Peggy Lee, the impassive "Is That All There Is?" singer, passed away last week, and I’m sure some people out there are happy, not because they hated Peggy Lee or because they were traumatized by the Siamese song in Lady and the Tramp but because they had picked her in a dead pool. The dead pool — a contest based on predicting celebrity (or perhaps corporate) deaths in a certain period — is a game of long standing; one called the Game has been running since 1971, and they trace the idea back to either Maupassant’s Bel-Ami (in which a character tries to guess which members of the Academy will be the next to die) or the wagering on Papal lifespans in the 16th century. Dead pools can be a betting proposition, adding a small wager to the morbid delight of watching famous people shuffle off this mortal coil. Some dead pools were more personal. "Last man’s clubs" gave Civil War veterans who had served together an excuse for regular reunions. The French combined the lure of greed and the pleasures of watching one’s acquaintances pass on in the tontine, a sort of lottery in which participant threw money into a pot and the dividends were split among all the survivors, leading to a vast fortune for the last man standing. The idea was originally that the capital would go to the state, but the model (which was used as a sort of subscription to raise funds for capital-intensive projects such as the many Tontine Hotels in the world) was modified to a winner-takes-all methodology. Although the primary use of tontines today seems to be as a tax dodge, books in which members of a tontine might murder each other are common enough that to get spoofed on Wild Wild West and The Simpsons. The grandaddy of tontine murder novels seems to be Robert Louis Stevenson’s black comedy, The Wrong Box.
Stevenson also examined the thrills of death in his story "The Suicide Club", in which a club dissipated young men chase the melgrims away by chosing a murderer and a victim from among their ranks. (And I can’t remember for the life of me which book it was that featured a cult that proved its tight-knit loyalty by having three people involved in such an activity: a murderer and a victim, who had a scheduled appointment and methodology, and a savior, who would disarm the murderer by, say, replacing the bullets with blanks.) The idea mutates slightly in Richard Connell’s classic suspense story "The Most Dangerous Game", and then continues to pop up virtually unchanged through such recent, less-than-classic fare as Hard Target and Surviving the Game. Men trying to drive the blahs away by hunting human prey: is that all there is?