Our Hero is certain he knows who committed the crime. Unfortunately, he doesn't have much evidence, so he maneuvers the criminal into panicking in a way that's likely to be self-incriminating.
Some variants include:
- Police announce they will be making a search of a particular area. The killer feels forced to remove some weak evidence from the place first. The police actually already had that evidence, and now they have the strong evidence that the killer knew about it and tried to conceal it.
- Tricking a criminal into revealing the location of a key piece of evidence (such as a body). One unlikely version is that the police forge some evidence to make it seem the victim's been seen around; killer goes to check on the place where the body is hidden; cops follow him there. Allegedly Truth in Television: police used a clever ruse to get the murderer of John and Phoebe Harries to reveal the location of the body.
- The most dangerous kind: a character is put into a position where they're dangerous to the murderer's schemes. A common way of doing this is trying to blackmail the murderer. In any case, when the murderer attempts to kill this new obstacle, the police burst out from hiding and the murderer is caught red handed. (Though for a new crime)
This trope is particularly common in armchair detective fiction, where the hero often has only determined the culprit through a long chain of interlocking deductions and subtle observations which would never hold up in court
Compare Engineered Public Confession
(which plays off the villain's overconfidence rather than their panic), Perp Sweating
, Framing the Guilty Party
. Will occasionally result in I Never Said It Was Poison
. Often a supertrope of You Just Told Me
Note that spoilers
will abound in the examples.
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Anime & Manga
- In Death Note L tricks Light with one of the aforementioned variants very early on. Light usually reacts coolly as part of his acting skills later on. Of course, this being Death Note this happens something along the lines of every episode, and is probably one of the most common plans used.
- The Yellow Box gambit warrants particular attention, being a variant of #3 which bears striking similarities to The Adventure of the Empty House.
- Detective Conan sees plenty use of this trope. A particularly good example is from the first Case Closed movie, in which Conan tells the suspect that he found the disguise he used while conducting his bombings. (He actually made it himself out of stuff he found in the room.) The bluff succeeds and the suspect says "But I left those in the study." Oops.
- Parodied in Yuria 100 Shiki. A boy who's recently watched a show called Bolumco discovers a close-up photo of a vagina on his father's hard drive. He has no idea what it's a photo of, so he shows it to his friends, and his female friend (who thinks it looks vaguely familiar, like she's seen it from a different angle) shows it to her foster father. He immediately denies all knowledge of what it is, so the boys bluff him and pretend they've figured out its location—and of course, he immediately looks in the direction of the girl's crotch.
- One of Kindaichi's favorite tactics is to put the suspect in a position where they'll be killed by their own death trap unless they take action (and thus implicating themselves, since an innocent person wouldn't know about the trap).
- The heros of Bakuman。 write a manga "Detective Trap" around this trope.
- During Part 3 of Jojos Bizarre Adventure, Jotaro and co. are trying to suss out an enemy stand user aboard a ship full of seaman and a stowaway. With the captain of the ship within earshot, Jotaro makes up some fact about how cigarette smoke (he had lit one up moments earlier) makes a vein on a stand user's nose bulge out. Everyone in Jotaro's party checks their noses...including the captain (though he reveals that he had no idea who the stand user actually was, and was planning on using the same trick for every individual crew member.)
- In the graphic novel Camelot 3000, Merlin has been betrayed by one of the reincarnated Round Table knights. King Arthur orders the suspects to hold Excalibur and attest to their innocence, claiming his sword will magically strike down anyone who lies while holding it. The guilty party panics and confesses, after which Arthur admits that Excalibur has no such power.
- A Marvel issue of Star Trek has Kirk implicated in the murder of a planet's ambassador with whom he inadvertently crossed as a cadet. On the planet's surface, Spock uses deductive reasoning—or as Dr. McCoy termed it, "bluffing") to reveal the real murderer.
- The hero in the French movie Le Bossu uses this to unmask the murderer.
- The climax of the film A Few Good Men has the defense lawyer provoking the base commander into a rage in the hope that he would admit to ordering the beating that killed the Marine. It's the sequence that the very famous line does not come from. The bluff hinged on the base commander lying about the time of a particular flight. The defense attorney brought in two airmen that he implied were going to testify as to the actual time of the flight. Turns out that the airmen had absolutely no recollection of anything.
- He's not a murderer, but Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny falls afoul of this trope during the mutiny trial, when the defense officer provokes him to a complete loss of control on the witness stand, thereby proving that his removal from command was justified.
- In Star Trek VI, when the murderers of the Klingon Chancellor are themselves found dead on the Enterprise, Kirk and Spock have someone broadcast an order over the ship's P.A. system for a court reporter to report to sickbay to take statements from the two men. Naturally assuming that the men actually survived their assassination and are about to spill the proverbial beans, the assassin, Lieutenant Valeris, Spock's protege, heads straight to sickbay to finish the job...and finds Kirk and Spock waiting there instead.
- In the Al Pacino / Robin Williams film Insomnia, the police find the murder victim's backpack in the woods, and Pacino orders them to replace it and then put out a reward for any information about it, so that the murderer will return to collect it before anyone else finds it. It worked, but he still got away at the time.
- This comes from the Norwegian original, the same results.
- In Doubt, Sister Aloysius bluffs Father Flynn by claiming that she had spoken to a nun at his previous Parish that had confirmed his pattern of child abuse. But she didn't make that call, and she takes the Priest's resignation as a confession.
- In Klute, Donald Sutherland has figured out who the killer is, but has no evidence. So he makes up a story, telling the bad guy that he's about to acquire an incriminating address book, in order to smoke the bad guy out.
- Supposedly John Napier used this as a tactic to figure out which of his servants had been stealing from him. He covered a rooster in soot and put it into a darkened room, commanding everybody in town to enter the room and touch it, and declaring that the one whose touch caused the rooster to crow is the criminal. One by one, the townspeople enter the room and then leave. The rooster never made a sound. Napier then pointed out that one man had clean hands, showing that he never actually touched the rooster for fear of causing it to crow— proving his guilt.
- QI discussed the subject in series C:
I'm going to raise the tone, now. Why did the inventor of the decimal point encourage his servants to stroke his cock?
- There are lots of old variations on this, such as a judge who hands out "magic sticks" to everyone in the village and tells them that the thief's stick will grow an inch in the night. The thief is the one who returns his stick with the end sawn off.
- Perry Mason. He always does this, and he always does it in the courtroom, when the murderer is on the witness stand. (Which may be why that variation is known here as The Perry Mason Method). 32 movies (at least!), 245 television episodes, 11 years of radio shows, and 80 novels and short stories worth of Bluffing The Murderer.
- Which gets confusing when said murderer is a fan of Mason and it still works. You'd think that, when he got called to the stand, he'd just confess and save everyone some time.
- In Feet of Clay, Vimes confronts Dragon King of Arms and hints that he's being surrounded by holy-water-infused candles, in a way that should only makes sense to Dragon if he was behind the plot to kill Vetinari with arsenic-infused candles.
- Another Discworld example; in Men at Arms, Carrot spreads a rumour that they have Edward D'eath in custody so that the villain goes to the place where they found Edward's corpse.
- Yet another, in Night Watch, Vimes uses the ginger beer tricknote on two of the Cable Street Particulars in order to get the third to talk. It turns out to have been an elaborate bluff involving the popping noise made by a finger in the cheek, someone hissing through their teeth, and Fred Colon's "tendency" to give bloodcurdling screams at random intervals...
- Not a murderer, per se, but in the Isaac Asimov short story "Galley Slave", Dr. Calvin bluffs a strongly anti-robot professor, who had ordered a type-editing robot to make horrendous errors. She badgers and rattles the professor, damaging their defense, but at the climax, the robot stands up and the professor screams "Damn you, you were instructed to keep your mouth shut about—" Dr. Calvin points out, later, that the professor had only to keep quiet since the robot was about to defend the professor, in accordance with the First Law.
- In Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles bluffs Haroche into trying to swap out an incriminating air filter.
- Poirot did this once when confronting the real ABC killer, by stating his fingerprints were found on a typewriter he sent to his scapegoat. He did it another time, with fingerprints on a bottle of poison, to which the killer replies "It's impossible! I was wearing—" Oops.
- This is a common tactic of Encyclopedia Brown.
- In the Lord Peter Wimsey novel Strong Poison, Lord Peter eventually gets the murderer to confess in part by pretending to feed him arsenic-laced food; the murderer had committed the crime by becoming immune to arsenic and sharing a poisoned meal with the victim.
- In the Brother Cadfael novel A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters, Cadfael makes use of the superstition that a murdered body will bleed more if the murderer touches it by getting the daughter of the murdered man to ask the suspect to place a crucifix over his heart. The man panics and confesses, but it turns out that he only stuck an arrow through the murdered man when he was already dead, and didn't murder him.
- The Sherlock Holmes stories have a number of examples.
- Sherlock pulls one of these in The Valley of Fear. Deducing that some vital evidence has been dumped in the moat, he announces that it must be drained - then catches the murderer (actually the victim, who overpowered and switched identities with his would-be assassin) when they come to move the goods. Pure bluff, in that it was impossible to actually drain the moat.
- He pulls a type 3 on Colonel Moran in "The Adventure of the Empty House". He knows Moran was Moriarty's Dragon, and he also knows that Moran was responsible for a high-profile murder case. He's in danger as long as Moran is free, so he uses a wax replica of his head to trick Moran into shooting him. The police (who were alerted by Holmes) burst into the titular house where the Colonel was hiding and arrest him after he reveals himself.
- In one of Jill Paton Walsh's detective novels the police inspector states that they almost never get enough evidence to perfectly unambiguously convince the jury and win a trial, instead they get enough evidence to convince the murderer that they could, at which point they confess.
- In Arrow's Fall, the third of Mercedes Lackey's original Heralds of Valdemar trilogy, Herald Talia and Herald-Princess Elspeth catch a traitorous nobleman this way.
- Note that a telepathic probe of Talia would have ordinarily been enough to at least detain someone for questioning under the Truth Spell (the only thing that anyone lied about during the staged confrontation was Talia's relative health), but seizing a high ranking and almost completely trusted royal advisor without solid evidence is a delicate matter.
- Nero Wolfe does this more often than he doesn't.
- This is how Elijah Baley solves the case of roboticide in Isaac Asimov's The Robots of Dawn, getting Amadiro to blurt out that he had had contact with the robot. He does the same in a more cruel way in The Naked Sun.
- Porfiry of Crime and Punishment tries this many times on Raskolnikov. One particular instance involves Porfiry directly asking Raskolnikov about a detail at the crime scene when Raskalnikov is talking about his presence at the scene before the murder.
- Hannibal Lecter bluffs himself into this position by attacking Will Graham in a very self-incriminating way— little did Lecter know Graham had no real evidence on him, and knew he was the Chesapeake Ripper only because his own Lecter-level intuitive imagination led him to the conclusion.
- Jules Verne's Keraban the Inflexible has the same trick as Napier uses (explained above in the Folklore session), except with a goat instead of a rooster.
- Agatha Christie does this in several works:
- In Murder At The Vicarage, Miss Marple suggests a trap to make the killer believe someone overheard a telephone conversation.
- Conway Jefferson in The Body in the Library and Madame Renaud in The Murder on the Links make it known that they are changing their wills the following day, to induce the killer to attempt an assassination during the night, when the police will be waiting for them.
- Characters in The Moving Finger and A Murder Is Announced pretend that they saw the murder committed and know the identity of the murderer. In each case, once again, this induces the murderer to attempt another murder, and be caught.
- Cards on the Table has Hercule Poirot hire an actor to play the part of a chimney sweep who claims to have witnessed the murder through the window. He didn't really, of course, but Poirot reconstructed how it occurred from his imagination.
- In Death on the Nile, Poirot causes one of the killers to break down and confess by springing the truth on them.
- Played for Laughs in a very short story by Achille Campanile: a detective facing a line of suspects says in a deliberately casual way "Say, mister murderer...", then arrests the person who answered "Yes?"
- In Ragtime In Simla, Detective Sandilands brings in someone from the villain's past, whom they believed to be dead, to burst into a seance dressed as an accusing ghost.
- In Hamlet, this is the entire point of The Murder of Gonzago (the play within the play).
- Subverted in Dame Christie's The Mousetrap. All the witnesses/suspects are asked to to re-enact the murder, but to do so playing the part of one of the other witnesses. It seems an exceedingly clever ploy (or a bold bluff) to effectively catch the murderer. And that is all we're saying about it.
- In Arsenic and Old Lace, the hero Mortimer tries to bluff his Ax-Crazy brother Jonathan into leaving by threatening to introduce the cops to his latest murder victim. Subverted when Jonathan then threatens to tell the cops about the murders his kindly old aunts have committed, and then doubly subverted when Mortimer arranges to have his aunts committed to a mental institution and Jonathan gets arrested anyway.
- The entire plot of Rehearsal For Murder is one of these... sort of. The twist is that the "cop" in the supposed Engineered Public Confession is the real killer whose knowledge of the contents of desk drawers after a staged killing prove that he was at the crime scene. It turns out to also be an actual Engineered Public Confession of a REAL cop hidden elsewhere in the theater. All the supposed suspects were in on it (the bluff I mean).
- In Ace Attorney, the player character does this in every single case. When the evidence is overwhelmingly against their client, they manage to use the existing evidence to find the real killer. Some examples:
- In case 3-1 of Trials and Tribulations, Mia Fey (the attorney the player controls in that case) proposes the theory that the real killer put poison into Phoenix's cold medicine in order to kill him. Said "real killer" dismisses these claims. Mia then dares her to take some of the cold medicine, stating that she should have nothing to worry about if the theory is not true. The killer then breaks down and refuses, therefore proving Mia's theory.
- In case 3-3 of Trials and Tribulations, Furio Tigre, the murderer of the crime, manages to secure his innocence and nearly got away until Phoenix Wright pull this off. What Phoenix Wright does is present a fake evidence that this is the bottle that contains the poison that has his fingerprints on it. This gamble pays off when Furio laughs and mention it was the brown bottle; unknowing that he says something only the killer would say (since Furio disguise as Phoenix Wright).
- Something like this happens in the first case of Apollo Justice, where Phoenix gets to the real killer, Kristoph Gavin, by showing him a piece of doctored evidence. Kristoph accidentally implicates himself by shouting out that it's a fake... which means he knows where the real evidence is, in this case because he took it.
- Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors: Junpei learns that Guy X's killer has prosopagnosia, and needs to prove that Ace has prosopagnosia. So, he calls them all up to the hospital area where he claims to be Santa dressed in Junpei's clothing. Ace ends up confused, and falls for it.
- The Elder Scrolls games have an in-game short story, ''A Game at Dinner'', which uses a variant of this: Helseth implies to his assembled dinner guests that he put poison on the cutlery of someone spying against him, then invites any spies present to take a dose of the antidote, kept in a tureen at the centre of the table. One of the spies loses his nerve and drinks, only for Helseth to reveal that no-one's cutlery was poisoned. The poison was, in fact, the 'antidote' the spy was just bluffed into drinking.
- Dangan Ronpa has this trope appear frequently during trial scenes. Since all of the characters are there, getting the murderer to admit evidence is often necessary to solve the cases.
- Duckman does this to humorous effect in thwarting one of King Chicken's plots. After Cornfed gets him exonerated of all the charges, Duckman then calls King Chicken to the stand and proceeds to "interrogate" him by rambling senselessly until a fed-up King Chicken finally confesses just to shut him up.