A staple of mystery or Film Noir themed shows: a lead on a missing person is provided by a branded matchbook indicating a bar they've visited.
In the old days, back when people cared more about looking cool than smelling fresh, everyone smoked; accordingly, every diner, dive, and kindergarten would have a basket of logo-stamped matches by the door that patrons would just instinctively shove into their pocket. This is a reasonable (if cliche) clue for stories set in the 40s (e.g., Film Noir). A little less realistic nowadays, but still shows up in a noir-style show.
When was the last time you saw someone lighting a cigarette, cigar, joint, or bong with a match, anyway, let alone a handy clue-ready matchbook? A modern writer can still use this trope with a little imagination, though; a branded lighter would be the obvious choice, but pens or business cards could work too.
In fiction, no one ever shares matchbooks with a friend or accquaintance. Once it's in your pocket, it's locked there like a Clingy MacGuffin, a permanent memento of your journey.
Used in a Batman storyline, except that the name of the bar wasn't on the matchbook, so Batman, having used other evidence to narrow it down to the East Wharf, goes from bar to bar in the guise of Matches Malone, buying books of matches until he finds the right one (and explaining he can't use the one in his mouth, because it stays there "for purposes of trademark").
In "The Lords of Luck", the first story arc in the revived version of The Brave and the Bold, a matchbook found on a corpse leads Batman and Green Lantern to the casino where he worked.
In an issue of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book, Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Splinter, and April return to the building from which a ridiculously large Foot Soldier had emerged. Upon entering the building, they find a matchbook bearing the name "Acme Traps", which they go to and find... Donatello tied up and dangling from the ceiling, suspended over a maze.
Axel Foley in the first Beverly Hills Cop movie recovers a matchbook from a failed hitman, and is able to recover the Big Bad's fingerprint.
In Halloween (1978), Loomis finds a plumber's abandoned pickup, and in it is the same matchbook carried by the nurse who was with him when Michael Myers escaped the previous night; she left her matches in the car Michael stole, and they wound up in the truck of the guy he stole his jumpsuit from.
Hartigan in the Sin City movie finds Nancy with the help of a book of matches in her apartment. He does, however, point out in the narration that it's his only lead.
The time period in which Sin City is set isn't entirely clear; some characters dress like 90s antiheroes, while the cars (equipped with early '90s car-phones) look early-60s at the latest and weapons run the gamut from swords to bleeding-edge sniper rifles. But they had to use the matchbook gag, as the whole premise of the series is "take film noir and turn all the dials up to eleven".
Used in the film But I'm a Cheerleader. The woman who runs True Directions (a camp that is meant to make homosexual teens straight), finds a matchbook for the gay bar some of the teens snuck out to under the main character's bed (the bar is called the Cocksucker).
The Untouchables (1987). Frank Nitti has the address of Jim Malone written on a book of matches. Unfortunately he forgets to dispose of it after killing Malone, so when Elliot Ness searches him later it leads to their final shootout.
Parodied in National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1: "I've never been there!" - "Well, these matches say you're lying." Then the matchbook is opened up, just to reveal the words "You're lying" written there.
Subverted in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies: the title character finds a match book with an important clue written on the flap, but completely fails to pay any attention to it. Twice.
This was used (or homaged) in Watchmen, in the film at least.
A matchbook is one of the 20 items in Paycheck, and seems even more of an anachronism in the future. Justified in that the label on the matchbook is a painted-on disguise for its real information, and also because the hero actually needs to light matches later on.
In Men in Black 3, K notices Roman the Fabulist carried a matchbook from Cosmic Bowling Lanes. Since Roman didn't smoke, K deduces this to be meant as a clue. Oh, and if you wonder about the use of the classic form of this trope in a movie this new, it should be noted that it all started with a time jump to The Sixties.
Used in Superman III. Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor's character) is inspired to go into computers after seeing it on the back of a matchbook.
This is the first clue Harrison Ford's character gets in Frantic. The matchbook is for the Blue Parrot nightclub, with the number of Michelle's contact written on it.
In Halfway House, Ellery points out that most matchbooks are far too common for one to be incriminating. Then it turns out that one is, anyway.
Used in The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy "trilogy", where Arthur Dent learns in advance that he can't die until he visits a certain place, which he takes to be the name of a planet. It turns out to be a trendy bar on Earth, which he winds up in without learning its name; not until too late does he notice the bar's logo printed on a book of matches.
Burke intentionally subverts this, by going out of his way to obtain matchbooks from bars he's never visited, and deliberately dropping them.
Novelist/humorist James Lileks purchased a collection of old matchbooks at an estate sale, arranged them in alphabetical order, and began a novel about the person who might have accumulated them. The result was Joe Ohio, which unfortunately peters out after fifty-six chapters/matchbooks.
While matches haven't been invented yet in the fantasy/mystery Garrett, P.I. series, Garrett did once find an assortment of paper fans, each marked in a pattern indicating which brothel it came from. Subverted in that he doesn't bother to track them to their sources, knowing no such establishment could afford to tattle on its clients if it's going to stay in business.
In City of Devils, Nick's first clue is a matchbook that turns out to be from a brothel in which the employees are monsters pretending to be humans, and the clients pretend to turn them into monsters. No one has sex there, which the hero thinks is sick.
Live Action TV
In an episode of Police Squad!!, Drebin dismisses a suspect's alibi by presenting a matchbook from his favorite club that had been found at the crime scene. Of course, since this is Police Squad!, when he is asked to explain the matchbook, the suspect briefly explains how rubbing sulfur against a surface can produce fire.
In a flashback on Veronica Mars we see that Lily has quite a collection of matchbooks with Hispanic names and phone numbers written on them. Of course, she's never been to the bars or met the guys, she just left them around the house for her mother to find....
It was the fact that the matches were removed from the left side of the matchbook, indicating that the user of the matches was left-handed (ie, held the matchbook in their right hand and used their left hand to strike the match). There was a tense scene where the team was listening to the bad guy not getting it, and worrying that they had made the clues too subtle.
An episode of The Equalizer had a handsome chronic womaniser get kidnapped by industrial spies who kept insisting that "she said she gave it to you" and refuse to believe his claims of innocence. Realising he's going to be tortured, The Casanova quickly "confesses" and promises to get "it" to them in 24 hours — he then has to hire the Equalizer to help him sort though the multitude of women he's dated to find the right one. "It" turns out to be a microdot on a matchbook handed to him with a girl's phone number written on the inside; the girl had realised she was being followed and passed the microdot on to him to get rid of it.
A variation in an episode of Due South. The matchbook wasn't important because of where it was from, it was important because the inside of it doubled as a mobster's address book. It ends up getting stolen by his ex-girlfriend (who just thought it was a matchbook) and accidentally ended up in the posession of a Canadian official's daughter, in a distinct aversion of the Clingy Macguffin quality of clue matchbooks in fiction.
Lampshaded in Batman in the episode, "A Death Worse Than Fate," where Zelda the Great, upon releasing Aunt Harriet whom she kidnapped, deliberately planted a matchbook of her accomplice's book store to lure the Dynamic Duo into a Death Trap.
Parodied in Community where Chang, trying to investigate a Noir mystery that exists only inside his head, buys thousands of matchbooks. They end up being ignited by his hot plate, and setting the place he's squatting in on fire.
On My Name Is Earl, Earl's ex-girlfriend Jessie has become a Bounty Hunter, and wants to take Joy in (to get back at her for a) knocking out her two front teeth and b) stealing Earl from her.) Earl goes to talk to her, while Joy hides out in his motel room. When he returns, he finds that Jessie has followed him using this method.
Greg on CSI Crime Scene Investigation once had to compare a single torn-off cardboard match to a whole lot of matchbooks found in a suspect's residence. After dozens of comparison, he found that its ripped edge lined up perfectly with the stub inside the matchbook it was torn from.
In Once Upon a Time, when Belle is let out of the hospital, the only thing Mr. Gold finds in her room is a matchbook for a sleazy bar called "The Rabbit Hole." This is because the matchbook was planted by Regina after she used it to give Belle an alternate personality.
Subverted in the Big Finish Doctor Who audio Invaders from Mars, when the Doctor and his companion, Charley, upon finding the dead body of a private eye, have the following exchange:
Doctor: I believe it's usual in these circumstances to find a clue written on the back of a book of matches. Charley: What, like this book of matches? Doctor: Well done, what's in it? Charley: Matches! Doctor: That's the trouble with clichés.
Phoenix in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations finds a matchbook for the Tres Bien restaurant, where a murder was committed, in the office of a loan shark. He later uses the matchbook to refute the loan shark's claim that he had never set foot in Tres Bien, and thus could not have been the murderer.
The mysterious man who gives you the main quest in Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura has a matchbook from an inn on his person, but in a subversion, the inn cannot be reached until the end of the game, and by then the mystery is basically solved and what you do learn still wouldn't be anything of value at any point in the game.
On the other hand, the trope is played straight with the one you find while searching for the Siamese twins' skulls.
One of the Feelies in the Infocom game Witness (a Film NoirMurder Mystery set in 1938) was a matchbook with a vital clue. One reviewer mentioned accidentally using the matches and throwing away the matchbook before solving the game.
In Snatcher, finding a matchbook from the Outer Heaven bar is one of the red herring clues to the identity of the Snatcher that has infiltrated the Junkers.
In the Casebook Trilogy on the second case one of the clues is a match book for an Irish pub. In England. So that chances of anyone else having one are very rare.
This is used a number of times to find new locations during several cases in L.A. Noire. Inverted when the crime scene is a nightclub and irrelevant matchbooks are scattered throughout the location.
Fallout: New Vegas uses a version of this: If player visit his "grave" he can find Dinstictive Cigaret Butt and later in Boulder City he can find Distinctive Lighter. Both are unique items and can be presented as a proof of Bennys attempt to murder you. Played somewhat more realistically, in that the person you have to convince isn't swayed by either piece of evidence alone, you need both to actually get him to believe you enough to let you snoop around Benny's pad.
In Discworld Noir, a major clue early on is a matchbook from the Octarine Parrot.
The King of the Hill episode "Revenge of the Lutefisk" when Cotton was wrongfully accused of burning down Arlen's church after the detectives found a matchbook from "a strip club in Houston".
In a José Carioca story, all they find is a burnt match the villain had used, but he instructs Nestor to take it to all the bars and try to figure out where it came from and who bought it. This naturally doesn't work at all.
A variation occurs in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003), the turtles follow a matchbox left by a mercenary to the hotel where he and his posse are staying at. Incidentally, since the mercenary can't be shown smoking due to S&P reasons, he is instead given an oral fixation with the matches themselves.
In the episode "Self-Medication" of The Venture Bros., Doctor Venture attends group therapy with a bunch of other former boy adventurers. When the psychiatrist drops dead from a venomous snake bite, the group follows the lead of a matchbook found on the body — Dale Hale says the therapist didn't strike him as a smoker and it must have been dropped by the killer. It was a dead end and had absolutely nothing to do with the murder; the snake was planted in the air ducts by Henchman 21.
Parodied on The Simpsons; Marge goes through Bart's pockets while she's doing the laundry, and a matchbook from a jazz club is one of the things she tosses aside before a flyer for an upcoming bake sale catches her attention.
An early episode of Francie has her suspecting her boyfriend of an affair because she found a matchbook for a hotel, never mind that the character doesn't smoke. (He had written a phone number on it, apparently not thinking to use any of the fifty hojillion other kinds of paper in a hotel lobby.)