"Duh, essentially, we all enter into a contract whereby the last surviving participant becomes the sole possessor of all them purty pictures."
— Milton "Oxford" Haas
, The Simpsons
, "The Curse of the Flying Hellfish"
This is when a group of people take one or more collectively owned items of worth and put it in trust. The last surviving member of the group will then receive the items. Coincidentally, participants in a tontine tend to have a slightly short life expectancy.
Originally, a Tontine was an investment where multiple participants would buy in for an equal amount. The entity running the Tontine (usually a bank) would invest the money and pay out dividends. When a participant died, his dividends would be paid out to the remaining members. The last surviving member would receive the entire principal. This trope was commonly used in older murder mysteries, but has since fallen out of favor. This is probably because many tontines are now illegal. Mostly due to leading to murder. Lots of murders.
This is almost an example of a Forgotten Trope
Anime and Manga
- Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service has volume 3 in which suicidal and/or people desperately needing money signing on to a game where they make certain changes into their life insurances so that it pays into an escrow account after they die. Since insurance won't pay for suicides, the members of the game has to get murdered...by other people playing the game. The players need to find the other members of the game and kill them or lead other members who are more comfortable with murder, to kill the ones whose house they have discovered. The game ends when about two-thirds of the original group dies and the rest gain an equal share of the collective amount gained by the escrow account for a second chance at life.
- In the VCR Mystery Game version of Clue, Mr. Boddy does a variant in his latest will where the last surviving person among those who attended the reading would claim the entire inheritance. Naturally, all sorts of attempted murders occur.
- Played with for the movie Tomcats; a group of friends promised each bachelor in the group would put aside money every year in a fund going to the last remaining bachelor. The main character, one of the two left in the contest, has incurred a massive gambling debt in Vegas and must now get his last friend to marry before the casino owner makes good on some very nasty promises. The added hitch is of course that the last friend is still completely happy as a bachelor, and his stated life goal is to have sex with every woman in the world, while never once actually having a relationship.
- While it's not an actual literal tontine, the MacGuffin in The Whole Nine Yards is a joint account of 10 million dollars between three people, and all three need to be present in order to withdraw the money. Oooor...one person and two death certificates, which, given the relationships between the three people involved (mob boss, mob boss's hitman-turned-police-informer, and the mob boss's hitman-turned-police-informer's ex-wife) is probably inevitable.
- Agatha Christie used this as a plot in several of her books.
- Seen also in The Wrong Box by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne.
- The plot of The Butler Did It by P. G. Wodehouse features a tontine set up by millionaires for their sons just before the 1929 stock market crash, and the butler (not Jeeves) manipulating what happens to the lone kids still in the running for the tontine.
- Variant: Ellery Queen's Last Man To Die featured a tontine, but instead of foul play, the last two members died on the same night. Which one died first?
- In the short story "The Inner Circle", a tontine provides the motive for murder. After three members die of natural causes in the one year, the murderer realises there is only one person left standing between him and the money.
- There's another Ellery Queen story where three Civil War veterans have a tontine to decide ownership of a fortune they discovered during the war. The grandchild of one of the men finds out and plots to murder the other two, not realizing that the "fortune" is in Confederate money.
- Deliberately invoked in the novel Last To Die by James Grippando. A millionaire leaves his considerable fortune in trust with the stipulation that the last surviving member of a particular group of people would inherit the entire amount. He did it because he hated all of the prospective heirs and wanted them to fight one another for the money.
- Variant: In The Last Man's Reward a group of neighborhood kids living in the same temporary apartment building buys a box of baseball cards at a garage sale, which contains many rare and valuable cards. They hide it in a cave, and the last kid to move out of the apartment building gets to keep the whole box.
- The Doctor Syn book "The Amazing Quest of Doctor Syn" involves one member of a tontine trying to wipe the others out.
- The men of Maggody arrange a tontine for possession of the bass boat in Joan Hess's Merry Wives of Maggody, apparently not aware that such a document is illegal and unenforceable. Roy Stiver Lampshades how tontines had never made much sense to begin with, even in mystery novels.
- The Sidney Sheldon book "Bloodline" featured Roffe & Sons Pharmaceuticals, a company whose founder saw to it that his heirs wouldn't be allowed to sell their shares unless all shareholders agreed to it. Detective Max Hornung, who was investigating the murder of Sam Roffe, compared that with the tontine.
- The Epicurean Club in Neil Gaiman's short story "The Sunbird" was founded "with the proceeds of a tontine, which [the founder] had taken great pains, in the traditional manner, to ensure that he had collected in full."
- Thomas Bertram Costain's The Tontine follows the lives of three young people entered in a Victorian tontine.
- There's a short story where a man is told the story of how the cursed object of a tontine has caused the members of the tontine, a group of Spanish-American war veterans, to apparently become immortal. The storyteller is a Con Man who has made the whole thing up to trick the listener into buying himself into the tontine.
- This was used in an eighth season episode of M*A*S*H called "Old Soldiers" with Col. Potter. Note that in this case, the tontine was not an investment, but rather a bottle of brandy, to be drunk in a toast by the last surviving member of the group.
- A Real Life equivalent of this exists with the eighty men who flew on the Doolittle bombing raid, with the bottle going to the last two survivors to toast the others. As of 2013, only four of them are still alive.
- It has been used as recently as Diagnosis: Murder.
- In The Daily Show during the "You're Welcome" session John Hodgman (Resident Deranged Millionaire) suggested that they solve national debt problems by making Social Security a tontine. And by making murder legal. Seconds later he attempted to strangle Jon Stewart.
- Figured in the plot of an episode of Barney Miller. Unusual in that the participants seemed to be quite amicable towards each other.
- A quick visit to the Harper's Island Wiki shows that this was one the prevailing theories about why the killings would be taking place, due to the fact that around half of the cast had attended college together. The theory was debunked by the end of the first episode, and definitely by the second, when virtually none of the killings had involved any of the college-age cast.
- "The Night of the Tottering Tontine" on The Wild Wild West.
- Also used in an episode of The Simpsons, as the quote demonstrates. It's revealed that Abe Simpson and Mister Burns served together during World War II, and their squad (the Flying Hellfish) acquired a set of priceless German paintings, with the agreement that the last member of the Hellfish to die would get them. It ends when just as Abe manages to claim the paintings by "discharging" Burns, the State Department shows up, confiscates the painting and presents them to a descendant of their original German owner for diplomatic purposes. The descendent is not too worried about their safety, either.
- Archer, "The Double Deuce." When members of Wodehouse's old World War I flying squad start dropping dead ( of perfectly natural causes that were played up as "dubious" by desperate-for-sales newspapers), he suspects that it's because of the tontine they set up. Once word leaks out, Cheryl, Pam and Cyril think about starting an ISIS tontine.
See also Wikipedia