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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".
  • 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.
    • So he wasn't murdered by a Playstation?
  • 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."

 "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.

2. Dying people lack clear elocution:

  • 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".
  • Blakes Seven: 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.
  • 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.
  • A Monk episode had a nonsense string of words which turned of to be a mnemonic device to a license plate
  • Subverted in 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 the video game 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 Balarat", 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 "Balarat 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 Balarat."
  • In one short story (whose title escapes me), 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.
  • 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.

3. Victim didn't know the killer's name:

  • Ellery Queen's E=Murder

4. Other messages:

  • In The Incredibles, doomed missing superhero Gazerbeam has the foresight to scrawl the villain's secret password "Kronos" in the cave, so that future superheros hiding behind his body and looking out through his skull can see it.
  • Ellery Queen's The Glass Domed Clock: The victim knocks over a glass domed clock and grabs an amethyst. One of the suspects was a stockbroker (the clock resembled a stock ticker), who was born on February 29 (birthstone is an amethyst). However, other evidence indicates that the victim thought the suspect was born on March 1. Other evidence reveals that only one suspect knew the real birthdate and could have left that message.
  • In another Case Closed story, an unintentional dying clue is left on the little toe of a famous artist by another artist: she paints her signature on him as a prank before he kills her in a rage over her art.
    • A subversion of this trope occurs in one storyline in which the killer mistook a note written by his victim for one of these. It turned out to be a normal message about the guy's dry cleaning, "Bring my tux," but it was written in English which the killer couldn't read. He stole the note and was proven guilty when it was found on him because he hadn't dared throw it out for fear it would be found and incriminate him.
  • Coded dying clues pop up quite a bit in The Kindaichi Case Files
    • One involved a Japanese keyboard (which became a letter-shifting code in English)
    • One involved Morse code (using different forms of Kanji to represent dots and dashes)
  • Scooby Doo episode "The Diabolical Disc Demon": The kidnapping victim leaves behind a short bit of sheet music. Near the end of the episode, the heroes realize that the notes spell out "ACE DECADE", the kidnapper's (and the Villain of the Week's) name.
  • A case from Tantei Gakuen Q, early on in the anime. The victim is found dead in front of a computer, with a seemingly significant set of letters typed in. The resident Insufferable Genius tries every possible code to crack it, but fails until he takes the advice of The Ace Hero, Kyu. there was no code to the message, the victim literally wrote the killer's name onto the keyboard in kanji with their finger.
  • In Who Censored Roger Rabbit? (Literature), toons create word balloons when they speak (unless they consciously choose not to). A word balloon containing Roger's final words is found at the scene of the crime, but it's ambiguous without knowing the way the words were said.
  • The Avengers: Victim writes "COP", so everybody suspects Coppice is the murderer. Mrs Peel proves that the victim was Russian. In the Cyrillic Alphabet "COP" = "sor". Sorrel is the murderer.
    • This had earlier been used in a short story of The Saint, with people suspecting that the murderer was a policeman until Simon Templar realized the victim's nationality. The killer's name was Soren.
    • Again, in one of Isaac Asimov's Black Widowers stories the guest relates the tale of a Russian spy (that is, a Russian national working for the West) who left a dying message that nobody had been able to interpret: the letters E P O C K from a Scrabble set. The word 'epock' was meaningless and no anagram could be found either, so the spy's intention had been a mystery for more than twenty years. As always, Henry the waiter solves it, pointing out that the letters could be rearranged - to form 'CKOPE', which in the Cyrillic alphabet spells the word 'score'. This, along with a newspaper opened at the sports page (the scores, gettit?) implied that the agent was trying to communicate the number twenty. The Widowers' guest is thunderstruck at this - in the code they used at the time, '20' meant "Government in firm control" and if they had known this, the Bay of Pigs invasion could have been called off.
  • Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge features possibly the' most epic case of "murder victim writes cryptic final message" in the entire history of detective fiction. The murderer uses a uniquely science-fictional murder weapon that results in a three-decades long, lingering death of old age for the victim, so she has time to write a final message over two million words long — but the important bit is still so cryptic only one man could see it - and it's not her lover. This is because the murderer is watching her the entire time, and would have destroyed anything that looked like a clue to his-or-her identity.
  • Agatha Christie's A Murder Is Announced has one that doesn't quite count as a clue, as it's actually the reason she was killed, but similarly to the Roger Rabbit case above. Was it "She wasn't there"? or was it "She wasn't there"? or maybe "She wasn't there"? "She wasn't there".
  • The dying Inspector-General in Dong Yi showed the titular character a set of cryptic hand signals before he died. The signals actually point out the identity of the killer, although it would take the titular character many years before she deciphered the meaning behind them.
  • In The Swan Princess, King William says "It's not what it seems, Derek. It's not what it seems!" in reference to the Great Animal that has attacked him. Derek has to figure out what he means by himself, eventually finding a book that describes shapeshifting in the library.
  • Taken to rather ridiculous extremes in The Da Vinci Code (dragging himself round an art gallery scrawling hidden messages on various paintings before arranging his dying body in a meaningful pose), since revealing the identity of the killer is not so important to the dying man as giving clues to the Ancient Conspiracy that he was killed to cover up.
  • In the Ace Attorney manga, a double subversion happens in Turnabout Gallows. Robin Wolfe, trapped inside the Den of Spiders, draws a spider on the armrest of the chair he was trapped in, which the police initially believe to be a clue since he had yelled to his family that a "spider man" had kidnapped him. In reality, Robin draws whatever is in front of him as a way to calm himself and come up with ideas whenever he's having trouble, and the drawing is dismissed as meaningless after it does not connect to any of the other evidence. Toward the end of the case, Phoenix notices that the spider is drawn upside-down; Robin was trapped on the ceiling and tricked into thinking he was still on the floor by having everything else he could see turned upside down, but the spider was still hanging as normal, and thus appeared the way it did, making the "clue" far more significant to the case than anyone, the victim included, thought at first.
  • In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Soap is barely able to choke out "Makarov knows Yuri" before dying. Price confronts Yuri shortly thereafter and we see Yuri's backstory.

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.

  • 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 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.
  • 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 computer.
  • 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 not 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.

Real Life

  • 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.
  • 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 rom 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.