Dec. 9, 2020
Blackmail in Fiction
Why Blackmail is an Effective Plot Vehicle
Let’s talk about blackmail.
No, don’t worry. I don’t know any of your deep, dark secrets.
I want to talk about blackmail in novels. Why it’s so effective and interesting. How it connects with the reader. What types of settings in which it works best. And along the way we’ll look at a few great mystery and suspense novels that have used blackmail as a major plot vehicle.
Why We Love Blackmail
Perhaps the most basic reason we love to read about blackmail is it always centers on some behavior considered to be so abhorrent that the person being blackmailed will do almost anything to keep it hidden from view. And let’s face it—we all love to read about abhorrent behavior! Sexual misconduct of some kind is typically involved. Or financial malfeasance. Sometimes it’s betrayal of country. Regardless, the “secret sin” always gives us a chance to play the voyeur from a safe distance. It also gives us the chills just a little bit, right? Because most of us have done things that we’d rather keep hidden from the rest of the world.
The fact that we may identify a little with the blackmail victim gives the author an opening. He can play on our sympathy to make the victim the hero of the book. The typical trajectory here is a man or woman who made a moral mistake being mercilessly hounded by a truly evil blackmailer, pushing the victim over the edge, hell-bent on revenge against the perpetrator. Elmore Leonard does a nice job of this in 52 Pick-Up, with Harry Mitchell as the aggrieved (and blackmailed) party. You’ll positively cheer when the bad guy gets his comeuppance.
Hidden Layers Beneath the Blackmail
Sometimes the author fools us, though, and there is more than meets the eye than a simple case of blackmail. The victim may be guilty of much more than he or she lets on, but the author keeps this from us until at or near the end of the book. Or the blackmail angle is used to pull in someone from the outside that ends up embroiled in another mystery entirely. This is the case when Phillip Marlowe is called upon by General Sternwood to “take care of” a blackmailer at the beginning of Raymond Chandler’s classic The Big Sleep. Marlowe soon finds himself neck deep in murder and mayhem only tangentially related to the blackmail he was commissioned to resolve.
Once in a while, the blackmailer is the hero. In these cases, the blackmailer is typically cast as an avenging angel bent on righting wrongs through exposing evil, motivated by a traumatic experience in their own lives. This angle plays on our desire to see those in power answer for their sins, with the “victims” usually powerful people accustomed to getting away with murder. Sometimes literally. We also enjoy the process of learning what makes the blackmailer tick, not to mention that we get to see someone act out what we often would like to do ourselves. My favorite example here is Harlan Coben’s The Stranger, in which you don’t find out the full story until the end.
Careful Blackmail Planning
Another nice feature of a good blackmail story is that the blackmailer must be very meticulous in his planning and execution. He must pick his victim carefully, preferably choosing someone who won’t immediately run to the police, and one that won’t go Jack Reacher on him and hunt him down (a la Harry Mitchell in 52 Pick-Up). This appeals to most readers of mystery and suspense novels—we appreciate careful planning and precise execution! This also leads the blackmailer to remain hidden from his victim, communicating in mysterious and inventive ways. Sometimes the reader gets to see what the blackmailer is doing and sometimes not. Either way can work. If we get a peek behind the curtain we feel “in on the game”, and if we don’t we get to enjoy the mystery.
Then comes the money drop. It isn’t always money, of course. Sometimes it’s state secrets that change hands, such as in Red Sparrow, by Jason Matthews. In either case, the lead up to the drop builds suspense in the reader. Will the victim be able to gather the funds quickly enough? Should the victim try to “cheat” the blackmailer by adding worthless paper (or worthless disinformation) to the stack of bills? If the police are involved, can they set up surveillance sufficient to catch the blackmailer? Can a GPS device be planted without notice?
Blackmail Complete; What’s Next?
After the goods are delivered, the victim faces a dilemma. How can he or she be sure that the blackmailer won’t come back for more? If the evidence of wrongdoing is a video or email or letter, even if the “originals” are handed over as part of the drop, what’s to say there aren’t copies? Won’t the blackmailer continue to bleed the victim dry for the rest of their lives? It can be a perpetual nightmare. We as readers get to experience the angst and paranoia of the victim, drawing us in and making us care about the outcome. If it becomes clear that the only successful outcome for the victim is the demise of the blackmailer, we begin to root for the victim. They are typically the underdog, at an information disadvantage (they may not even know the identity of the blackmailer) and less ruthless. We cheer them on as though rooting for Rocky Balboa to knock out Apollo Creed or Clubber Lang.
Victims of Blackmail
Finally, we come to the Innocent victims. The target of the blackmailer always has something to hide, and the parties he wants to hide his dastardly deeds from tend to be innocent, loving relatives such as a spouse or sibling or child. For example, the first people impacted in Harlan Coben’s The Stranger are the loving husband and kids of a woman who has a dark secret she’s been hiding. We instantly identify with these innocent bystanders. After all, who hasn’t been hurt at some point along the way by someone we love?
Closing Thoughts and Variants on the Blackmail Plot
So, blackmail as a mystery/suspense plot gives the reader a chance to identify in part with each of the major characters in the novel as we recognize parts of ourselves in the blackmailer, the victim and the innocent bystanders. Who could ask for more!
One final thought. A close variant of the blackmail plot device is the kidnapping and ransom plot. Many of the same elements are present, including a dramatic money drop or information exchange in which the kidnapper must act every bit as meticulously—and mercilessly—as the blackmailer. The kidnap victim is analogous to the innocent bystander, and the person providing the ransom many times has a character flaw that has made him or her a target, much like the person being blackmailed. The desire for revenge is always present as well. And the imminent danger to the kidnap victim increases the stakes and the suspense.
About the Author
Richard Schneider writes full time from his home in Ohio. He is the author of the newly released mystery/suspense novel Hidden in the Wind, as well as the suspense/thriller Runners.
A chemical engineer with experience in the world of manufacturing, Richard uses his analytical training and experience to craft stories that fit together with precision and deal with real-world problems.
Richard earned his chemical engineering degree from the University of Kansas and went on to earn an MBA from William and Mary.
He lives with his wife in Ohio and spends Fall Saturdays watching as much college football as possible.