that might produce some sort of code or object collection or whatever.

    You can also find GA era books, in which a message does not tell the killer’s identity, but some Big Secret. These are long before “The Da Vinci Code”. I think Victor L. Whitechurch novels like “Murder at the Pageant” (1930) are examples. Whitechurch also included some “text interpretation” puzzles in his short story “The Murder on the Okehampton Line” (1903) and novel “Murder at the College” (1932). EQ also has a dying message about a Big Secret in his radio play “The Adventure of the Last Man Club” (1939).

    Mike Grost

    Comment by jonjermey — September 28, 2008 @ 2:33 am | Reply

  2. It is not known which mystery writer was the first to use this device; Conan Doyle included it in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (1891) in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It is found in Isabel Ostrander’s The Clue in the Air (1917), the delirious woman’s words in Donald McGibeny’s 32 Caliber (1920), Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and Christie’s Ostrander spoof “Finessing the King” in Partners in Crime (1924), the second section of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1927), and in Earl Derr Biggers’ Behind That Curtain (1928). There are probably many other examples.

    Mike Grost

    Comment by jonjermey — September 28, 2008 @ 2:34 am | Reply

  3. Oh, I agree, codes and secret messages can be an excellent aspect of puzzle plot writing. I loved the example in Queen’s “The Adventure of the Last Man Club” (not only one of my favorite Queen radio plays, but among my favorite of all Queen works). In that example, though, as you say, the victim’s intent is not to identify his murderer (though we don’t know this at the time), and it also doesn’t involve him going out of his way to rearrange objects to form a cryptic message. I can totally believe his motive in saying his last dying words, and that for me makes all the difference.

    One of my other favorite uses of secret codes is in the film “The Last of Sheila” in which the killer’s ignorance of the victim’s secret code is an indicator of his guilt (I recall a simpler version of this idea in one of Jon Breen’s Ed Gorgon stories). In both cases, the victim is employing a secret code, but in neither does the victim attempt to use a secret code to identify his killer.

    It’s all a matter of motivationally justifying the secret code. But when a secret code it truly well justified, it can help create some of the most interesting puzzle-plot solutions.

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — September 28, 2008 @ 2:37 am | Reply

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