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Exploring the Interior

Karl S. Guthke

III. The universe within

11. Revelation or Deceit?: Last Words in Detective Novels

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Crime and Last Words: Literature Imitating Life?

11994 was a very special year in Provence. Natives and tourists alike were enthralled by a murder case stranger than fiction and yet bearing all the hallmarks of a quality whodunit. Mme. Marchal, the rich elderly widow of the head of the French spark plug dynasty, had been found stabbed to death in the cellar of her villa overlooking Nice. The trial, held in Nice, had dragged on since the end of January when the atmosphere suddenly turned electric one day as the gendarmes lugged a cellar door into court which bore the words “Omar killed me” handwritten in the victim’s blood, according to experts. They “described how Mme. Marchal must have knelt daubing the letters,” said the London Times of 2 February, “although one of her fingers was severed.” Omar was Mme. Marchal’s gardener, a Moroccan described as “part Omar Sharif, part Rudolph Valentino” by a local newspaper. Case closed? Not so fast. The hitch, uncommon in murder trials, was philological. For the words were spelled “Omar m’a tuer” instead of “Omar m’a tuée” – a mistake, the defence contended, “a lowly crook would make, but not an educated woman who loved crosswords.” It followed, argued Jacques Verges, the defender of celebrities such as Klaus Barbie, that “the real killer had clearly forced Mme. Marchal to name the innocent Omar before making a getaway” and had written the supposed last words himself. Case closed. Or was it? Handwriting experts testified that “the writing was that of the widow, at 65 still an elegant and youthful woman known for her strong character.” So “Omar m’a tuer” were her dying words after all (and who is to say just how one’s grammar or spelling is affected by dying and/or writing with one’s own blood; bloody little precedent here). Besides, the prosecution determined that Omar, ever the model family man, had been pestering Madame for a wage increase repeatedly, or more exactly, the Times said, “umpteen” times.

  • 1 One such case was reported in The Boston Globe of 14 March 1994: “Dying man’s note clears woman of (...)
  • 2 The Boston Globe, 3 December 1989, 12.
  • 3 The New York Times, 28 April 1995, B6. For similar news stories see Karl S. Guthke, Last Words: Var (...)

2Specialists and connoisseurs will tell you that the only unusual part of this case is the cellar door. For last words are reported in the crime and general interest section of newspapers all the time – last words of victims as well as deathbed confessions of culprits and accomplices, such as “‘Missing’mate buried in yard: A deathbed revelation reportedly implicates N. H. town’s police chief” (The Boston Globe, 16 March 1988, 19). Deathbed confessions of criminals are in fact of the garden variety that is easily parodied, as in the dying declaration of Teddy Mann, the mayor of Newton, Mass., who joked with his dying breath “I buried Jimmy Hoffa,” according to an interview with his son on National Public Radio on 10 April 1994. More interesting are oral or written final declarations of murder victims that exonerate a suspect1 or, more intriguingly, name the killer who will not fail to loom large in the subsequent trial. “Officer’s Last Words Recalled at Murder Trial,” runs a typical New York Times headline on Sunday, 16 September 1990. The case of a murdered reporter was reopened in Arizona in 1989 after the victim’s last words – “John Adamson” and “Mafia” – finally came to light.2 In North Carolina’s “worst mass murder in a decade” one victim used his dying words to finger his landlord as the culprit who had used a heavy-handed combination of shooting and arson to ease problems with his tenants.3 Finally, to return to the murder capital for geographical balance, the New York Times reported on 28 January 1995 that a woman stabbed with an 11-inch carving knife near Central Park lifted her head as she “lay dying” and “told a neighbor who came to her aid who the killer was” (22). Indeed, so routine are such last word stories in our daily papers that Andy Warhol, in his collection Death, Disasters (1988), chose to feature a satirical ballpoint pen drawing, “Journal American” (1960), which presents the supposedly typical front page of U.S. newspapers, with their assortment of tales of mayhem and more imaginative violence: “Police Say Dying Dr. Nimer Called Killer ‘ Different Color,’” reveals one of Warhol’s more conspicuous headlines (13).

  • 4 Chambers’s Encyclopedia (London and Edinburgh, 1878), III, 722.

3There is a good legal reason why such last words so often end up as testimony in law courts, as the newspaper items indicate they do. For last words, so-called dying declarations, are an exception to the procedural rule that excludes hearsay as evidence in criminal cases. Their weight, often decisive and greater than that of Last Wills even if these do account for the best bed, as Shakespeare’s does not, may not be recognized in the law courts “of all nations,” as Chambers’s Encyclopedia has it;4 but in Anglo-Saxon countries, at any rate, a dying declaration enjoys a special evidential status, vastly superior to in vino veritas. It is defined in the Oxford Companion to Law as

a verbal or written statement made by a dying person, which although not made on oath or in the presence of the accused, is admissible in evidence on an indictment for murder or manslaughter of that person, provided the person making it had a belief, without hope of recovery, that he was about to die shortly. (1980, 386)

  • 5 S. S. Peloubet, A Collection of Legal Maxims in Law and Equity (New York, 1884), 181. See also Gut (...)

4The American last word on this is the textbook McCormick on Evidence, which in its fourth edition (1992) devotes five very large pages to this particular exception to the exclusion of hearsay, pages that also instruct the reader how to tell whether the “declarant” was conscious of imminent death and how to assess the precise “weight” of his declaration (ch. 32). A dying person is presumed not to lie – “Nemo moriturus praesumitur mentiri,” as the maxim of common law has it5 – the underlying assumption being that there is no earthly motive for telling anything but the truth as the dying person will soon face the judgment of his Maker, who will inflict retribution on those who die with a lie on their lips. (Law courts today are becoming aware, of course, of just how questionable, how ideologically biased, this assumption is in multicultural social contexts: not everybody believes in a Last Judgment.)

  • 6 Fritz Wölcken, Der literarische Mord (Nürnberg, 1953), 215; Othello, V. 2.138.
  • 7 See, e.g., A. E. Murch, The Development of the Detective Novel (London, 1958), 153; on Agatha Chri (...)
  • 8 See Leonhardt, 202–203 (and the entire chapter).
  • 9 The Winterbrook Edition (New York, 1985), 185.

5This privileged status of last words in the media’s crime and courtroom reporting as well as in legal thought almost predestines them to be a privileged motif in crime fiction and in detective stories in particular. (No wonder hearsay has it that supreme court judges are among the most avid readers of detective thrillers, along with bishops, who are more difficult to account for – unless one takes into consideration the religious significance of last words: as Othello, the “Moor,” knew, a dying man’s lie will send him straight to “burning hell.”)6 Detective story writers, from Agatha the Great on down, are often known to be legal experts,7 and when Watson, in A Study in Scarlet, a short time after meeting Sherlock Holmes, made out a list of his housemate’s expertise, or lack thereof, in various fields of knowledge, he prominently included Holmes’s thorough familiarity with British law. More specifically, writers of detective thrillers are apt to give their works, at least in large part, the form of trial reporting as in Margery Allingham’s Flowers for the Judge (1936) or Friedhelm Werremeier’s Der Richter in Weiß (1971) and Trimmel und Isolde (1980).8 As Hercule Poirot says in Death on the Nile: “I know it is so in all detective novels – but you read it too in the newspapers. It happens, my friend, it happens.”9

  • 10 See Walter Gerteis, Detektive: Ihre Geschichte in Leben und Literatur (München, 1953), 117.
  • 11 See Murch, 72–73.
  • 12 Peter Grose, Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles (Boston, 1994), 182; Gerteis, 124.

6This sort of verisimilitude is, in fact, one aspect of the realism that detective stories normally aspire to. Nothing fantastic in what is arguably the most fictional type of fiction! Hence the effort to keep the boundaries between fiction and “real life” as fluid as possible. The creator of Sherlock Holmes notoriously spent some of his time off from fiction trying to prove the innocence of one Oskar Slater who had been sentenced to life imprisonment by a Scottish court for the murder of an old woman.10 Edgar Allan Poe, in his story The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842), had gone one step further and “solved” or pointed the way to the solution of a real-life New York case, which was still pending when he published his story (which, to be sure, transferred the case to Paris).11 Many detective-story writers have similarly taken their cue, in one way or another, from newspaper reports on actual cases, and, vice versa, detective stories such as Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) like to include the media as part of their fictional world in order to invest it with the appearance of documentary reality. And well they might, since investigative police procedures and fictional detective techniques are often enough mirror images of each other, which makes it difficult to determine which imitates which. (Real-life detectives are said to be another category of detective story readers, along with judges and bishops.) It is amusing to read in a biography of Allen Dulles, the CIA chief, that when operating as America’s super-spy in Berne during World War II, he saw to it that an undercover agent who had made his way to his apartment in Herrengasse through some rough terrain cleaned the mud off his shoes before any substantive exchange was initiated – and then to remember that the study of mud on clothes and boots was one of Sherlock’s specialties as well (duly noted by Watson in his list, making it plausible that the super-sleuth deduces one rainy day that Watson had just posted a telegram).12 Moving closer to last words as clues, one might think, apropos of the “realism” of detective fiction writers, of the notorious case of Dutch Schulz (Arthur Flegenheimer): after the famous gangster was gunned down in the Palace Chop House in Newark, New Jersey, on the night of 23 October 1935, the police, hoping for clues to the secrets of Murder, Inc., made a scrupulous transcript of his feverish dying ramblings, which William S. Burroughs then turned into fiction by using them wholesale in his surreal film script The Last Words of Dutch Schulz (1969).

  • 13 See, e.g., Klaus Günther Just,“Edgar Allan Poe und die Folgen,” Der Kriminalroman, ed. Jochen Vogt (...)

7Last words, this case shows, have the status of a “clue” – in “real-life” police work, in legal argument and why not in detective fiction as well. It is perhaps no coincidence that the two stories commonly thought to inaugurate the genre and to give insight into its nature, indeed to determine its nature,13 Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887), feature last words or supposed last words prominently – or rather the search for such last words or their meaning. In Poe’s story much is made of the unintelligibility of the voices overheard the night of the crime from the staircase just outside the apartment in question. The clue remains elusive. To be sure, the words “sacré” and “Diable” are clearly understood, but they do not take the detective very far. There were other words, though. But native speakers of several languages who were conveniently around at the critical time, in what must have been the most polyglot apartment house in notoriously monolingual France, are unable to recognize any words of their own languages, but confidently identify the language of the voice or voices as this or that, of which they themselves are happily ignorant. Auguste Dupin concludes: these words could only have been uttered by the perpetrator of the crime, not by the victims (who expired with those two clearly French words on their lips). It follows that the culprit, he or she or even it, in spite of all temptations to belong to other nations, was not only not French but not even human; and that, then, leads the detective straight to a French sailor’s runaway Orangutan, without the intellectual equivalent of a trip to the zoo – whereas the human last words could at best be said to aspire to the status of red herring. In the novel in which Sherlock Holmes made his debut, one encounters a suspected written last word: “Rache,” written in blood on the wall at the scene of the murder. (Life, we now see, was imitating literature in Nice in the early 1990s.) Sherlock’s reading of that clue could be used as a plug for the study of German, but that temptation can be resisted.

  • 14 Helmut Heißenbüttel, “Spielregeln des Kriminalromans,” Der Kriminalroman, 360–361.
  • 15 Wölcken, 185.
  • 16 Howard Haycraft, Murder for Pleasure (New York, 1968), 253.
  • 17 Craig Rice, “It’s a Mystery to Me,” Writing Detective and Mystery Fiction, ed. A. S. Buck (Boston, (...)
  • 18 Marty Roth, Foul and Fair Play: Reading Genre in Classic Detective Fiction (Athens, GA and London, (...)

8Instead, a reflection on the nature of the clue that last words constitute in detective fiction. To begin with, and in spite of all that has been said so far, it may be strange that last words figure at all, as they do, in the detective story’s repertory of stock devices. For if it is true, as is so frequently stated or implied, that all detective stories can be reduced to just one, and if it is further true that this is always the story of the dead body that is found, requiring, according to the ironclad rules of the game, not much more than the body, the detective, plus suspects and clues14 – then there would really be no room for last words at all, especially if the dead body is discovered early on, in the first chapter, the first paragraph, or even in the first sentence, which was in fact the ideal of Raymond Chandler and a host of followers.15 If only that dead body could speak (as Siegfried’s body did by releasing a flow of blood as his slayer approached). Or, failing that, if only the corpse-to-be could have spoken to somebody just before it became a corpse. This wish may be one reason why many writers of detective fiction prefer to present the prospective dead body alive for a while, initially. “To be introduced to a corpse is not an exhilarating or even interesting experience. “16 “It’s difficult to get your reader interested in a corpse not previously met.”17 And a good way to meet him is through his last words. If it is correct to say “What is a clue […] but a symbolic or condensed corpse, a living trace,”18 the last word would indeed be the clue to end all clues, the clue par excellence and nonpareil.

  • 19 For the lists of Knox and Van Dine, see The Art of the Mystery Story, ed. Howard Haycraft (New Yor (...)

9But this is exactly the problem: a victim’s last word, especially one fingering the culprit, may be too obvious and hence too boring a clue to be respectable, at least after the genre became more or less established. Maybe last words should therefore be included in those lists of hackneyed devices or props that theorists have been outlawing for decades ever since Father (!) Ronald A. Knox (1924) and S. S. Van Dine (1928) or the decalogue of the Detection Club Oath (1932). These lists ban motifs such as unknown and untraceable poisons, more than one secret passage, the wrong brand cigarette butt, identical twins or doubles, Asians, servants as killers, forged fingerprints, the dog that did not bark, supernatural agencies.19 Some authorities would include love, but last words are not included in anybody’s list of contraband. This omission is surprising when one considers that the use of dying words as clues in detective fiction has by now generated delicious parodies.

  • 20 Lest I be accused of ignoring the German contribution to the theme of last words in detective fict (...)
  • 21 Der Hausierer (Frankfurt, 1967). See Linda C. DeMerrit, “Handkes Antigeschichten: Der Kriminalroman (...)

10Peter Handke’s novel Der Hausierer (1967) comes to the German mind. Novel may not be the right word, but neither is detective story. For Handke tries to have it both ways: he seems to be telling a conventional crime story with all the trappings, and at the same time he sends up the genre by showing how none of its standard devices, such as the pursuit of clues, works. Instead, he ends up with a demonstration of the failure to establish that resolution, that order and rational universe that the detective story normally establishes or re-establishes at the end through the superior logic of its Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes or Philo Vance or Inspector Dupin, as the reader expects. Der Hausierer suggests questions rather than an answer. In other words, the book is a critique of the ideology commonly underlying the detective genre, celebrating instead the open-endedness and meaninglessness, the arbitrariness or even mysteriousness of the world we live and read in. In this manner, Der Hausierer joins ranks with some modern German distortions of the conventional genre, such as Hans Henny Jahnn’s Das Holzschiff and Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Das Versprechen. They would all seem to prove that G. B. Shaw had a point when he remarked that Germans are not good at two things, revolutions and detective stories.20 Theirs is a world in which clues lead nowhere, and one such clue, which Handke features especially, is the last word, the last word of the victim (which is the one that qualifies best as a clue in this genre):21

Das letzte Wort ist vieldeutig [ambiguous].
Nein!!!” (45)

  • 22 Loot (New York, 1967), 64.

11Parody becomes less heavy-handed and less pretentious in Joe Orton’s detective comedy Loot (1967). In the best tradition of the profession, Truscott, the police inspector in charge of investigating the murder of an elderly woman, inquires about her last words – only to hear, at first, that there were none (prompting the question “Was this her usual custom?” Answer: “She hadn’t died before.”). But then Hal remembers: “She spoke of a book. Truscott: Which? Hal: A broken binding recurred. Truscott: Was it a metaphor? Hal: I took it to be so.”22 Yet the spoofing of the traditional privileging of last words inside and outside courts of law, as revelation either of character or of a clue to the solution of the crime, does not end here. Truscott plods on, interpreting the nonsensical last words literally – and eventually stumbling upon a book with a broken binding which then leads him straightaway to the conclusion that the murderer was the old woman’s nurse.

  • 23 The Innocence of Father Brown (New York, 1911), 171 – 200.

12Parodies, then, suggest that last words as a detective story device are among the more hackneyed tricks of the trade and should probably be put on the index of forbidden clues. And yet they are not on it, and for good reason. For last words in detective fiction are not always as simple and clear, as straightforward and innocent a clue as might at first appear, especially as they appear to a reader who is aware of the centuries-old tradition of cherishing and privileging last words as gems of wisdom and truth. In detective stories, dying words, written or spoken, may, rather than lead to the murderer with only a minimum of detours, be cryptic or ambiguous and hence open to puzzlement and interpretation if they are understood at all rather than misunderstood (A Study in Scarlet is a case in point); they may seem trivial and yet… They may also be deliberately untruthful, a spiteful parting shot; they may involve unforseeable surprises, as when the last words “my home, ill, sick” turn out to have really been “my Homer, Iliad, [Book] six” – where the crucial secret message is then indeed found, in Patricia Moyes’s Murder Fantastical (1967). Or last words may be used as a red herring in some way, proving once again that “le vrai peut quelque fois n’être pas vraisemblable” (Boileau’s Art poétique, III, 48, cited in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s detective story Das Fräulein von Scudéry) can be stood on its head: what is probable is not true. This is the case, e.g., in G. K. Chesterton’s story “The Wrong Shape”23 where a supposed suicide note, in the murder victim’s hand, turns out to be a judiciously placed and manipulated page of a story that the victim, a writer partial to the fantastic and the exotic, was writing a short time before he was stabbed to death by his own doctor, of all people, in spite of at least one suspicious Asian around. In other words, the device of last words allows quite a spectrum of promising variations; the mere fact of a last word does not, by any means, allow the reader to foresee any sort of charting of the road to the resolution of the puzzle presented by the bloodcurdling event, normally a murder, that sets the action in motion.

Reliable Clues?

  • 24 The Complete Sherlock Holmes, with a preface by Christopher Morley (Garden City, NY, n.d.), 1084.

13Not surprisingly, the most straightforward use of dying words occurs early on, before repetition makes it vieux jeu and demands new twists. This pioneering stage is represented by two Sherlock Holmes stories, “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” (1926) and “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (1892). In fact, in each story it is the last word of the victim that provides the title. In the first, Sherlock Holmes (who tells the story himself) on his morning stroll catches sight of a man staggering up a path to a cliff overlooking a Sussex beach and collapsing there after he had apparently been taking a dip. “He was obviously dying.” He utters a few slurred words; “the last of them, which burst in a shriek from his lips, were ‘the Lion’s Mane. ’It was utterly irrelevant and unintelligible,” of course, and yet they are the clue. For the man’s “back was covered with dark red lines as though he had been terribly flogged by a thin wire scourge.”24 Flogged to death, by whom? A likely human suspect is considered on the basis of the dead man’s personal relationships. But the mysterious last words lead the master sleuth to the non-human culprit – an octopus-like sea creature called Cynea capillata, which a recent storm must have swept into the lagoon in which the victim bathed that morning. Its poisonous membranes or filaments, which the swimmer encountered, thus receiving the flogging symptoms, look like a lion’s mane – and that is the name it is popularly known by. True, we are not made privy to each step of Sherlock’s deduction leading him to the solution of what seemed to be a case of murder. But after another, similar but eventually non-fatal incident occurs, the detective is allowed to say about the earlier case: “I was already upon the track. […] I am an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles. That phrase ‘the Lion’s Mane’haunted my mind. I knew that I had seen it somewhere in an unexpected context. You have seen that it does describe the creature. I have no doubt that it was floating on the water when McPherson saw it, and that this phrase was the only one by which he could convey to us a warning as to the creature which had been his death” (1094).

  • 25 The Complete Sherlock Holmes, 262.

14“The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” told by Watson, takes us to the favorite scene of fictional crime, British-style, the isolated country manor, and a bona fide murder it is this time. Shortly before her marriage is to take place, one of the two stepdaughters of the sinister Dr. Roylott, retired under a cloud from his shady private practice in Calcutta, suddenly dies one night in her room, in “terrible pain” and convulsion, with a “wild scream” and a puzzling last gasp: “‘O, my God! Helen! [her sister] It was the band, the speckled band!’There was something else which she would fain have said, and she stabbed with her finger into the air in the direction of the Doctor’s [next door] room.”25 At first, the curious last words are thought to refer to a band of gypsies in the neighborhood who, as it happens, sport spotted kerchiefs on their heads. But this does not help. Then, an inspection of the scene of the crime is made at a later date when Dr. Roylott moves the victim’s sister, also about to be married, into the victim’s room under some pretext; the inspection reveals several further clues, all of which lend decisive weight to the original one, the last words – except that now they do not point to gypsies, though once again the reader is not allowed to share Sherlock’s deductions until after he has cracked the case. The Doctor, eager to keep for himself what, under his deceased wife’s will, would have been his remaining stepdaughter’s dowry, arranged for a swamp adder, “the deadliest snake in India” (272), to crawl from his own room through a ventilation hole in the wall and down a dummy bellrope right to the bed in the room next door occupied by the intended victim. Sherlock knew it all along: “I had come to these conclusions before I ever entered [the doctor’s] room” on his inspection of the manor after the murder of the first and before the attempted murder of the second stepdaughter (273). The snake, of course, is identifiable by its “peculiar yellow band, with brownish speckles.” Being neutral to the gender of its prey, it proceeds to kill its master before the detective locks it up in an iron safe that had seen better days. “The schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another” (272), in case the odd reader missed it. One wishes Sherlock had been similarly forthcoming about his more criminological deductions early on.

  • 26 Armin Arnold and Josef Schmidt, eds., Reclams Kriminalromanführer (Stuttgart, 1978), 298.
  • 27 Fire-Tongue (New York 1922), 27.
  • 28 See 34, 48, 50, 130 – 132, 198, 253, 298 – 304.

15In Fire-Tongue (1920), on the other hand, a crime novel by the prolific English detective-story writer Sax Rohmer, the creator of Dr. Fu Manchu, villain extraordinaire in no fewer than fourteen of his books,26 the cards are put on the table early on: the last words form the clue that is consistently pursued, step by step, without leaving the reader in the dark about each twist and turn in the deductions of Paul Harley, the lawyer-turned-detective, as he pursues the last-word clue and no others. Sir Charles Abingdon, a surgeon, dies mysteriously after an opulent dinner in his London home one day, but not before uttering equally mysterious last words: “Raspingly, as if forced in agony from his lips: ‘ Fire-Tongue, ’he said… ‘Nicol Brinn…’”27 Foul play is more than likely, but all the investigation has to go on is Sir Charles’s dying utterances. The two words, one of them a name, of course, are brought up again and again throughout the novel, with different people and in different contexts, and as they are, they become less baffling; indeed, they stake out the trail that eventually leads, in tortuous fashion, to a terrorist Hindoo sect and its elegantly sinister leader, nicknamed “Fire-Tongue,” as well as to the millionaire Nicol Brinn who during his Indian days had some connection with the sect but has meanwhile turned against it. Sir Charles, who years earlier had operated on Fire-Tongue in India, had to be silenced as he had come to know that his daughter’s suitor Ormuz Khan is none other than this resourceful master of inconspicuous crime. Nicol Brinn, whose connection with the unholy sect Sir Charles had also discovered by accident, is the only other person in England who knows of Fire-Tongue’s identity and of his presence in England; obligingly, he eventually arranges for the killing of the foreign monster in what seems to be a car accident.28 If it hadn’t been for Sir Charles’last words and their progressive decipherment, the world would be a less safe place to write crime fiction in.

16This deductive, step by-step use of the last words clue, which in fact structures the entire novel, is still somewhat pedantically straightforward, as it unfolds at the same pace as the chase after the meaning of the last words – though this is quite an advance over Holmes’s intuitions, which were revealed ex post facto.

17Agatha Christie could be depended upon to complicate matters. She does so in two of her thrillers, one early, one late: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934, American title The Boomerang Clue) and The Pale Horse (1961). Again, both (English) titles constitute the last words around which the plots revolve. But they do so in very different ways. In the former novel, the last words of the murder victim, while certainly a factor in the search for the culprit, are really not much more than the dot on the i of the solution of the puzzle arrived at independently – a very late one, and an ironic one at that. In The Pale Horse, on the other hand, the plain-sounding last words have to be cajoled into revealing their secret before they can be used as the clue that eventually leads to order and justice.

  • 29 The Boomerang Clue, The Winterbrook Edition (New York, 1987), 6.

18“Why didn’t they ask Evans?” says the athletic-looking stranger whom young Bobby Jones, the vicar’s son, discovers below a cliff at the far end of a village golf course in Wales one afternoon, “and then a queer little shudder passed over him, the eyelids dropped, the jaw fell. The man was dead.”29 Did he fall, or was he pushed to his death? His last words sound trivial; still, it is odd that mourning relatives rushing to the scene should ask Bobby about “any last words or messages” (27, 165) – if only to agree that what the man said was indeed “trivial” (33). And yet, curiously, someone tries persistently to get Bobby (the only person who heard the last words) out of England or indeed out of this world. “’Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?’must have been a most frightfully significant phrase to them” (58) – but the significance is as elusive as it is dangerous to Bobby. There are 482 Evanses in the village. Which one, if any of them, was the dead man trying to look up, if he did (62, 70)? This clue, while a clue, and arguably the most important one, remains elusive; the two would-be detectives, Bobby himself and young Lady Frances, the local squire’s daughter and his love-to-be, simply cannot follow up on it, though the dying phrase keeps dogging them in their pursuit of the murderer.

19For murder it was, they conclude, when Bobby nearly dies of a poisoned beer. So other leads are followed, or they accidentally acquire suggestive ramifications much as a magnet attracts bits of iron. This is particularly true of the weirdly rare surname volunteered for no good reason by a tweedy stranger who introduced himself to Bobby below the golf course when he found the dying man (the one weak point in the book) and also of the photograph or photographs found in the dead man’s pocket. But “‘Evans,’said Frankie [that’s Lady Frances] thoughtfully. ‘ We don’t get any clues as to Evans’” (126). It is like arriving at the theater in Act Three or thereabouts and being baffled by what is going on. “What brought us into the show was a regular clue – five words [“Why didn’t they ask Evans”], quite meaningless as far as we are concerned. […] Although he [Evans]’s been the starting point as it were, in himself he is probably quite inessential. […] Sometimes […] I don’t believe there is an Evans” (157– 158). It is almost as if Dame Agatha is suggesting that last words are by now, 1934, a tired device – usable only as a red herring, and a slightly smelly one at that: “Whether or not the key to the situation is the phrase ‘ Why didn’t they ask Evans?’ doesn’t seem to me to matter much,” says one of the amateur investigators, “since you’ve no clue to who Evans is or what he was to have been asked” (163). And yet the question persists. When the duo falls into the hands of their as yet unrecognized opponent, that is, the murderer and his set, and are sure now that they’ll be “hurled into the next world” in the very near future, Bobby feels that he “simply can’t die without having my curiosity satisfied” as to who Evans is (228, 239).

  • 30 The Winterbrook Edition (New York, 1985), 32. The dying words are referred to again on 34, 39, 98, (...)

20It seems Dame Agatha is in fact playing with the device of the last word: the arguably most conventional clue is a clue that isn’t. And sure enough, the case sorts itself out – a testament is involved and its fraudulent signing by a disguised testator in the presence of implausible witnesses who cannot see through the disguise – without any need for identifying Evans, who sent the sleuths on their search in the first place. Nonetheless, the narrative is so constructed that without new light on Evans the search would be a wild goose chase, even with the wild goose bagged. The witnesses asked to be present at the signing of the will are the key to the mystery. The more natural person to ask to witness the will, it occurs to the detectives, would have been the parlor-maid – who, however, unlike the witnesses used, would have recognized that the testator was not the man he was supposed to be. “The parlor-maid’s name was Evans” (254) – and, to gild the lily, she is presently the housekeeper in the faraway village vicarage in Wales, in Bobby’s home, no less. “Now I see why [the murderer] was so amused when he realized we didn’t know in the least who Evans was,” says Frankie. “And of course, it was dangerous from their point of view. You and Evans were actually under the same roof” (259). This ironic arabesque is, in effect, the denouement of the story, the teasingly delayed dot on the i. What follows is a pedantic summation in a letter from the murderer bearing “the stamp of one of the less-known South American republics” (265), explaining it all once again. Still, Dame Agatha’s dotting of the i has its charm, if that of a curlicue, and it surely evinces a higher degree of accomplishment than did the use of a similar technique in her very first crime novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) where the wealthy poisoning victim’s last gasp “Alfred – Alfred –”30 is not much to go on, though it is referred to frequently. In fact, her somewhat younger husband who answers to that name seems to be the most innocent. But, ominously, he is also the least pleasant of the unpleasant upper-class cast of country characters in and around the usual manor house. In the end it turns out that the last words must have been meant as “an accusation against her husband” after all – the killer in cahoots with the offish but soulful housekeeper, both in need of money of their own. But by that time we are on page 233 of a 235-page novel.

  • 31 The Winterbrook Edition (New York, 1985), 31.

21In The Pale Horse, it is not the victim’s last words but a deathbed confession that, somewhat similar to the Boston Globe story mentioned earlier, reveals that a murder has been committed and, at the same time, points to the killer or killers. Unfortunately, the priest who heard Mrs. Davis’s dying confession in her modest rented room stuffed with Victorian knickknacks is dealt a fatal blow on his head with the traditional blunt instrument on that same foggy night in London. But Mrs. Davis’s last words are not entirely lost thanks to her landlady, who, as landladies will, overheard some of them. “I heard her say something about wickedness. Yes – and something, too, about a horse” – and as she goes on, being helpful, Dame Agatha has her plant (if that is the word) the first of the many red herrings in the novel: “Horse racing, maybe. I like a half-crown on myself occasionally, but there’s a lot of crookedness goes on in racing, so they say.”31 Not much to go on, if it were not for the fact that the priest, less familiar with horses than with wickedness, as priests will be, had, immediately after his visit to the dying woman, drawn up a list of names which will be found in the dead man’s shoe (his housekeeper, as housekeepers will, had once again failed to mend the torn lining of his cassock pocket). These names must be considered part of Mrs. Davis’s dying confession – and, luckily, the father confessor being dead himself now, these names are no longer privileged by the confidentiality that is sacrosanct in certain circles. As a result, the detective novel can get off the ground. The people on the list, the young historian-detective Mark Easterbrook quickly finds out, are all recently and unexpectedly deceased – but as none of them seems to have had even the landlady’s mild interest in horse racing, what did they have in common, other than dying before their time?

22At this point, Dame Agatha, not spurning coincidence for once, allows a casual conversation between strangers to reveal that there may or may not be an organization that specializes in the permanent removal of persons unwanted by the putative beneficiaries of their death and that this organization may or may not be called The Pale Horse. So, “what we really need is a link […] between [at least] one of these names [on the list] and the Pale Horse” (90). The deaths of all the persons on the list were “convenient deaths,” it turns out (104), a common denominator at last! That’s one thing. The other is that there exists, somewhere in the countryside, an old mansion called The Pale Horse, where a trio of bona fide witches practice their craft with altogether too much mumbo-jumbo about death-by-suggestion and similar arcane arts indigenous to those murky parts of the country. But one must not spoil the potential reader’s excitement. Suffice it to say that the last words of that nice old lady lead to the discovery that she was working, if in a minor capacity and unwittingly, for a pricy “death-by-arrangement” syndicate that turns out to be real enough. The weird Pale Horse ladies are a mere front; the murders are actually carried out by the less suggestive but much more reliable method of thallium poisoning which produces ordinary symptoms such as those typical of pneumonia. Ironically, we could have known it all along if we had only remembered the Bible as well as Mrs. Davis’s last words. In the final chapter a professional restorer cleans the smoke-darkened painting or rather the “old inn sign” in the Pale Horse’s entry hall with a turpentine solution. A grinning skeleton rider emerges from under the grime, and “Mrs. Dane Calthrop’s voice, deep and sonorous, spoke behind me: ‘ Revelation, Chapter Six, Verse Eight. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him […]’” – which it does, but only for the seemingly innocuous pharmacist who was behind it all. “So that’s that,” said Mrs. Calthrop, “who was not one to be afraid of anticlimax” (258– 259).

23In writing The Pale Horse, Agatha Christie may have taken her cue from Philip MacDonald’s conspicuously successful detective thriller The List of Adrian Messenger, published only two years previously. Nine of the ten people on the list that Adrian Messenger asks Scotland Yard to look into before he flies off to California, it soon develops, have recently died in what seem to be accidents. But those names on the list (which include Adrian’s) are only last words by extension. It is the real last words of Adrian Messenger (who dies as his California-bound British Air-Lanes plane explodes, mysteriously, over the Atlantic) that consistently inform the inquiry into the accidental deaths of Adrian (a relative of the wealthy marquis of Gleneyre) and of the nine others on the list. This inquiry constitutes the substance of the novel on the pragmatic level. Lucky the reader who does not put the book down at this point, thinking with a yawn that he has heard it all before (last words must lead to the culprit). For Adrian’s last words are by no means unambiguous, and the progressive unraveling of their true meaning is what constitutes the novel on the intellectual level and, as it were, gamesmanship level. Here they are, mumbled in semidelirium and overheard by a French journalist as both are floating on a crate in the ocean after the plane crash:

  • 32 Garden City, NY, 1959, 22.

“…messenger,” he kept saying [reports the Frenchman], “…messenger… messenger…” And then, “…Jocelyn… got me… to tell… Jocelyn… got me to tell Jocelyn…” The words came out in unrelated, unpunctuated bursts, like bullets from a faulty machine gun. The voice rose. “… photograph… photograph…” it said. And then, more thickly something which sounded like “Emma’s book George Emma’s book George Emma’s book Emma’s book Emma’s book…”
It trailed off into silence after that. But the relief was short-lived, because within a few minutes it started on its nonsense again. Louder than ever.”… all the brooms,” it shouted. “…clean sweep… only one… broom left… clean… sweep… clean.”
It stopped suddenly, drowned in an odd bubbling sound […].32

24Precious little sense that makes, and the author ferociously rubs in that “nonsense, spoken in delirium” (49) as repeated inquiries are made, throughout the book, into just what Adrian said before drowning (49, 54). “No-sense” (as the Frenchman says) or too much sense – which in turn would be self-defeating?

25There are at least six ways of fitting the first set of the last words into a more or less syntactical pattern, the Yard’s chief detective discovers with a philological acuity that is the envy of philologists. Indeed, these final gasps prove to be a whole school of red herrings:


Possibility No. 1
JOCELYN GOT ME TO TELL (something to someone).

Possibility No. 2
(Someone) GOT ME TO TELL JOCELYN (something).

Possibility No. 3
(Someone) GOT ME TO (do something). TELL JOCELYN.

Possibility No. 4
JOCELYN: (Someone) GOT ME TO TELL (something). […]

Possibility No. 5
JOCELYN GOT ME TWO (articles). TELL (someone).

[Possibility No. 6]
(Someone) GOT ME TOO. TELL JOCELYN. (67– 68)

26It is the last one that is the most plausible. But who is George, and who is Emma? Herrings of changing shades of red, both of them (85). And then there is some monkey business or rather, as the linguistically impaired French earwitness of the last words puts it, “baragouin” about “all the brooms” and “only one… broom left” – not much of a clue. To continue: could “Emma’s book” be “MS book”? “Photograph – George – MS book.” Take the stammer out of it and it amounts to “There is a photograph of George in the manuscript [or typescript] of my book” (124). Adrian was a writer, and he was writing a “volume of personal War reminiscences” (124). That bears checking – and, sure enough, a photograph has been removed from his typescript and a page was retyped by fingers other than those of Adrian’s secretary (who will be pushed in front of a moving bus soon enough), and it is a page containing names, names altered no doubt by the retypist, a page, moreover, dealing with Adrian’s shocking wartime experiences in Burma. The names in the original typescript, now missing, must have been those of Adrian’s wartime comrades and the very same that appeared on the list of accident victims he gave to Scotland Yard. For something else that they had in common, we now find, is that their military unit fell into enemy hands in Burma and was “betrayed” by one of their own, their “Canadian sergeant”. This “Judas” (150) must have killed them all after the war. But why?

27This is where the business of the floor-cleaning equipment comes in. “All the brooms… clean… sweep… only one… broom left…”(160). And broom, it turns out, is just another name, spelled Bruttenholm, as in the name of the Marquis of Gleneyre, who has just had a fatal accident (161). That, too, must have been Sergeant George’s doing, although “Bruttenholm” was not one of the names on Adrian’s list; and he is promptly caught red-handed, courtesy of the Yard’s providentiality, before he can arrange for a successful accident of the “only one… broom left,” the Marquis’young son. Had he, too, died in an accident, the Canadian sergeant would himself have become the next Marquis of Gleneyre, being the descendant of the family black sheep who, as a dotty elderly aunt conveniently remembers, absconded to Canada. Naturally, after achieving the most conspicuous Marquisate in the realm, this man could not have risked being recognized by his revenge-minded erstwhile war buddies. “Q.E.D.” “’That is valid.’Aston-Phipps [the top man in the Yard] stopped looking down his nose to shoot Anthony [the chief detective] a glance of acid dislike. ‘ One has no more questions’” (197).

  • 33 Deadfall (New York, 1986), dustjacket.

28It is easy to see that this sort of structuring of detective stories, after its uncertain gestation in the nineteenth century and its maturing in the twentieth, is doomed to become smelly over time, much like some other good things. So, when one learns that the recent novel Deadfall by Bill Pronzini, “the logical claimant to the crown of private-eyedom,”33 was translated into German as Die letzten Worte (1989), one really has no more questions. Once again, the victim’s last word is highlighted in the title of the novel that in fact uses the dying utterance as its structural principle or the motor of its plot. The last word, “deadfall,” is recalled repeatedly, last but not least in the detective’s dreams (178, 182, 183, 194, 206), as is the scene of the crime, the fog-enshrouded cliff at the far end of the victim’s California Bay Area garden. As the blurb tells it on the dustjacket:

In Deadfall Bill Pronzini’s popular “Nameless Detective” returns in his most baffling – and harrowing – case to date. While staked out on a routine car repossession, Nameless all but witnesses the shooting of a San Francisco lawyer, Leonard Purcell. He arrives on the scene in time to hear Purcell’s dying words, one of which is “deadfall.” [The others are: “So sorry… fall, how could you” (8), clearly less enlightening.] But Purcell dies in Nameless’s arms before the cryptic word can be explained.
The mystery deepens when Nameless discovers that Leonard’s brother, Kenneth, fell to his death six months earlier. Is Purcell’s death linked to the apparent[ly] accidental “deadfall” of his brother? Leonard’s housemate thinks so, and he hires Nameless to prove it.
The detective’s search takes him into a labyrinth of bizarre relationships involving Kenneth’s promiscuous widow, his unattractive daughter, her drug-addicted boyfriend, a shrewd society matron with a passion for antique snuff bottles, a bisexual Filipino, and a missing Mexican deliveryman [making a delivery for the party Kenneth Purcell threw but did not survive]. Before Nameless can learn the truth behind the demise of the Purcell brothers, the case takes a number of turns [including the gripping mystery of the overlong and brightly painted broken fingernail] that leave his own life hanging in the balance.

29But not for long. As it develops, with the usual surprise, it was Leonard who pushed his brother Kenneth over his own mortgage-free cliff, though not without the assistance of Kenneth’s wife, now “the black widow” (195), who will shoot Leonard as their passion cools (202). Deadfall, indeed. The last word was the clue that worked.

30By the 1980s this was old hat. As a matter of fact, the Mistress of Mystery told us so as far back as 1937, in Death on the Nile. Linnet Ridgway, now Mrs. Doyle, an attractive heiress on her honeymoon, is found shot dead in her cabin on a cruise on the Nile.

Poirot shook his head sadly.
Then his gaze fell on the white painted wall just in front of him and he drew in his breath sharply. Its white neatness was marred by a big wavering letter J scrawled in some brownish-red medium.
Poirot stared at it, then he leaned over the dead girl and very gently picked up her right hand. One finger of it was stained a brownish-red.

  • 34 The Winterbrook Edition (n. 9), 155–157.

Nom d‘un nom d’un nom!” ejaculated Hercule Poirot.
“Eh? What is that?”
Dr. Bessner looked up.
“Ach! That.” Race said: “Well, I’m damned. What do you make of that, Poirot?” Poirot swayed a little on his toes.
“You ask me what I make of it. Eh bien, it is very simple, is it not? Madame Doyle is dying; she wishes to indicate her murderer, and so she writes with her finger, dipped in her own blood, the initial letter of her murderer’s name. Oh, yes, it is astonishingly simple.”
“Ach! but –”
Dr. Bessner was about to break out, but a peremptory gesture from Race silenced him.
“So it strikes you like that?” he asked slowly.
Poirot turned round on him nodding his head.
“Yes, yes. It is, as I say, of an astonishing simplicity! It is so familiar, is it not? It has been done so often, in the pages of the romance of crime! It is now, indeed, a little vieux jeu! It leads one to suspect that our murderer is – old-fashioned!”
Race drew a long breath.
“I see,” he said. “I thought at first –” He stopped.
Poirot said with a very faint smile: “That I believed in all the old clichés of melodrama? But pardon, Dr. Bessner, you were about to say –?”
Bessner broke out gutturally: “What do I say? Pah! I say it is absurd; it is the nonsense! The poor lady she died instantaneously. To dip her finger in the blood (and as you see, there is hardly any blood) and write the letter J upon the wall – Bah – it is the nonsense – the melodramatic nonsense!”
C’est l’enfantillage,” agreed Poirot.
“But it was done with a purpose,” suggested Race.
“That – naturally,” agreed Poirot, and his face was grave.
“What does J stand for?” asked Race.
Poirot replied promptly: “J stands for Jacqueline de Bellefort, a young lady who declared to me less than a week ago that she would like nothing better than to –” he paused and then deliberately quoted, “‘to put my dear little pistol close against her head and then just press with my finger…’”
Gott im Himmel!” exclaimed Dr. Bessner.34

31Poirot is more down-to-earth than the German doctor, and more perceptive, of course. He is right: no longer can the last word – foreshadowing, by the way, in all its bloody detail, the 1994 murder case in Provence that introduced this inquiry into last words, fake or otherwise – be a straightforward clue. In the mind of the experienced criminal and reader of detection fiction, the last word can become a sort of parody of the literary tradition of “truth in last words”(as suggested in the real-life case as well, if only by the hapless defense). The murderer has planted the last word, an “accusing” one again, as an intended red herring, incriminating someone who is in fact innocent (159, 317, 318). In this case, this is someone whose innocence the murderer knows can easily be proven (160, 171) and in whose proven innocence he is vitally interested as Jacqueline is his true love, for whose sake, and none other’s, he shot his newlywed wife (324–325). Moreover, Jacqueline was his accomplice. “We worked everything out carefully,” she reveals after being caught by Poirot (334). So why the bloody “J” on the wall? In spite of all careful planning, Jacqueline continues, “Simon [the murderer, her lover] went and wrote a J in blood, which was a silly melodramatic thing to do” (334). More than that, it is of course, on the part of Dame Agatha, a lampooning of the last word tradition in detective fiction. The victim’s (supposed) “last word” in Death on the Nile has no real function at all, not even that of a red herring as Poirot sees through it right away. Instead, it has become a baroque little flourish or a beauty-spot-type wrinkle to amuse the reader critically aware of the history of the genre.

All Too Clever Red Herrings and a Wild Goose Chase

  • 35 The Winterbrook Edition (New York, 1986), 281.

32This would suggest, then, that not only straightforward last words but also less than ingenuous, deceptive last words, cunningly planted by the killer or killers, had become vieux jeu by 1937, to be classed with the dog that did not bark. (The defense attorney in the 1994 case in Provence was not quite up to date.) There may be something to this. For by Death on the Nile the tradition of reliable and straightforwardly suggestive last words had certainly engendered the opposite, that is, the misleading use of last words in detective fiction, often enough. Chesterton’s “The Wrong Shape,” mentioned earlier, is an early instance (1911) of the art of making last words (written, in this case) seem what they are not. Agatha Christie herself had gone to much greater lengths in leading the reader down the garden path with this particular device, or perversion of device, as early as 1930 in The Murder at the Vicarage. Here, it is again the written last word of the murder victim that causes all the confusion. It does so not only by what it says but also because it indicates, if in an apparently different hand, the exact hour and minute when it was written or supposedly written by the murder victim. Twist is forced upon twist, resulting in an extraordinarily complicated mare’s nest of a mystery. The letter Colonel Protheroe was supposedly writing in the vicarage when he was so rudely interrupted in mid-sentence by his killer was dated to exonerate the killer and to make it “look like a clumsy attempt to incriminate Anne Protheroe,” the Colonel’s wife.35 But this was not the letter that the victim was actually penning at the time of his demise. The killer substituted a forged letter, a homemade fake last word. He then used the real last word, the colonel’s real letter, for his further sinister purposes: he planted it in the apartment of the vicar’s assistant, Hawes, cleverly calculating that it would be a plausible explanation for Hawes’suicide, as it would indicate that “Hawes had shot Colonel Protheroe and taken his own life out of remorse” (284). The suicide, of course, was only apparent; in fact it was murder, though unsuccessful as it turns out. All very complex, but in reality, the yarn that Miss Marple finally disentangles in peaceful St. Mary Mead, in spite of a professional detective on the scene, is much more complicated than that. Still, it is reasonably clear how the grande dame of crime uses or has her criminal fictional creature use (written) last words as a multipurpose red herring, not once (the fake last words found with the body of Colonel Protheroe) but twice (the Colonel’s real last words found near Hawes dying of poisoning). Quite a twist on straightforward last words.

33Three years earlier, S. S. Van Dine, the expert on forbidden devices, had pioneered a very different twist on the by then apparently stale use of the straightforward last word. In The “Canary” Murder Case (1927), Margaret Odell, “famous Broadway beauty and ex-Follies girl,” is found brutally murdered in her apartment one morning after she had gone to the theater the previous evening with one of her beaux, Spotswoode, who had dutifully escorted her home before midnight.

  • 36 New York, 1927, 62–63, see also 78.

It was just this, sir [the concierge says]. When the gentleman came out of Miss Odell’s apartment at about half past eleven, he stopped at the switchboard and asked me to get him a Yellow Taxicab. I put the call through, and while he was waiting for the car, Miss Odell screamed and called for help. The gentleman turned and rushed to the apartment door, and I followed quickly behind him. He knocked; but at first there was no answer. Then he knocked again, and at the same time called out to Miss Odell and asked her what was the matter. This time she answered. She said everything was all right, and told him to go home and not to worry. Then he walked back with me to the switchboard, remarking that he guessed Miss Odell must have fallen asleep and had a nightmare. We talked for a few minutes about the war, and then the taxicab came. He said good night, and went out, and I heard the car drive away.36

34The victim’s last words are a perfect alibi for Mr. Spotswoode – or rather, they seem to be and are designed to seem to be. For as the detectives investigate the scene of the crime, a record player catches their eye, with a record still in place. “Wonder what the lady’s taste in music was” (323):

Markham stretched forth his hand to lift the sound-box. But his movement was never completed.
At that moment the little apartment was filled with several terrifying treble screams, followed by two shrill calls for help. A cold chill swept my body, and there was a tingling at the roots of my hair.
After a short silence, during which the three of us remained speechless, the same feminine voice said in a loud, distinct tone: “No; nothing is the matter. I’m sorry… Everything is all right… Please go home, and don’t worry.” […]
“’Pon my soul, Markham, we’ve all been babes in the woods,” he drawled. “An incontrovertible alibi – my word!” (325– 326)

35The killer had prepared the record in his own specialized workshop on Long Island.

[“] The voice on the record is merely his own in falsetto – better for the purpose than a woman’s, for it’s stronger and more penetrating. As for the label, he simply soaked it off of an ordin’ry record, and pasted it on his own. He brought the lady several new records that night, and concealed this one among them. After the theatre he enacted his gruesome little drama […]. When this had been done, he placed the record on the machine, set it going, and calmly walked out […]. Then he asked Jessup to call a taxicab – everything quite natural, y’see. While he was waiting for the car the needle reached the recorded screams. […]”
“But the synchronization of his questions and the answers on the record…?” […] “It was all carefully figured out beforehand; he no doubt rehearsed it in his laborat’ry. It was deuced simple, and practically proof against failure. […]” Markham shook his head gravely. “Good God! [“] (326–327)

36Remarkably clever for the time. As a reward perhaps, the villain is allowed to shoot himself after he has revealed his motivation for his criminal interference with the future of vaudeville in New York.

  • 37 See Arnold and Schmidt, 160–161 on Francis’oeuvre. I am using Dead Cert (New York: The Armchair De (...)

37To pick up the thread: Death on the Nile suggested that by 1937 not only the straightforward but also the cleverly misleading last word of the murder victim had become too hackneyed a device to stand scrutiny, even though it had served its purpose for a time and certainly amounted to an improvement over A. C. Doyle’s type of not-to-be-questioned last words. The pre-1937 examples of fake last words discussed may indicate that Agatha Christie was right, as usual when not talking about herself. A quarter of a century later, an eccentric stamp of approval is put on her critical insight in Dead Cert (1962) by Dick Francis, whose claim to fame is that he made racehorses major players in detective novels.37 True, in this tale of criminal interference with the performance of jockeys and horses in races in which large sums of money are at stake, the critical last words do not issue from a horse’s mouth, but they do come from the next best source: from the mouth of a stable attendant, Joe. Joe is found “alive, but only just” (153), stabbed in the chest because he knew too much. Actually, the detective-type narrator who finds the dying man only pretends to have heard the (never specified) last words of the victim. (In fact, there was only “a single choking sound” [153].) The detective’s gameplan is that his presumed knowledge of Joe’s last words will set the horse race fixing syndicate on his tracks with intent to kill – and that he will lure them into a trap (159, 189). It all works out according to plan. More interesting than the eventual elimination of the criminal gang and its deceptively country-gentlemanlike boss, however, is the detective’s method. It clearly rests on the time-honored assumption that last words contain the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (about horse races and otherwise), and are therefore a reliable tool of conviction in a court of law. So the fixers go to great lengths to run their nemesis down. Once again, life and literature meet in detective fiction. But the fact that Dick Francis in 1962 uses not actual last words but merely pretended knowledge of last words – a wild goose to be chased – also implies a sort of play on the tradition of this device of detective fiction.

Last Words on Last Words

  • 38 I am using Exit Lines (London: Grafton Books, 1989).

38It would seem that with this tour de force the possibilities of last words in detective fiction have been exhausted to the point where no new variations are likely. The sophisticated acrobatics of plot construction have become so contrived that they flirt with absurdity. It makes sense, therefore, that there is a sort of requiem on the use of dying words in this genre, which, in a highly self-conscious and critically ironic manner, attempts to have the last word on the subject. This is Exit Lines by the British novelist Reginald Hill, published in 1984.38 It is a highly literary “entertainment” (as Graham Greene might have acknowledged) in the best British tradition of sophisticated, witty “Unterhaltungsliteratur,” sporting consistently well-crafted elegance of style, not eschewing semi-self-parody. Indeed, one does wonder just how much spoofing enters into this “good read.” It certainly includes spoofing of last words – their stature, their use, and nature. This starts with the acknowledgment, which reads:

My thanks to the following: Joseph Addison (Chapter 2), Julius Caesar (12), Charles II (14), Thomas Coryat (11), William Cowper (7), Elizabeth I (20), George V (15), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (16), William Hazlitt (8), O. Henry (13), Thomas Hobbes (26), James V of Scotland (27), Jehoram King of Judah (23), Somerset Maugham (9), Thomas More (24), Captain Oates (1), Lord Palmerston (3), William Pitt the Younger (6 and 10), François Rabelais (19 and 29), Sir Walter Raleigh (24), Philip Sidney (18), Sydney Smith (5), Lytton Strachey (22), Jonathan Swift (25), Lord Tennyson (21), James Thurber (17), the Emperor Vespasian (28), and Oscar Wilde (4).
Requiescant in pace.

39They might indeed not rest in peace as this namedropping, somewhat unsettlingly, refers to their (frequently anthologized) last words – which Hill uses as motti for his chapters where they sometimes fit the action and sometimes not. The acknowledgment page is followed by chapter 1 which very briefly outlines the deaths, “on a cold and storm-racked November night,” of three old men. The deaths are totally unrelated; all they have in common is that each is complete with last words, the exit lines of the title. The final chapter, whose motto is Rabelais’s parting shot, “Tirez le rideau, la farce est jouée,” is in itself a final word which, ironically, is entirely expendable from any point of view. In this chapter, the spoofing of last words ends not with a bang, but with a whimper or a whimsical arabesque, or rather two. “In some ancient religions, last words are meant to be redolent of significance and power,” Dr. Sowden, the physician, says to Pascoe, the detective, as they stand by the hospital deathbed of an entirely marginal character, Mrs. Escott, who is dying in the aftermath of an implausible suicide attempt (296). She wants to say something regarding her elderly neighbor, Tap, who had been found dying in a park a few days earlier. “‘He spoke to me.’‘ Yes? What did he say?’She smiled radiantly. ‘Winner,’she said. ‘ Winner. Tap says the winner [of the horse race] is…’She stopped. […] ‘Dead?’‘ I’m afraid so. Nurse!’[…] ‘ Last words,’said Sowden. ‘ Exit lines. I wonder what her friend’s tip was?’” (297). All that build-up for nothing, and even if Mrs. Escott had finished her sentence, it would not amount to “significance and power” either. This is meant to be a clever anti-climax. But not the last one. It is outdone by the very last words of the book, which wind up its featuring of last words that began with the very title page. Pascoe and Sowden call it a day:

They had reached the lifts. Pascoe stepped in. Sowden stood back and watched him.
“Goodbye then,” he said.
The doors began to close. Pascoe racked his brain for something to say. Every parting should be treated as a rehearsal for the last one; everyone should have some piece of farewell wisdom or wit at his tongue’s end; but, alas, for most, even the best prepared, this was probably how it would be; the doors closing, the light fading, the lift descending, with nothing said, nothing communicated.
The doors closed. His hand shot out and his finger pressed the open button. The doors parted and Pascoe stepped back out into the corridor. He grinned triumphantly at Sowden who looked at him mildly surprised.
“Some rehearsal, huh?” said Pascoe. “Now, about that drink.” (298–299)

40Between the send-up of last words at the beginning and at the end, the three deaths are investigated. Needless to say, the dying words are the prima facie clue in each case. But while they are frequently referred to, puzzled over and milked for the last drop of possible information, they all end up being entirely useless – and yet all three cases are solved. The bicyclist victim of a car accident whose last gasp was “Driver… fat bastard… pissed! [drunk]” (9) is proven to be wrong if he meant that the driver was drunk. (It was the fat passenger who was drunk.) The last words of the other two victims miss being “redolent of significance and power” in their own ways. “Charley,” said the old man beaten to death in his tub (8), but his grandson Charley is just about the only one who cannot even be suspected of the crime (though his girlfriend is discovered to be an accomplice, but then, Charley is not her keeper). Tap, Mrs. Escott’s friend, said “Polly!” as he lay dying in the park that rainy night (7). This is meaningless until it is connected by chance with the name of a racehorse, “Polly Styrene,” no less, on which, investigation reveals, the old man had won some money just prior to his death. But then, this word was spoken to a dog licking him, a Great Dane; but we are assured a person exposed to cold and blows on the head with a blunt instrument might understandably mistake a Great Dane for a horse on a rainy night (115, 148, 268). Even so, the last word does not bring us any closer to the solution. In this case, as in the other two, it is clues entirely different from the “exit lines” that solve the crimes. Exit lines still play a role, but not as Ariadne’s thread (as in the straightforward use of the device), nor as all-too-cleverly planted misleading clues (as in a variety of other uses) but as a sort of will-o’-the-wisp introduced, tongue in cheek, to be both amusingly nonsensical and critical of the tradition of the device – the endgame of last words in detective fiction.


1 One such case was reported in The Boston Globe of 14 March 1994: “Dying man’s note clears woman of murder charge” (23). Another is the explosion on USS Iowa in 1989 which made national headlines; “the last words spoken from the gun turret indicated that the explosion was an accident” rather than due to sabotage (The Boston Globe, 14 December 1989, 12).

2 The Boston Globe, 3 December 1989, 12.

3 The New York Times, 28 April 1995, B6. For similar news stories see Karl S. Guthke, Last Words: Variations on a Theme in Cultural History (Princeton, NJ, 1992), 12, 14.

4 Chambers’s Encyclopedia (London and Edinburgh, 1878), III, 722.

5 S. S. Peloubet, A Collection of Legal Maxims in Law and Equity (New York, 1884), 181. See also Guthke, 199– 200, n. 95.

6 Fritz Wölcken, Der literarische Mord (Nürnberg, 1953), 215; Othello, V. 2.138.

7 See, e.g., A. E. Murch, The Development of the Detective Novel (London, 1958), 153; on Agatha Christie, see Ulrike Leonhardt, Mord ist ihr Beruf: Eine Geschichte des Kriminalromans (München, 1990), 95.

8 See Leonhardt, 202–203 (and the entire chapter).

9 The Winterbrook Edition (New York, 1985), 185.

10 See Walter Gerteis, Detektive: Ihre Geschichte in Leben und Literatur (München, 1953), 117.

11 See Murch, 72–73.

12 Peter Grose, Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles (Boston, 1994), 182; Gerteis, 124.

13 See, e.g., Klaus Günther Just,“Edgar Allan Poe und die Folgen,” Der Kriminalroman, ed. Jochen Vogt (München, 1971), 10–19.

14 Helmut Heißenbüttel, “Spielregeln des Kriminalromans,” Der Kriminalroman, 360–361.

15 Wölcken, 185.

16 Howard Haycraft, Murder for Pleasure (New York, 1968), 253.

17 Craig Rice, “It’s a Mystery to Me,” Writing Detective and Mystery Fiction, ed. A. S. Buck (Boston, 1945), 94; see also 52.

18 Marty Roth, Foul and Fair Play: Reading Genre in Classic Detective Fiction (Athens, GA and London, 1995), 204.

19 For the lists of Knox and Van Dine, see The Art of the Mystery Story, ed. Howard Haycraft (New York, 1947), 189–196; for the Detection Club Oath, see Paul G. Buchloh and Jens P. Becker, Der Detektivroman (Darmstadt, 1973), 85.

20 Lest I be accused of ignoring the German contribution to the theme of last words in detective fiction: in Leo Perutz’s Der Meister des Jüngsten Tages (1923), a great literary success at the time, the last words of the actor Eugen Bischoff whose death (induced suicide or just plain murder?) sets the action in motion, are indeed the primary clue to the solution of the case. They are “Das jüngste Gericht” (München, 1924, 96). But in the event it turns out that the entire convoluted story, implicating a fatal drug supposedly used by an Italian Renaissance painter whose specialty was visions of the Last Judgment, is merely the exculpatory fantasy of a somewhat deranged baron who, beyond the shadow of a doubt, drove the actor to suicide out of erotic jealousy (see the fictional “Schlußbemerkungen des Herausgebers”). For a discussion of possible philosophical implications, see Beate Pinkerneil, “Der furchtbare Feind in uns,” Romane von gestern – heute gelesen, ed. Marcel Reich-Ranicki, II (Frankfurt, 1989), 23–29.

21 Der Hausierer (Frankfurt, 1967). See Linda C. DeMerrit, “Handkes Antigeschichten: Der Kriminalroman als Subtext in Der Hausierer und Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter,” Experimente mit dem Kriminalroman, ed. Wolfgang Düsing (Frankfurt, 1993), 185–193; also Günter Weidemann, “Kriminalroman – Antikriminalroman,” Der Kriminalroman, 206–226, esp. 208.

22 Loot (New York, 1967), 64.

23 The Innocence of Father Brown (New York, 1911), 171 – 200.

24 The Complete Sherlock Holmes, with a preface by Christopher Morley (Garden City, NY, n.d.), 1084.

25 The Complete Sherlock Holmes, 262.

26 Armin Arnold and Josef Schmidt, eds., Reclams Kriminalromanführer (Stuttgart, 1978), 298.

27 Fire-Tongue (New York 1922), 27.

28 See 34, 48, 50, 130 – 132, 198, 253, 298 – 304.

29 The Boomerang Clue, The Winterbrook Edition (New York, 1987), 6.

30 The Winterbrook Edition (New York, 1985), 32. The dying words are referred to again on 34, 39, 98, 110 and more indirectly elsewhere.

31 The Winterbrook Edition (New York, 1985), 31.

32 Garden City, NY, 1959, 22.

33 Deadfall (New York, 1986), dustjacket.

34 The Winterbrook Edition (n. 9), 155–157.

35 The Winterbrook Edition (New York, 1986), 281.

36 New York, 1927, 62–63, see also 78.

37 See Arnold and Schmidt, 160–161 on Francis’oeuvre. I am using Dead Cert (New York: The Armchair Detective Library, 1989).

38 I am using Exit Lines (London: Grafton Books, 1989).


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