Blackmail Backfire

This is when a Blackmail scheme goes wrong for the blackmailer. It can happen in a few ways.

  1. The blackmailer's information doesn't give him or her much (if any) leverage.
    1. The victim has no problem with the information being made public — he doesn't really care very much, feels that there is No Such Thing as Bad Publicity, or even considers the "blackmail material" something worth boasting about.
    2. The victim decides that the blackmailer's terms are worse than having the information publicized.
    3. The information isn't as secret as the blackmailer originally presumed it to be. The blackmailee's wife/girlfriend/other-individual-of-importance is already well aware.
  2. The blackmailee is Crazy-Prepared and the blackmailer has bitten off more than he or she can chew.
  3. The scheme doesn't just go wrong for the blackmailer; it goes WRONG and the blackmailer is screwed.
    1. The blackmailer made the unwise choice of blackmailing someone who has no qualms about murder.
    2. The victim has been so ruined he or she has nothing left to lose and only wants one thing: Revenge.

The third is the most common in fiction.

Related to Bribe Backfire and Sub-Trope of Threat Backfire.

Examples

Film

Literature
  • The Sherlock Holmes story Charles Augustus Milverton, the title character is a blackmailer. Sherlock and Watson are determined to destroy papers that he has that he intends to publish to ruin various powerful men of society. While they're burglarizing his house, a woman shows up ostensibly visiting him to give him more dirt on someone. She isn't — she is a woman whose life Charles has ruined and she's there to kill him so he can't ruin any more lives.
  • In the backstory of The Dark Half, the protagonist Thad Beaumont is a not well-known writer who published several thrillers while using the pen-name of George Stark (said thrillers being a lot more successful than his mainstream work). A man discovers the link between Beaumont and Stark, then tries to blackmail him, threatening to reveal to the media that Beaumont and Stark are the same person. Beaumont was already pondering to stop writing as Stark and this threat definitively decided him to do so. He revealed his second identity to the media himself, staging some mock funerals to symbolise Stark's death, and preventing the blackmailer from gaining anything. This was actually a series of events which happened before the novel's beginning. In the proper novel, a being with Stark's mind comes to life and starts a murderous trip to reach Beaumont with the intent of becoming fully human. One of his first victims is the unsuccessful blackmailer, as a revenge because the blackmail attempt is partly responsible for Stark's "death".
  • The plot of Apt Pupil involves Todd Bowden discovering that his neighbor Kurt Dussander is an escaped Nazi and the former commander of a concentration camp. Todd is morbidly obsessed with the Holocaust, and he forces Dussander to tell him about the concentration camp by threatening to expose his past. Dussander complies for a few months, but eventually decides he's had enough. He points out that, by not exposing him sooner, Todd is now complicit in hiding Dussander from the authorities — Todd can't expose Dussander without exposing himself to punishment as well. To further twist the knife, Dussander claims that he left a complete account of Todd's actions in a bank deposit box, to be opened and read if Dussander dies. He's lying about the safe deposit box. But the psychological strain of being counter-blackmailed is one of several factors that leads to Todd completely snapping at the end of the story.
  • On The Day of the Jackal and its adaptations, one of the people who provide gadgets for the Jackal (the documents forger in the original novel and the first film, the manufacturer of the radio-controlled Sentry Gun device on The Jackal) try to blackmail more money out of the Jackal (and respectively commit the dumb acts of not bowing to the Jackal's one request of meeting elsewhere for payment and going to a far-away location with the Jackal and the fully-assembled high-caliber machine-gun that he built the radio-controlled support for). Nobody laments them.

Live-Action Television
  • The Monk episode "Mr. Monk and the Twelfth Man" involves a man that killed his wife and then hid the corpse, and one of the jurors on his case managing to discover incriminating evidence and then blackmailing him. The juror is a gambling addict and as such continuously keeps on asking for money, and eventually the man decides that killing the blackmailer is the best solution. Of course, he doesn't know who he is, but he just needs to go through twelve possibilities...
  • On Homeland, Carrie and Saul find out that a Middle Eastern ambassador is gay and try to blackmail him into giving them information. He shrugs it off, saying that his family and his government already know.
  • Elementary: Like the original, Charles Augustus Milverton also gets killed due to his blackmailing. While the murderer invoked this trope in doing it, he had actually killed Milverton and his accomplice to cover up that he had been involved with and wanted to take over the blackmailing business.
  • Svensson Svensson: Gustav is trying to blackmail Max into doing garden work on top of what they had agreed on. Gustav threatens by mentioning the mountain bike that Max wants. However, Max has none of it and explains to Lena about the bribery deal Gustav made with the children.
  • In CSI's "Pilot", Warrick gave a bad tip on a game to a corrupt judge in exchange for a warrant. A few episodes later, in "Pledging Mr. Johnson", the judge tries to blackmail him into compromising evidence on a rape case, but he confides in Grissom and talks to the judge while wearing a wire.
  • The Unusuals:
    • Henry Cole is a God-fearing upstanding cop, but he used to be a Texas criminal. His old partner tracks Henry down and blackmails him into pulling some jobs. Henry tires of this and kills his blackmailer.
    • Cole may have also been involved in the Plot-Triggering Death of Walsh's former partner, who might have been blackmailing him too. It is never fully resolved.
  • Sherlock: The whole of the episode His Last Vow is a slow set-up towards this. If Magnussen, the so-called "Napoleon of Blackmail'", had not kept on bullying the Holmses and the Watsons out of a petty desire to showcase his control over them, Sherlock wouldn't have figured out that all of the blackmail information he has was located in his head (and only his head), and wouldn't have been angry enough to deal with the threat thusly. Magnussen unknowingly dodges a bullet earlier when his continuous dangling of Mary Watson's (nee Morstan's) past to make John do what he wants nearly make Mary (who on this version is apparently a retired assassin (presumably for the CIA)) kill him; only to be thwarted because John and Sherlock entered the office while she was talking to Magnussen.

Video Games
  • In the Forensics story in Trauma Team, a bomber is paying a college student to provide voice talent for her bomb threats — the college student tries to blackmail the bomber. The bomber agrees initially, but after having the voice actor describe his own self ("a Caucasian male") she has him killed off for good.
  • The final case of Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney: Justice For All features this. The defendant of this case, Matt Engarde, actually is guilty of murder as he hired the hit man who killed the victim. He also recorded the crime to use as blackmail information in the future. Unfortunately, not only did he consider blackmailing a known assassin—a questionable move at best—but the assassin, Shelly de Killer, had a code of honor, of which the trust between the client and the assassin were most important. In the best ending, you reveal the contents of the recording to de Killer (you haven't seen the tape, but previous talk with the defendant and other corroborating evidence has already made it clear what it is). The recording proves that the client didn't trust the assassin at all, a major Berserk Button for de Killer, and so the assassin breaks the contract and announces his intentions to go after the client next. At this point, Engarde is so scared that he would rather face a lengthy prison sentence than face de Killer's wrath. Engarde's motive for the crime also counts; the victim was attempting to disclose certain facts about Engarde publicly, and Engarde had the victim killed in an attempt to keep him silent.
  • If you have multiple spouses in Fable II, you will receive a letter threatening to inform your spouses of your infidelity. The blackmailer doesn't consider that you might just kill him, even if you're so evil you have horns.

Real Life
  • The KGB had several women pose as flight stewardesses and seduce Indonesian president Ahmed Sukarno. The orgy was secretly filmed and the KGB showed it to Sukarno with the intention of blackmailing him. Instead, Sukarno thanked the KGB for a lovely night and asked for a copy of the tape—he wanted to release it to Indonesian theatres so his subjects would see how virile their president was.
  • The KGB once tried to blackmail the French consul, by threatening to expose him with pictures of him having sex with other men. His response? "Go ahead, I don't care. Everybody knows I'm gay."
    • Apparently, something similar was considered by the CIA: to discredit a Middle Eastern leader they were going to leak fake pictures of the man having sex with other men. It wouldn't have worked; apparently, in this man's country, such acts were considered a minor transgression, like a French president's mistress.
  • This trope is one the reason why the blackmail version of Honey Trap is so fraught with difficulties. The target may not actually care if the "compromising" information is released. (The other reason is that most influential and powerful men are Genre Savvy enough to see the Plot beforehand). Indeed, a good rule of the thumb is to presume that a person's proclivities are known their superiors.