The murder victim makes a final effort to identify his killer. To use this convincingly, the author must give a good reason why the victim left a cryptic message instead of writing the killer's name. The writer is rarely asked to justify whether the Almost Dead Guy
would have the energy or foresight to leave a message at all; this is also called the "dying message". Compare Apocalyptic Log
If what they used to write was their own blood, see also Couldn't Find a Pen
. See also His Name Is...
1. The message was incomplete.
- Ellery Queen's GI Story: A man is murdered by one of his three stepsons (Wash Smith, Linc Smith, Wilson Smith, named after the Presidents), leaves the message "GI". But all three were former soldiers. He was trying to write "GEORGE" for George Washington Smith. But he died after completing the downstroke on the E.
- Ellery Queen's The Scarlet Letters: Adulterer is shot by a jealous husband, writes the message "XY" before dying. He and the husband were in a conspiracy to blackmail the wife. He was trying to write "XX" to signify a double-cross.
- Edward D. Hoch's This Prize is Dangerous (rewritten into Leopold Lends a Hand): There are three deaths related to the theft of some icons. The third victim dies in his apartment / office, making no effort to call police or an ambulance, instead writing out "Icon". He'd committed the first two murders, and had been shot during the second. He tried to patch himself together, but when he realized it was hopeless, tried to write out "I confess to the murders of (victims)", but died after writing four letters.
- Frasier: A victim leaves the message "HELP". She was trying to write "SHELBY". She died while writing the "B", and somebody stepped on the "S".
2. Dying people lack clear elocution:
- A Case Closed mystery had the dying message "△╳◯" on the back of an envelope; further forensic evidence revealed a fourth symbol, "☐", but it also turns out that the victim had tried to write a name and the top half of the name had been ripped from his hands by the murderer.
- In Larry Niven's The Patchwork Girl the victim leaves "NAKF" written in his own blood on the rocks of the lunar surface. He was trying to write "NAKED" indicating that his killer was naked: i.e. not wearing a space suit, which is quite a trick out on the surface of the moon.
- In The Batman Adventures #6, the dying man whispers "Rose..." What he wanted to say, but didn't have the energy, was "The rosewood grandfather clock conceals a secret passage, and that's how the killer got in and out." It would have been much less cryptic if he'd skipped the adjectives and just said "the clock".
- Parodied in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with the Last Words of Joseph Of Arimathea: "Seek Ye The Grail In The Castle AAAAAAaaaaaaargh." As it happens, the message is complete - the Grail is literally in the Castle Aaaaaaaaargh, a.k.a. the French castle from the start of the film.
"Maybe he died while writing it."
"If he was dying, he wouldn't bother to carve 'aaaargh', he'd just say it!"
"Perhaps he was dictating."
- Parodied in The Big Over Easy, the first of the Nursery Crime series, where the obnoxious ace detective mentions a case in which the victim pointed at an object which was an anagram of the first half of the killer's surname, and the detective regards this as an entirely reasonable combination of "the victim pointed at an object that related to the killer's name" and "the victim tried to say the killer's name but died halfway through".
- The Seventh Sinner by Elizabeth Peters: the dying man scrawled "VII". Now which of the group of seven tourists should be considered the seventh? He was actually starting to write "Virginia," the name of one of them whom most of the group knew only by her nickname.
- Death in Paradise: In "A Murder on the Plantation", the Victim of the Week writes the letters 'J O H' in his own blood. The killer erases the message anyway.
- Ellery Queen's Diamonds in Paradise: Victim steals diamonds at the Paradise Gardens Casino, but falls from a fire escape fleeing police. When asked where he hid the diamonds, he replies "Diamonds in paradise". He was trying to say "Diamonds in pair of dice". He had a specially hollowed out pair in his pocket.
- Ellery Queen's The Last Woman in His Life: The victim announces he will be changing his will to disinherit his three ex-wives (Alice Tierney, Audrey Weston, and Marcia Kemp) as he will be marrying his true love Laura. He is murdered that night, and dies saying "home". The killer was his lawyer Al Marsh (nee C. Aubrey Marsh), who had an unrequited attraction for the victim. The victim had had a stutter even before he was stabbed and couldn't risk saying "Al" (Alice), "Marsh" (Marcia), "Aubrey" (Audrey), "Lawyer" (Laura), "Attorney" (Tierney), or "Man" (Laura Mannzoni). He was trying to say "homosexual".
- Blake's 7: Victim writes 54134 on a touchpad. He was trying to write SARA, but dying people also lack good handwriting.
- A Seven Minute Mysteries had an incomprehensible dying message typed out on a keyboard that made sense once the detective realized that the victim had swapped all instances of the letter "c" with "v" and vice versa.
- An Encyclopedia Brown story did the same thing, but with the variation that the victim survived but had amnesia.
- A CSI episode features a seeming nonsense string of numbers left on a phone; the investigators soon realize that the victim was trying to write down her murderer's license plate number and began trying different combinations of numbers and corresponding letters on the number pad.
- Monk: In "Mr. Monk Goes to the Ballgame," the nonsense phrase that billionaire Lawrence Hammond said to a passing truck driver while dying after being shot in the chest, run over with a car, and crawling a great distance, "Girls Can't Eat 15 Pizzas," turns out to be a mnemonic device to a license plate on the killer's car.
- Subverted in The Simpsons' "Who shot Mr. Burns":
Lisa: And with your last ounce of strength you pointed to "w" and "s", or, from your point of view, "M" and "S" for Maggie Simpson.
Burns: What? No. With my last ounce of strength I sucked out my gold fillings.
- Played straight in the deleted ending: Burns did purposefully land on the letters "w" and "s"... for Waylon Smithers.
- Nikki from LOST staggers out of the jungle, mutters something that sounds like "Paulo lies", and then collapses. She's actually not dead, and she said "Paralyzed"; Nikki was bitten by a spider whose venom causes paralysis. The other survivors don't know this, though, so they bury her alive.
- A victim in Case Closed who was burned alive couldn't even speak clearly, so he settled for grabbing an umbrella as the dying message. The umbrella was an oblique reference to Oda Nobunaga, whose role the murderer played while on a tour group.
- In the Case Closed movie "Captured In Her Eyes", a police officer who was murdered appeared to point to his notepad in an effort to leave a Dying Clue, since he didn't have enough strength left to talk. However, the officer was actually pointing to his heart. In Japanese, the Kanji character for "heart" also appears in the word for "psychiatry." He was attempting to identify his shooter as the psychiatrist who'd been called in to treat Rachel's amnesia. Said psychiatrist had formerly been a surgeon until a doctor he worked with "accidentally" slashed his hand, keeping him from ever performing surgery. He later learned that the doctor had done it deliberately, so he murdered him. Several years later, the cop mentioned earlier began looking into that murder and he was beginning to catch on that the not-so-good doctor was the killer, so he had to die.
- In Discworld Noir, a victim who was hung upside-down, blinded, and left to bleed to death scrawls a note in blood on the wall. The message is a code-number for the hiding place of a mysterious relic, but it appears to be a name because it's written upside-down.
- In Isaac Asimov's juvenile mystery story "Try Sarah Tops," a jewel thief who'd been mortally wounded by his double-crossing accomplices flees into a museum, then gasps out a cryptic phrase before dying. It sounds like he's suggesting the cops ask someone named "Sarah Tops" where he's hidden the loot, but in fact he'd tossed it into the nearest exhibit, a Triceratops skeleton.
- In a novel by John Dickson Carr, the victim says before dying to the person trying to assist him "It was your gloves". It had previously been established that the victim only spoke French and that a Translation Convention was being used. In French, "your gloves" is "vos gants", which sounds similar to the murderer's name "Vaughan".
- Parodied in Tales of Monkey Island, when Morgan LeFlay's rather lengthy dying speech (unheard by the player) is completely misunderstood by Guybrush, leading him to think that the Marquis De Singe killed her instead of LeChuck.
- In the Tintin story The Secret of the Unicorn, a man who has been shot is too weak to speak - but he points to a couple of sparrows as he passes out. He was shot by his employers, the Bird brothers, because he wanted to quit their employ.
- Changed in the movie to him leaving bloodstained fingerprints on the letters in a newspaper to spell a ship's name.
- An episode of Criminal Minds had a detective, who had just made a major break in a case, carve "Jones" into a wall before dying from injuries sustained from Hurricane Katrina. It turns out Jones was the name of the bar where the killer was gangraped, the act which drove her to kill.
- Played with in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula, where a victim, in her dying spasm, grabs the trouser leg of the attending doctor. The protagonists jokingly suggest that she was trying to tell them the killer's name was "Sydney Trouser", or that she was aiming for "Mr Boot" and missed. It takes them much longer to discover what the audience by this point already knows: that it was the doctor who did it.
- In the Sherlock Holmes story "The Boscombe Valley Murder", the victim and his son are alone in the woods at the time of his death and the son hears the victim say something about "a rat" before dying. What he was trying to say was "Black Jack of Ballarat", but the son only heard the last part. The murderer was John Turner, a man who lived with the victim. Turner had spent his younger days in a gang called the "Ballarat Gang" and he had first met the victim when the victim was driving a stagecoach that the gang intended to rob. Turner had the opportunity to kill the victim then, but didn't. Years later, Turner encountered the victim again and the victim, without a penny to his name, threatened to tell the police what he knew about Turner if Turner didn't support him and his family. This was all well and good until the victim wanted to marry his son to Turner's daughter. Turner wasn't having it, so he killed him. Turner's name in the gang had been "Black Jack of Ballarat."
- In one short story, a detective looks into the murder of a rock singer. The singer grabbed his guitar as his final act and broke two strings. Questioning the singer's girlfriend, manager, and two of his band members turns up nothing. The detective's partner offers to play a song on the broken guitar, except the E and D strings are broken. One of the band members is named Ed.
3. Victim didn't know the killer's name:
- In an episode of Foyle's War, the Asshole Victim has been killed at the time and place he'd arranged to fight the man who was having an affair with his wife, and his dying words were heard as her name, "Elsie." In the end it turns out he was killed for unrelated reasons by a character named Leonard Cartwright, and is supposed to have been saying the initials of his murderer rather than the name of a woman who would almost certainly have been on his mind under the circumstances. To be fair to the show, it doesn't push this idea very hard.
- In Get Smart, the Dead Spy Scrawls are a specific shorthand designed to be left by dying spies.
- In the Nero Wolfe short story "Before I Die," Archie Goodwin is on hand to hear the last words of the victim of a drive-by shooting: "Shame. Goddamn shame." What she was actually saying was not "shame" but "Shane", the name of her then-unknown accomplice, who had come up with his own idea to get money.
- In an episode of Castle, the Victim of the Week writes "LIE" in her blood on the ground before dying. Turns out they were looking at it upside-down. She actually wrote the number "317", the number of a storage unit.
- There's a Miss Marple short story where the Asshole Victim's last words are related as being something like "a heap of fish", so people assume he was delusional and ignore it. Pilocarpine is an ingredient in the murderer's eyedrops, the victim was a doctor who recognised his symptoms and was trying to get across what poisoned him so someone would give him the antidote. Unfortunately, he was surrounded by a housewife, a cook, and a deaf doctor, and he was slurring his words badly as an effect of the poison, so they all heard it as a "pile of carp".
- In Dangan Ronpa, one victim leaves the numbers "11037" on a wall. She actually wrote the killer's name, Leon, upside-down and backwards; the diagonal stroke in the N was mistaken for a smudge. Further complicated by the fact that the investigators are Japanese high school students who aren't as familiar with English, though apparently Japanese players caught on quickly.
- In Charade, one murder victim writes the name of his murder on the carpet.
4. Other messages:
5. Since the author is dying, a frequent subversion is that the killer is actually able to use a dying message to his advantage - either modifying it to lead to another party, or acting on the message themselves.
- Ellery Queen's E=Murder
- In the Dr. Sam Hawthorne story, "The Problem of the Locked Caboose," the victim leaves the word "Elf" written in blood. Turns out that he was writing the German word for eleven. The only thing that he knew about his killer was that they were in berth 11.
- Something Wicked by Alan Gratz: Duncan is found dead with his son's name, MALCOLM, written in his blood, but the hero realizes it's a frame-up because Duncan and everyone else called his son Mal.
- A bloody "S" is found on the wall of a stall where the murdered girl is found in Case Closed; this turns out to have been planted by the murderer in question, but the victim left a much more definitive dying message on her cell phone. (And there was also more substantial proof of guilt.)
- In another Case Closed mystery, Conan realizes that the scuff marks on a cabinet in the crime scene contained a dying clue that the killer had rearranged once he saw it.
- Similarly, a symbolic dying clue centered around shogi pieces was rearranged by the murderer, but unfortunately for her the blood had dried enough to leave marks on the table where the clue had been left.
- In an early mystery, a despondent man committing suicide tried to plant evidence that he'd been murdered by his ex-girlfriend. The girlfriend's manager tried to cover up said evidence, but Conan notices him doing it.
- In yet another case, the dying message is messed with twice: once by the killer to frame someone else, and once by the person being framed to avoid suspicion, resulting in Framing the Guilty Party.
- The victim is in a museum that gives out custom pens to their employees, and the victim is an employee of the museum. It is shown on a security cam of the victim grabbing a exhibit card from a table and his pen, and scribbling something into the paper before throwing the pen away. He was trying to scribble out the name of the other employee that the killer was trying to frame, but the killer purposely left a pen that had no ink on the table and then switched it out with a functioning pen later.
- The mystery comic series The Maze Agency had an example of this version using one of Jack the Ripper's famed messages.
- This happens all the time in the Ace Attorney games, and it's (almost) always misleading. In the second game, this actually provided a major clue — because the message in question was spelt wrong, and the victim was the framee's boyfriend (or at least a close friend). Only two written-in-blood messages have proven to be genuine (once in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, another in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies ), and both still had twists to them.
- The culprit in the Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet wrote RACHE on the wall to make the police think of a revenge killing by a secret society ...or that the murderer's name was Rachel.
- In "A Study in Pink", a loose adaptation of the story in Sherlock the victim did write RACHE, but she died before she could finish writing RACHEL, the password to her phone.
- Serenity: Mr. U either didn't think that someone besides Mal would ever come back to his Hacker Cave or didn't have time to prevent the message from looping. His Dying Clue thus leads the Operative right to Mal Just in Time for the big Fight Scene.
- On one episode of The Cosby Mysteries, a reporter murders a British actress, writes Guy's phone number on her hand (to imply she was going to call him), and forges an entry in her diary to cast suspicion on her husband. However, Guy notices two mistakes: the forged diary entry uses the American spelling of "color" instead of the British one ("colour") and his phone number was written on her left hand which was the hand she wrote with.
- Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile has the letter J written in blood at the scene of the crime, but since Jackie, the obvious "J" person, couldn't have possibly committed the murder, Poirot deduces that it was made by the murderer trying to frame her. Or, as it turns out, because they had a flair for the dramatic.
- In the Father Brown mystery "The Wrong Shape", the victim is found with a sheet of paper on their body which has typwewritten on it, "I die by my own hand; yet I die murdered!" with no quotation marks. The unusual shape of the paper (the upper left corner is snipped off, as it is on all of the sheets of paper in the room) and the presence of one less corner than sheets of paper leads Father Brown to realize that a quotation mark was removed from a line of speech. The end of the story has a confession which indicates that the victim had been writing a story involving a man killed by hypnotism and the killer borrowed that last sheet to distract the investigators, snipped off the quotation mark, and burned the rest.
- A few cases in the book Minute Mysteries involve this, along with other books with mini-detective puzzle shorts. More often than not, they are a framing attempt made by the person writing the note, and it's left to the reader to find the reason.
- A Superman comic book, "The Unauthorized Biography of Lex Luthor", starts with Clark Kent being framed for murdering a hack writer who was working on a Lex Luthor bio, when the victim supposedly wrote Kent's name with his blood on the floor. A lawyer working for LexCorp got Clark cleared by proving that the angle in which the letters were written didn't match the location of the victim's arm. Luthor had the biographer killed, and framed Kent for the murder in order for his lawyer to clear him, thinking that Kent would owe Luthor a favor.
- In Triangle, with his last breath one of the murder victims manages to write "Jes" on the mirror using his blood. Too bad, Jess (the killer) sees it first and rewrites the message to her advantage.
- Three words: "Omar m'a tuer". To this day, the Omar Raddad case is still unsolved. It is still not proven whether it was written by the victim or forged by a killer trying (and succeeding) to frame him. DNA evidence recently added more doubt to the mix.
- The grammatical errors in the phrase (It should read "Omar m'a tué") make it doubtful the educated victim would have written the message. Yet no-one can prove this definitively. And impending death might very well work a number on your wrting skills.
- When Scotland Yard officially closed the Whitechapel Murders case (Jack the Ripper) in 1988, a photo of Mary Jane Kelly not previously known to the general public came to light, (excessive gore warning!)◊ in the background of which many people swear they can see the letter "M" scrawled on the wall in blood, or paint. Since Kelly was in no shape to do this as or after the killer exited, she would have had to do it earlier in the evening, at which time she probably would have been better off screaming. There seems little reason for the killer to write it, and at any rate, his writing would be neater. But clearly, the "M" exists only in the imaginations of some people who have stared at the photo a little too long. There also seems little reason for an "M." There was a suspect whose first name was Montague, but aside from the fact that he seems not to have become a suspect until after Kelly's murder, there's no reason to think she knew him; in other words, she couldn't have drawn his initial on the wall if she didn't know it.