The student was nearly dead when another student found him. The dying man managed to gasp out just two words - "Twenty-six minutes" - and then he died. He left Inspector Sloan in quite a quandary, along with officials of Almstone College within the University of Calleshire, where the young man had been a student. It seemed pretty clear that the young man must have seen - and known - the person who stabbed him. So why did he say only, "twenty-six minutes"? Even Sloan's boss, the rather dense Superintendent Leeyes had enough sense to observe, "men don't waste their dying breaths on saying things that don't matter, do they?"
That's the situation at the heart of Parting Breath, the seventh book in Catherine Aird's long-running "Calleshire Chronicles" series, featuring Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan, his assistant - well, in theory, anyway - Detective Constable Crosby, and their boss, Superintendent Leeyes. It's the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
The "dying message" is something of a staple - almost a cliche - in many traditional mysteries. Ellery Queen, for one, was a master of them. So was Agatha Christie. In order to work, the message has to really have a meaning - one which, properly interpreted, can help the detective and the reader get to the heart of the mystery.
Catherine Aird uses it, I think, quite well in Parting Breath. As the story begins, there is a great deal of unrest at Almstone College. Students are planning an extensive sit-in (and have kidnapped the dean, to be held hostage during the event). There has been a break-in at a student's room, the burglar taking some papers, microscope slides, textbooks and the like - but all the stolen material has just been left in a heap on the college quadrangle. And then a student named Henry Moleyns is stabbed to death ("Really," the University's vice-chancellor observes, "this is going too far.")
The case falls, of course, to Inspector Sloan and his not-very-helpful assistant, Crosby. There seem to be plenty of suspects and plenty of possible motives. But Sloan keeps returning to the question of those dying words. And before Sloan can determine the truth of the matter, there will be another murder.
Parting Breath was originally published in 1977, and, for a book about murder, it still contains a good deal of Catherine Aird's wry humor. Sloan is an eminently likeable detective, and his amusing frustrations with both Superintendent Leeyes and Constable Crosby help to lighten a pretty serious plot. Aird wields a very sharp scalpel as she carves away some of the pomp from academia, politics and social scientists. The book is available in a new trade paperback edition from the Rue Morgue Press - and I think it's worth your reading time.
(Portions of this review are based on the review I wrote of Parting Breath for the I Love a Mystery Newsletter, which provided me with a copy of the book. If you enjoy mysteries - any kind of mysteries - you should read this newsletter for ideas, suggestions and reviews.)