Blackmail Backfire

"Let me get this straight. You think that your client, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands, and your plan... is to blackmail this person? [Beat]... Good luck!"
Lucius Fox, The Dark Knight

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

  1. The blackmailer doesn't have 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.
    4. Whatever the blackmailer held over the blackmailee ceases to have any importance.
  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 (or at least to stop the blackmailer in his/her tracks).
    3. The blackmailee asks "Have You Told Anyone Else?" and the blackmailer hasn't, so Murder Is the Best Solution.
    4. The victim is already being blackmailed (or protected) by a different criminal and in the ensuing war of Colliding Criminal Conspiracies, the blackmailer is the one with insufficient firepower.

The third is the most common in fiction.

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


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    Anime and Manga 
  • The "loss of leverage" type appears in episode 16 of Tantei Team KZ Jiken Note. As Sunahara stated he has evidence against the Japanese Delinquents group of scamming his foster family, leader Onozuka threatened to expose to the police all the laws the former broke under his orders. However, as it turns out, Sunahara is Crazy-Prepared enough to not break any law.
    Sunahara: Don't underestimate me. I only ever got close to you to gather evidence on you. All the money I said I stole for you were mine.

    Comic Books 
  • The crux of Superman: Truth (and the "Lies" arc that preceded it) is Lois Lane exposing Superman's secret identity in order to try to trigger this from an unknown blackmailer... and the drama that ensues because the blackmailer remains unknown and the lives of Clark Kent and everybody he knows goes to hell in a hand basket, souring Superman to everybody (including his lover Wonder Woman... and especially Lois). The discussion between Kal-El and a still somewhat-unapologetic Lois is that Lois thinks the removal of the threat was a good idea, but Superman insists that the threat was his (and only his) to bear, and Lois seemed to him a bit too eager to try to cut the knot.
  • Supergirl/Batgirl storyline Elseworld's Finest: Supergirl & Batgirl provides a funny, light-hearted example. Bruce jokingly says he'll tell Gotham about the Batcave if Batgirl isn't nice to him. She replies that his disappearance is scheduled.
  • In Suicide Squad corrupt Senator Cray tries to use the Squad to get him re-elected, threatening to reveal the existence of the program. Not knowing Amanda Waller has handled Cray and his aide, Tolliver, Rick Flagg kills Tolliver and, confronting Cray, points out how foolish it is to blackmail a team of super-villans.
    Flagg: When you set out to blackmail the Squad, Senator, didn't you realize you were trying to coerce thugs and killers? Ruthless people. Didn't it ever occur to you that the easiest way of dealing with you was to kill you?

    Fan Works 
  • Superwomen of Eva 2: Lone Heir of Krypton: In chapter 8's omake Touji tells Asuka he knows she is Power Girl and he will tell everyone unless she puts a skimpy bikini on and models while Kensuke takes pictures. Touji thought the next step would be profit, but the only step was him getting beaten.
  • Princess of the Blacks: Hermione gets a double dosage when she tries to blackmail Jen over her suspicion the girl murdered the Dursleys. Jen is quick to sum up everything wrong with her plan. 1) If there was any evidence, Hermione would have already gone to the authorities. 2) The Wizengamot would never listen to Hermione as she's a muggleborn accusing a rich pureblood noble of killing some muggles. 3) If Hermione is right and Jen did murder them, what would stop her from murdering Hermione to keep her quiet? Likewise, Jen has evidence that Hermione previously blackmailed Rita Skeeter, which would land her in prison.
  • In The Shadow, Boba Fett tries to blackmail Luke (who's become Vader's apprentice) for an unspecified amount of money after Han Solo escapes. If Luke doesn't secure him the money, Fett will inform Vader that Luke is Anakin Skywalker's son. Unfortunately for him, Vader is Anakin Skywalker and knows full well Luke is his son. Just before killing him, Luke lets Fett in on this little detail.

  • Predicted in The Dark Knight:
    Reese: *beat* ... Keep that...
  • In Ronin Gregor meets a Russian gangster and demands more money for his briefcase's contents. He informs the gangster that his girlfriend, Natacha, a gorgeous skater, has a sniper being trained on her, ready to kill her in the middle of a performance. Gregor counts down the time until the sniper fires, waiting for the gangster to pay up to save his girlfriend. At "zero," the gangster raises up his own gun and too late Gregor realizes the man has absolutely no qualms letting his girlfriend die rather than pay up more.
  • In Sweet Smell of Success, Sidney Falco tries to muscle one of his boss JJ Hunsecker's rival columnists by implying that he knows about an adulterous affair the columnist had. The columnist confesses to his wife right then and there, makes up with her, and launches into a "The Reason You Suck" Speech aimed at both Falco and Hunsecker.
  • On Zero Effect, this almost happens. While the blackmailer and Daryl Zero have their own plans on how to deal with the blackmail, the blackmail-ee Stark has grown obscenely paranoid and skittish by the time Zero starts his investigation and insists on wanting to arm himself to blow away the blackmailer if he ever meets him in person (which Arlo needs to talk him out of repeatedly).
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Secretary of Defense and member of HYDRA Alexander Pierce figures that Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow's dark past would keep her from releasing all of SHIELD's private information, which included her aforementioned past and SHIELD's interlaced relationship with HYDRA, onto the public Internet. She proves him wrong.
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit: R.K. Maroon's plan to blackmail Marvin Acme fails when Acme is murdered, and Maroon tries to repair the damage by trying to find Acme's will, and ends up murdered as well.
  • Thunderball: SPECTRE operative Angelo Palazzi tries to blackmail his organization into paying him more money at the last second before his part in the plans to steal several nuclear weapons occurs (as he points out, he is the only infiltrator available for the job, with his surgically-changed face and all; and there is no way SPECTRE will get a replacement in such short notice. He also points out that said face is all the evidence he needs to show any agency that some dirty deeds are afoot). SPECTRE agrees, only to kill him rather unceremoniously once he has outlived his usefulness.
  • In Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, when Pirelli recognizes Sweeney from the old days when he was Benjamin Barker, he tries to blackmail him, threatening to tell Beadle Bamford about him if he doesn't hand over half his earnings to him every week. This proves to be his biggest mistake as Sweeney makes Pirelli his very first kill.
  • No Man of Her Own: Stephan doesn't know the lengths that Helen will go to to protect her identity and her son from being discovered. She's willing to kill him to keep him silent. Same with her beau, Bill.
  • Mulholland Falls: The bad guys try to blackmail Detective Hoover with his affair with Allison by holding the film reels of their liasons over his head. The problem is, they mailed the copy of the reels directly to his house, as opposed to his office or a safety deposit box. And his wife has already seen them by the time he finds out. He later points out to the blackmailers that he really doesn't give a crap anymore who they send it to now, making their whole scheme worthless.

  • The Business Of Dying has two instances of blackmail backfiring on Miriam Fox. Blackmail A backfired, because the person she was blackmailing said they didn't care if she revealed her information, because it would be 'the word of some junkie prostitute' against a rather respectable person. Blackmail B ended up getting her killed.
  • 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.
  • Larry Niven's short story "$16,949". A blackmail victim tries to blackmail his blackmailer, who goes to another one of his victims to resolve the problem permanently.
  • One of Agatha Christie's unspoken rules is that any person trying to blackmail a murderer will be dead before the story ends.
  • This trope also frequently pops up in the Nero Wolfe mysteries:
    • Fer-de-lance, the first novel in the series, starts the pattern with the reveal that Carlo Maffei, the missing man whose disappearance caused Wolfe and Archie Goodwin to get involved in the case, unwittingly designed a tool that was used as a murder weapon and thought that blackmailing the person who hired him was a good idea. Naturally, he was very much mistaken.
    • An interesting variant pops up in And Be A Villain, in which it's revealed a blackmail syndicate has been targeting people with slander in order to pressure them into paying up to get it to stop. The variant is that the blackmailers in this case actually made up false stories about their victims that would nevertheless do serious damage to their reputations if it got out, but they ended up approaching someone with what they thought was a lie about them committing murder only to realise too late that they'd accidentally stumbled onto the truth. It ends about the same way you'd expect this trope to end for a blackmailer in a murder mystery.

    Live Action Television 
  • Subverted big-time in the The King of Queens episode "Wild Cards." After a heated argument, Deacon threatens to tell his and Doug's wives the truth about the guys' recent actions... and follows through on it after Doug claims not to care. Worse, Doug's wife is infamous for being far less forgiving than Deacon's.
  • 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: In the episode "Dead Man's Switch", Charles Augustus Milverton also gets killed due to his blackmailing, like the original. It turns out to be more complicated as the killer, Anthony Pistone, had previously confronted Milverton but was dettered by being offered into the business. When Pistone realized that Milverton killed his accomplise, the title "Dead Man's Switch", Pistone kills Milverton to take over the 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 Holmeses 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 in 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.
  • A minor example in The Middle: Sue catches Axl coming home late one night and threatens to expose him if he doesn't drive her and her friends around. He complies for a while but eventually gets fed up, calls their mom to confess, then kicks Sue out of the car (fairly far away from home) and drives off without her. They both wind up grounded.
  • Subverted in Lois & Clark: A blackmailer finds evidence of Superman's secret identity and blackmails him into robbing a jeweler. Superman would rather have his identity exposed but the blackmailer, anticipating Superman would make this choice, abducted his parents.
  • In the Doctor Who serial "Silver Nemesis", one of the bad guys is a seventeenth century sorceress who makes a big deal of claiming that she knows a deep, dark secret about the Doctor, and threatens to reveal it to everyone present if he doesn't hand over control of a powerful alien super weapon to her. After apparently looking very shifty and worried, the Doctor ends up calling her bluff, and it turns out the other faction there, the Cybermen, don't care about it anyway. She doesn't react well.

    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.
  • Ace Attorney has several examples:
    • Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney:
      • Redd White has a vast blackmail empire that all but guarantees him immunity from legal recourse. So the ghost of the woman he killed for spending years digging up dirt on said empire ultimately gives him a taste of his own medicine and threatens to publicize said dirt unless he surrenders — which, after an immensely satisfying Villainous Breakdown, he does.
      • Double Subverted in the third case. The victim finally snapped from years of life-destroying blackmail and tried to kill his blackmailer... whom instead killed him in self-defense. However, the resulting scrutiny ultimately leads you to nail the killer anyway, thus avenging the victim after all.
      • The bonus case. You ultimately use Damon Gant's own blackmail tool as the critical evidence to defeat him.
    • 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 assassin who killed the victim and had said hitman hold Maya hostage to ensure you get him acquitted. He also recorded the murder to use as blackmail information in the future. Unfortunately, not only did he consider blackmailing a known assassin—a questionable move at best—but said assassin, Shelly de Killer, has a strict code of honor and considers the trust between him and his client to be sacred. 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 Engarde not only didn't trust de Killer at all but was also about to backstab him, a major Berserk Button for de Killer, and so he breaks the contract, releases Maya and announces his intentions to go after Engarde next. At this point, Engarde is stuck between a rock and a hard place: if he's found guilty, he gets sent to prison and possibly gets the death penalty; and if he's found not guilty, he will be hunted down by de Killer. Engarde ultimately chooses to confess.
    • Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials & Tribulations's second case takes this Up to Eleven. Luke Atmey killed a Redd White Expy for blackmailing Atmey over his own blackmail of the Gentleman Thief that Atmey claims to invoke Great Detective against.
  • 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.

    Web Comics 
  • Full Frontal Nerdity: Lewis gets a blackmail phonecall from hackers who got access to his ten-year old Yahoo account note . Lewis asks if they can forward those forum links, because he lost them when a previous computer got fried.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • The KGB had several women pose as flight stewardesses and seduce Indonesian president 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 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 smart enough to see the Plot beforehand.) Indeed, a good rule of thumb is to presume that a person's proclivities are known to their superiors.
  • This happened to a girl who had sex with hockey player Jaromir Jagr. She then took a selfie with him and planned to blackmail him to not reveal. But Jagr was not in any kind of relationship at the moment, and also had a reputation for being a really weird guy, so he just shrugged it off.