Money is a very powerful motivator for many people. In fact, sometimes, the craving for money gets the better of people’s judgment. That’s, in part, the reason why people become blackmailers; it’s a way to get quite a lot of money for comparatively little effort. Usually, the blackmailer sees the chance for money because he or she knows about a crime that’s been committed, or knows other secrets about someone. So it’s no wonder that blackmail features so often in crime fiction. Blackmail can be lucrative, but it’s also very dangerous. After all, many people become desperate when they’re being blackmailed, and will do anything – including murder – to rid themselves of the blackmailer. Also, blackmail is a form of extortion, so in most places, it’s considered a serious crime. Some people, though, are so desperate for money, or so greedy, that they take those risks.
For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, Sherlock Holmes investigates the bludgeoning death of Charles McCarthy, an ex-Australian who lived on the property of John Turner, who also lived in Australia. One morning, McCarthy left his home to keep an appointment, but never returned. His body was later found, and the local lodgekeeper’s daughter thinks that his son, James McCarthy, is responsible for his father’s death. They were overheard quarreling violently, and on the basis of that and other evidence, young McCarthy is arrested for the crime. John Turner’s daughter, Alice, believes that James MCarthy is innocent, and she persuades Inspector Lestrade (and through him, Holmes) to look into the case. Holmes finds that this murder case isn’t as simple as it seems. McCarthy, so it turns out, was a blackmailer, and his greed, not his quarrel with his son, was the cause of his death.
Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise also features blackmail. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover at Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. to find out how and why copywriter Victor Dean died. Dean apparently fell to his death down an iron spiral staircase, and at first, his death is put down to accident. However, Dean left behind a half-finished note in which he hinted that someone in the company is involved in illegal activity. Wimsey joins the company, ostensibly as Dean’s replacement, and begins to look in to the case. He finds that someone in the company is involved with a drugs ring and has been using the company’s advertisements to set up meetings between drugs producers and dealers. Dean found out what was going on, and began to blackmail the criminal. That sealed Dean’s fate.
There are also several Agatha Christie novels that center on blackmail; I'll just mention three of them. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot finds out who stabbed retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. He was stabbed on the night that he found out that the woman he loved, and was planning to marry, was being blackmailed. His fiancée was driven so desperate by the blackmailer that she committed suicide. Before her death, she wrote a letter to Ackroyd in which she asked him to bring her blackmailer to justice. Ackroyd was killed before he could finish reading the letter. So Poirot has to make the connection between the blackmailing and the members of Roger Ackroyd’s household, all of whom are eager for money.
In Chrisite’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, Poirot investigates the murder of Ruth Van Aldin Kettering while she’s on the famous Blue Train. Ruth is killed while she’s en route to Hyères for a rendez-vous with the Comte de la Roche, a notorious swindler who’s much more interested in the valuable jewels Ruth has than he is in her. At first, the Count seems the most likely suspect, since Ruth’s jewels are missing. By no means, though, is he the only suspect. For instance, Ruth’s husband, Derek Kettering, is in desperate need of money and inherits a fortune at his wife’s death. His mistress, Mirelle, is, in her own words, “not made to be poor,” and is as eager for Derek to get his wife’s money as he is. At different points in the novel, both the Comte de la Roche and Mirelle try to blackmail Derek Kettering, each claiming to have evidence that he’s guilty. Those attempts at blackmail add an interesting layer of intrigue to the story.
In Christie’s Death on the Nile, beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is shot on the second night of a honeymoon cruise up the Nile. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, so it’s no surprise that he gets involved in investigating the case. Before he’s able to find the killer, there’s another death; Louise Bourget, Linnet Doyle’s maid, is found stabbed. Poirot soon guesses that she was blackmailing the killer, and it turns out he was right. On the night of Linnet Doyle’s murder, Louise Bourget saw the killer entering Linnet’s room and, when she found out about the death, made the obvious connection. Greedy to get what she could, she blackmailed the killer – and paid with her life.
Daniel Depp’s Loser’s Town offers another look at how blackmail can operate. Up-and-coming actor Bobby Dye is just about to “make it big.” The trouble is that he’s tangled up with Richie Stella, a local gangster and drug dealer. Stella has always wanted to be a famous Hollywood producer, and he wants Dye to star in a script he’s written. Dye refuses because the script is terrible and he doesn’t want to risk his career. Stella, though, won’t accept Dye’s refusal, and threatens the actor with exposure of his inappropriate contact with a young actress who died suddenly. Dye begins to get death threats, and hires David Spandau, a former stuntman who’s become a private detective, to protect him from Stell and his threats. Spandau takes the job, but soon finds that he’s made an enemy of Stella as well as some other very unsavory and unscrupulous people. Now, Spandau finds that he’s in as much danger as Dye is.
Blackmail is the main theme of H.R.F. Keating’s The Iciest Sin, which features his sleuth, Bombay police Inspector Ganesh Ghote. Ghote is coerced by a highly-placed government official into breaking into the home of Miss Dolly Daruwala with the goal of catching her in the act of extorting money. Ghote reluctantly agrees, and hides in the apartment where he sees her murder. The killer is an otherwise honorable scientist whom Ghote is reluctant to turn over to the authorities, so he doesn’t let the murderer know he was there. As luck would have it, though, Ghote is seen leaving Dolly Daruwala’s apartment, so he’s soon the victim of blackmail, too, since he doesn’t want to reveal the “sting” operation that put him in the apartment. In the meantime, Ghote is given another case to investigate. It seems that Shiv Chand, the office manager for a tabloid, has been blackmailing people into paying to have their names entered into a list of Indians of Merit and Distinction. Chand’s boss, Freddy Kersasp, is really the ringleader, but no-one will testify against him. In order to bring Freddy Kersasp to justice, Chote himself resorts to blackmail. Soon enough, though, a powerful drug lord finds out that Ghote was seen leaving Dolly Danuwala’s apartment right after her murder, and tries to use that information to blackmail Ghote into being his “inside man” on the poilce force. Ghote refuses, and it’s only at the last minute, and with a few surprises, that he’s able to outwit his blackmailer and bring Kersasp down as well.
There’s a very interesting (and chilling) look at blackmail in The Uses of Intelligence, a short story by Matthew Gant. Eleven-year-old geniuses Patty and Danny Perkins decide to solve the murder of an acquaintance, local banana peddler Aristos Depopoulos. Depopoulos is killed one day by what looks like a blunt instrument. At first, the police think that Depopoulos was killed by one of six construction workers who were stationed nearby, but the twins don’t believe that’s true. The Perkins twins find out who the killer is with some very clever deductions, and decide to blackmail the killer. The killer agrees to their terms, but finds a very ingenious way of avoiding having to pay them.
We can understand that greed or desperation might drive someone to blackmail, and it makes sense that someone else might have a secret that is worth a lot of money. So blackmail as a crime makes sense in crime fiction. If it’s not done skillfully, though, it can seem melodramatic and too obviously a “red herring.” What’s your view? Can you “buy into” a plot that involves blackmail?