Category Archives: Shona MacLean

That is All I Have Left to Say*

Dying WordsNot every fictional victim gets the chance for last words. But it’s interesting to see how many crime novels include dying words. It’s tricky to handle dying words effectively. For one thing, a lot depends on how the fictional victim dies. In many cases, it wouldn’t be possible for a victim to say anything. And there’s the matter of melodrama. That said though, dying words can be very interesting; and sometimes, they’re important clues to the killer.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Helen Stoner. She feels that her life may be in danger, and she wants Holmes’ help. It seems that Helen’s sister Julia suddenly died after a strange series of eerie noises and unexplained events. On the night of Julia’s death, Helen heard her sister scream. She rushed from her bedroom into the corridor and saw her sister there. Julia was only able to say,

‘‘Oh my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!’’

before she died. Helen could make little sense of the words, but now, she’s hearing the same strange noises that preceded Julia’s death. Holmes and Watson travel to Stoke Moran, the estate where Helen lives, and investigate to find out who would want both women dead and why. I know, I know, fans of The Boscombe Valley Mystery.

In Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life, Queen is invited for a getaway weekend at a guest house belonging to wealthy playboy John Levering Benedict III. Also staying (but in the main house) for the weekend are Levering’s three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. As you can guess, the atmosphere at the house is tense, so Queen spends most of his time at the guest house. One night, Queen gets a frantic call from his host, who says that he’s been murdered. He tries to say more, but because he stutters, it’s extremely difficult for him to get anything out. And at least at first, Queen can’t make sense of what he does say. In any case, he rushes over to the main house. But by then, it’s too late: Benedict has been killed by a blow to the head. The only physical clues are a wig, an evening gown and a pair of gloves. It turns out that Benedict knew all along who killed him; had Queen understood what he was saying, the case would have been solved before it began. But of course, that wouldn’t make for riveting reading…

Agatha Christie used dying words in more than one of her stories. For instance, in The Boomerang Clue (AKA Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?), Bobby Jones is golfing with his friend, Dr. Thomas. At one point, they’re looking for a ball that went over a cliff when they see a man who’s fallen off the cliff and landed below. Jones goes to stay with the man as Thomas rushes off to get help. So Jones is alone when the victim says,

‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’

and then dies. The words seem meaningless at first, but as Jones and his friend, Lady Frances ‘Frankie’ Derwent ask some questions, it becomes clear that the man was murdered, and that he’s the key to something much bigger than they’d thought. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow.

Henning Mankell’s first Kurt Wallender novel, Faceless Killers, begins with brutal attacks on a rural farmer, Johannes Lövgren, and his wife, Maria. Johannes dies before any help can arrive, but Maria lives long enough to be transported to emergency care at the nearest hospital. She, too, later dies, but not before uttering the word,


That one word means serious trouble for Wallander and his police team. There is already simmering resentment against immigrants in the area. If it gets out (which it does) that these murders were likely committed by foreigners, there’s no telling what might happen. And when the media hears about it, the police have to deal with a real backlash – including the murder of a Somali immigrant who was living at a nearby camp. Now the police have to fend off the media, solve the murder of the immigrant quickly (so as not to appear prejudiced) and continue to work on the Lövgren case.

And then there’s Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Seaton is an undermaster at the local grammar school in 17th Century Banff, in Scotland. One morning he wakes to the news that there’s a dead body in his classroom. He finds that the dead man is apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson, and that Davidson has been poisoned. The most likely suspect is his romantic rival, music master Charles Thom, who is duly arrested. Thom claims that he’s innocent, and begs Seaton to help clear his name and get him out of prison. Seaton agrees and begins asking questions. He saw Davidson alive, not long before his death, and now that vision comes back to haunt him. Davidson had tried to get his attention, but Seaton didn’t respond. Now he discovers that two other people did respond: local prostitutes Mary and Janet Dawson saw Davidson and tried to help him. Neither they nor Seaton can make sense of Davidson’s dying words, at least at first. But as we find out, those words have a lot of significance.

And that’s the thing. Dying words often do have a significance, both in real life and in crime fiction. It’s just that sometimes, it’s harder to work out what the meaning is than it is other times. Which fictional dying words have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s version of Muddy Waters’ Blow Wind Blow. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Henning Mankell, Shona MacLean

So May I Introduce to You*

IntroductionsIt’s always tempting to plunge right in when we begin a new book, especially if it’s a book we’ve been excited to read. But lots of books and collections have interesting Introduction sections that give the reader helpful background, interesting information or some sort of structure that can offer some useful perspective. Sometimes they really are worth taking the time to read. And that’s just as true of crime fiction as it is of any other genre. Keep in mind as you read on in this post that the Introductions I mention appear in my editions of the books. They may or may not appear in other editions.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet includes an Introduction piece from Ed McBain. In it, McBain discusses the very negative image police are given in many of the Sherlock Holmes adventures. Using his own creations from the 87th Precinct, McBain gives a witty description of what might happen if Carella and his team actually caught up with Holmes and took him to task for that portrayal. It’s an interesting look at the way the police are portrayed in both Conan Doyle’s work and McBain’s own.

Some Introductions provide biographical and other information about the author. Those pieces also have the purpose of pointing out the author’s place in the genre’s history. That’s what we see, for instance, in Otto Penzler’s introduction to Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase. You may already know that she is credited with pioneering the ‘Had I but known’ approach to foreshadowing that has since been used in several suspense and crime novels. Penzler discusses this in his Introduction, and mentions some of Rinehart’s groundbreaking work. He also shares some biographical background, as well as information about film adaptations of her work.

Martin Edwards provides a similar sort of Introduction to Ernest Carpenter Elmore, AKA John Bude’s debut, The Cornish Coast Murder.  Edwards discusses the novel itself, providing literary and historical contexts for it. He also uses the book as an example of the sort of work Bude did, explaining how it led to Bude’s popularity. The Introduction also includes some biographical information and places the novel within the context of Bude’s life. Finally, Edwards discusses the significance of both the novel and its author. That background information helps to put The Cornish Coast Murder into perspective for the reader.

Sometimes, authors themselves write Introductions to their work. An author may choose to do this to provide historical or other information that the reader may find necessary in order to really understand the story. Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean does this in her historical novel A Game of Sorrows. In that novel, which takes place in 17th Century Scotland and Northern Ireland, Aberdeen teacher Alexander Seaton is persuaded to go to Ulster when his cousin convinces him that there is a threat to the family. The family matriarch believes that the family has been cursed by a poet (a not unusual belief for the times). But Seaton comes to believe that the threat is much more prosaic. To help the reader understand the events in the story, MacLean provides some historical background before the novel proper begins. She outlines the religious, political and social tenor of those times, showing how they combined to create the context for the novel.

Some novels are fictional treatments of real events. In those books, the author sometimes provides an Introduction and other background on the real-life cases. That’s what we see, for instance, in Damien Seaman’s The Killing of Emma Gross. This novel is based on the real-life 1929 murder of a Düsseldorf prostitute Emma Gross. At the time of the murder, Peter Kürten was arrested for the crime and in fact confessed to it. Later, he recanted his confession, and there was never any direct evidence against him. Still, he was unquestionably guilty of other murders and was executed in 1931. Emma Gross’ real killer was never found. This story is Seaman’s take on the crime and its solution. He provides helpful factual information, in part to provide context and in part to separate the facts from his fictional characters and events.

One of the most popular uses of the Introduction is to add cohesion to a collection of short stories. If I may say so, I’ve done that sort of Introduction myself at the beginning of In a Word: Murder. Even when all of the stories in a collection revolve around a single theme, or have another unifying link, it’s still helpful to have an Introduction to show the reader what that link is. What’s more, Introductions to short story collections give the reader a sense of the stories that have been included, and sometimes explain their origins.

Sometimes, Forewards and Introductions simply serve to set the scene for a story collection. That’s the case with Lindy Cameron’s Foreward to Hard Case Crime’s Hard Labour, a collection of noir stories from some of Australia’s best-known crime writers. Among the authors included here are Peter Corris, Garry Disher, Angela Savage, Adrian McKinty and Helen Fitzgerald, just to give a sense of what I mean.  Cameron sets the stage for this collection in her Foreward, giving a sort of preview of the tone of the stories.

Off the Record, another collection of short crime stories edited by Luca Veste, provides not one, but two Forewards. Matt Hilton and Anthony Neil Smith each offer a perspective on this charity anthology. Neither Foreward is particularly long, but each one gives a sense of what the stories are like.

Admittedly, Forewards and Introductions are a bit different. But both provide background, perspective and sometimes helpful historical context. Do you read Introductions? Do you find them interesting/useful? If you’re a writer, have you written an Introduction? What was the process like?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.


Filed under Adrian McKinty, Angela Savage, Anthony Neil Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Damien Seaman, Ed McBain, Garry Disher, Helen Fitzgerald, John Bude, Lindy Cameron, Martin Edwards, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Matt Hilton, Otto Penzler, Peter Corris, Shona MacLean

I Didn’t Get a Chance to Defend Myself*

ArrestedWhen the police investigate a crime, they have to follow the evidence wherever it leads. But evidence doesn’t always immediately point to the actual criminal. Sometimes that means that an innocent person is arrested or even convicted. It happens in real life, and that plot point adds tension and suspense to a crime novel too. It’s incredibly hard on a person to be arrested for a crime, especialy for those who aren’t accustomed to the justice/prison system. That stress can affect one deeply, and that can add to a crime story too, in terms of character development and suspense.

Agatha Christie deals with this issue in several of her novels. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, James Bentley is arrested, tried and convicted in connection with the murder of his landlady. He isn’t a particularly pleasant, friendly person, so he doesn’t have many supporters. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence, who gathered the evidence in the case, believes Bentley may be innocent. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and goes to the village of Broadhinny, where the murder took place. It’s not long before he learns that there are several other possibilities; Mrs. McGinty was the kind of person who found out things about people, and she’d found out something it wasn’t safe for her to know. As the novel goes on, we see how the experience of being wrongly accused of a crime has affected Bentley. He is convinced that no-one cares what happens to him, and certain that he won’t get a fair deal, as the saying goes. Christie doesn’t discuss too much what happens to Bentley when the real murderer is caught, although in Hallowe’en Party it’s mentioned that he’s gotten married. It’s not hard to imagine though that re-integrating himself into everyday life can’t have been easy. (I know, I know, fans of Ordeal by Innocence and Sad Cypress).

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder introduces readers to Howard Van Horn, son of wealthy business magnate Dietrich Van Horn. He’s been troubled lately by blackouts during which he has no idea what happens. He becomes especially frightened one day when he wakes up covered in blood. Sure that he’s done something terrible, he visits his old college friend Ellery Queen and asks his help. Queen agrees and thogether, the two men try to piece together what’s happened. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, where his father and stepmother Sally live. While they’re there, there’s another blackout incident. This time, Sally Van Horn is killed. Howard is accused and becomes convinced that he is guilty. And the experience of being the focus of a murder investigation (and believing he is a killer) takes a terrible toll on him. Although Queen finds out the truth about the case, that doesn’t really change much for his former friend. Queen fans will know that this plot point – the terrible experience of being arrested when one’s innocent – is also a part of Calamity Town.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson is arrested for the rape of Mayella Ewell. Since Robinson is Black and Ewell is White, this is a particularly emotionally-charged case. Robinson claims he’s not guilty, but almost no-one believes him. Prominent attorney Atticus Finch takes the case and begins to look into what really happened. As he does, we see how difficult it is for Robinson. Finch finds out the truth, but that doesn’t mean that life becomes perfect again. It’s not hard to imagine the difficulties Robinson has in getting back to something like a normal life after his experiences.

Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton includes a similar plot point. Alexander Seaton is the undermaster of a grammar school in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. He gets drawn into a criminal investigation when the body of apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson is found in Seaton’s classroom at the school. Local music master Charles Thom, who is a friend of Seaton’s, was Davidson’s romantic rival, so he’s the immediate most likely suspect. He’s quickly arrested and imprisoned, although he claims he’s innocent. When Seaton visits his friend in prison, Thom asks Seaton’s help. He claims again that he’s innocent and asks Seaton to clear his name. Seaton reluctantly agrees and begins to ask some questions. Little by little, he finds out that this case is more complicated than it seemed on the surface, and that plenty of other people could have wanted to kill Davidson. As the novel goes on, we also see how difficult it is for Charles Thom to languish in prison, with no really effective way to defend himself.

And then there’s Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl. One morning, Sea Haven, New Jersey police officer John Ceepak is having breakfast at a restaurant with summer cop Danny Boyle. While they’re eating, twelve-year-old Ashley Hart stumbles up the street screaming incoherently. Ceepak and Boyle manage to calm the girl enough to tell them what’s wrong. She and her father, wealthy developer Reginald Hart, were taking a morning ride on the Turtle Tilt a Whirl, a ride at the town’s amusement park. Then, Ashely tells the police, a strange man with a gun shot her father and then ran off. When the police go to the scene, they see Hart’s body and the evidence Ashley described. The trail soon leads to a local homeless man nicknamed ‘Squeegee’ because he sometimes works at a car wash business. He’s disappeared, though, so tracing him won’t be easy. Ceepak and Boyle finally track ‘Squeegee’ down, and it does seem as though he could be guilty. But as Ceepak points out, that’s only one possibility. The police do find out who killed Hart and why, but in the meantime, it’s very hard on ‘Squeegee,’ who can’t really do much to defend himself.

There’s also Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake. John ‘Bart’ Bartowski and his wife Rosie own a fishing lodge in northern Saskatchewan. They live further south, in a small town called Crooked Lake, where everyone knows everyone. Because the town is so small, Bart learns about it very quickly when his friend Nick Taylor is fired from his job as head greenskeeper at the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. Needless to say, Taylor’s furious about it, particularly since he doesn’t believe he’s done anything to deserve being separated. He blames Board of Directors member Harvey Kristoff, so he’s the natural suspect when Kristoff’s body is found later that day on the grounds of the golf course. The police are called in, and they follow the trail of evidence where it naturally leads – straight to Taylor. He’s soon arrested and charged. But he claims that he’s innocent, and his attorney Frank Hendrickson believes him. Bart doesn’t want to believe Taylor’s guilty either, so he’s only too happy to help clear his name. As it turns out, Taylor’s by no means the only one with a motive for muder, and Bart finds out who the real killer is. But it’s clear throughout the novel that being charged with murder is very hard on Nick Taylor. It doesn’t help matters that Crooked Lake is a small town, so everyone knows him and knows about his arrest.

The process of being arrested and charged with something as serious as murder takes a major toll on a person. Even knowing one’s innocent doesn’t always help much. It can add suspense and substance to a crime novel plot when the author acknowledges that.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buddy Guy and George Buddy’s Innocent Man.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Grabenstein, Ellery Queen, Harper Lee, Nelson Brunanski, S.G. MacLean, Shona MacLean

Now Here I’m Facing Adventure, Then Why Am I So Scared*

YouthAt some point in life, we’ve all faced the prospect of starting out – of beginning our careers. It’s an exciting time in many ways; there’s so much to look forward to, and young people often have a lot of passion for their work. On the other hand, it’s a very nerve-wracking time too. Many young people don’t yet have confidence in themselves as they will when they’re older. And they often don’t have the wisdom that they will when they’re older either. So it can be a scary experience to get started in a career. In fiction, characters who are just getting started in their careers can add some richness to a story just because of that interesting mix of energy and anxiety. Here are a few examples from crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s  Appointment With Death, we are introduced to the Boyntons, an American family on a tour of the Middle East. During their travels, they decide to make a visit to Petra for a few days. On their second day there, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what looks like a heart attack. But Colonel Carbury isn’t sure that’s what happened, so he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s making his own trip to the area, to investigate. Poirot agrees and interviews each of the people in the Petra tour group. One of those people is seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Ginny’ Boynton, Mrs. Boynton’s daughter. She is mentally fragile after a lifetime of living with her tyrannical mother, but Dr. Theodore Gerard, who was on the Petra tour, sees great potential in the girl. He is a specialist in psychological cases and plans to treat her at one of his clinics and then see that she gets her preparation for the stage. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Ginny shows herself to be a talented actress. And yet, she still shows some of the natural anxiety of young people starting out.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn is a proud mother and now grandmother. The series featuring her shares her home life as well as her life as an academic and a political science expert. Readers get to know the members of her family and we see how their lives evolve. As the series begins, Kilbourn’s oldest daughter Mieka is off to university, with the mixture of excitement and anxiety that you might expect. Later, she decides to start her own catering company. Her mother has lots of concerns about this, since she wanted Mieka to finish her degree program. But Mieka is determined to make a go of it and see if she can be a success. As she talks about her business plan, we can see how she is both anxious about it and excited at the same time:


‘Her [Mieka’s] voice was strong. ‘I want my chance. I know I may get flattened but I have to try.’ 


As the series goes on, Mieka continues to develop and gets some of the confidence that people often acquire as they mature.

We see the same development in Vicki Delany’s Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith. As the series featuring her begins with In the Shadow of the Glacier, Smith has just started her career with the Trafalgar Police. She’s smart and determined to do well, but at the same time, she’s inexperienced and anxious. That’s especially evident when she discovers the body of developer Reginald Montgomery in an alley. At first it’s assumed that Sergeant John Winters will work with his usual partner Detective Lopez. But Lopez is out of town and Winters is paired with Smith. This makes her almost as nervous as finding the body did. But at the same time, she’s excited at the opportunity to work on this murder case. And she’s got the makings of a good cop. Smith matures as the series develops, and it’s interesting to watch her growth.

In Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl, we are introduced to Danny Boyle, a ‘summer cop’ in Sea Haven, New Jersey. He’s used to police work like directing traffic and issuing parking tickets. But then one morning, the body of wealthy developer Reginald Hart is discovered at an amusement park. Boyle works with Officer John Ceepak to find out who killed Hart and why. As the novel goes on, we see that he’s anxious about working as a full-time cop. He’s also a little nervous about working with Ceepak. At the same time, he’s got a sense of excitement about it and wants to make good.

Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer sees beginning attorney Catherine Monsigny taking on her first major case. Myriam Villetreix has been charged with poisoning her wealthy husband Gaston and she wants Monsigny to defend her. As Monsigny prepares for the trial, she’s excited at the opportunity to work this high-profile case. It could make her career. She’s also anxious though, and takes quite a lot of time over the research, her strategy and even the clothing she’ll wear. She doesn’t see herself as incompetent, but she’s not yet confident enough in her skills to really trust her instincts. At  the same time she is haunted by the memory of her mother’s death. Monsigny’s mother Violet was murdered and because she was not much more than a toddler at the time, Monsigny doesn’t have clear memories of that day. As it happens the trial will take place not far from where the murder occurred, so she also returns to that earlier murder to find out who killed her mother and why.

Shona MacLean (who now writes as S.G. MacLean) created Alexander Seaton, a former candidate for the ministry who is now a teacher. In The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, he is undermaster of the grammar school in Banff, Scotland. When the body of apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson is found in Seaton’s classroom, he gets involved in investigating the murder. Towards the end of the novel, Seaton gets an opportunity for a teaching job at a school in Aberdeen. For a young man like him, it’s a plum job and on that level he’s excited about it. On the other hand, Seaton already has doubts about himself and he’s anxious about how he’ll do. But his mentor Dr. John Forbes encourages him and helps him to develop some faith in himself, and as the series goes on, we see Seaton start to mature.

In Jean-Pierre Alaux’s and Noël Balen’s Winemaker Detective series, oenologist Benjamin Cooker takes on a new assistant Virgile Lanssien. Cooker has a notable reputation as a wine expert, and Lanssien is a little nervous about working with him, and anxious to make a good impression. At the same time, he is himself quite competent, and he’s excited to develop his knowledge and skills. In Lanssien’s character we see that combination of anxiety and excitement that’s characteristic of young people just starting their careers.

If you remember what it was like to start out, you know just what that combination feels like. Which examples from crime fiction have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s I Have Confidence.





Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Grabenstein, Gail Bowen, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Nöel Balen, Shona MacLean, Sylvie Granotier, Vicki Delany

Passes on Her Painful Information*

Dying CluesIt would make murder investigations much easier if victims were able to tell the police who killed them. Of course, today’s technology means that DNA and other evidence can often provide lots of information. But it would save a great deal of work if the victims could speak. In crime fiction anyway, they sometimes actually do. One of the plot points that we see in crime fiction is the dying clue. The victim says something, is grasping something or in some other way implicates someone in the murder. That’s a tricky plot point because of course, if the sleuth understands the clue straight away, there’s not much of a plot. But if it’s done well, the dying clue can add to a story.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder of his father Charles. There’s plenty of evidence against him, too. For one thing, his father objected to his choice of fiancée. For another, father and son were seen quarreling loudly just before the murder. McCarthy claims that he is innocent, and his fiancée Alice Turner believes him. She begs the police to look into the matter more closely. Inspector Lestrade thinks he has his man, but he agrees to look at the case again. He asks Sherlock Holmes to go over the evidence and Holmes and Watson investigate. When they question McCarthy, he says that his father said something just before he died. At first it sounds like the rambling of someone who’s losing consciousness. But Holmes is able to deduce that in fact, the dead man gave his son a dying clue.

Agatha Christie used dying clues in several of her stories. In Five Little Pigs, for example, Carla Lamerchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out who killed her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, his wife Caroline was the most likely suspect and in fact, she was arrested, tried and convicted. She died a year later in prison. While she was alive, she claimed to be innocent, but never put up much of a fight to defend herself. Now, sixteen years later, her daughter wants the truth. Poirot interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder, and also gets a written account from each one. In the end, he finds out from those accounts who killed Crale and why. Interestingly enough, he also finds that Crale left a dying clue. It wasn’t as obvious as saying or writing the killer’s name, but it’s clear from the clue that Crale was identifying his killer.

Several Ellery Queen mysteries also make use of the dying clue. To take just one instance, in The Last Woman in His Life, wealthy jet-setter John Levering Benedict III invites Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, to use his guest house for a getaway weekend. Also present for the weekend are Benedict’s three ex-wives, his attorney and his attorney’s secretary. They’re all staying at the main house, and as you can imagine, the atmosphere is ripe for murder. One night, Queen gets a frantic call from Benedict, who says he’s been killed. Queen rushes over from the guest house but by the time he gets there, it’s too late. Benedict is dead of a blow from a heavy statuette. The only physical clues are a wig, an evening gown and a pair of gloves. In the end, Queen does discover who the killer is, but it turns out that Benedict told him from the very beginning. During the telephone call, he started to tell Queen who his killer was. Had he finished, or had Queen understood the meaning of what Benedict did say, it would have led straight to the killer.

There’s no doubt as to the dying clue Maria Lövgren leaves when she and her husband Johannes are murdered in Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers. Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander and his team investigate when the Lövgrens are brutally attacked in their rural farmhouse. Johannes doesn’t survive the attack, but Maria does – barely. She’s rushed to hospital, but medical care can’t save her. Still, she lives long enough to say the word foreign. That word ignites the simmering resentment many locals feel against immigrants. Now the team is up against two murder cases, media hype and an ugly undercurrent of anti-immigration sentiment. Then there’s another murder. The team pieces together what happened, and Maria Lövgren’s dying clue has its role to play.

There’s also an interesting dying clue in Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Seaton is undermaster of the grammar school in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. He is shocked one morning when he hears that the body of local apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson has been discovered in his classroom. Davidson’s been poisoned and the most likely suspect is his romantic rival Charles Thom. But Thom insists that he’s innocent and asks Seaton, who’s a friend, to clear his name. Seaton has no experience in murder investigations, and he has his own reasons for not wanting to call a lot of attention to himself. But for the sake of the friendship he agrees. It turns out that someone else did indeed kill Davidson, and bit by bit, Seaton finds out who it was. Along the way, he discovers that Davidson left a dying clue, something he said just before his death. Although the clue’s not understood correctly at first, when Seaton figures out what Davidson actually said, it’s a clear pointer to the killer.

Most killers know their victims, so it makes sense that a victim who’s thinking clearly could leave a helpful dying clue. But in a lot of cases that’s not possible. And even where it is, dying clues can be garbled, misunderstood or otherwise not be as useful at the start as you’d think. And after all, how interesting would a crime novel be if the clue was clearly understood from the beginning? But in the end, dying clues can be very helpful, and they can certainly add an interesting plot point to crime fiction. Which ‘dying clue mysteries’ have you liked? If you’re a writer, do you use dying clues?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Laura.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Henning Mankell, Shona MacLean