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, hotel, or bar would have a basket of logo-stamped matchbooks by the door that patrons would just instinctively shove into their pocket. This is a reasonable (if cliché) clue for stories set in the '40s (e.g., Film Noir). In some cases, the blank interior of the matchbook might be used to jot down a phone number or other information, which inevitably turns out to be a useful lead.
Since then, smoking has become much less common than it was in most countries, public and indoor smoking are increasingly banned, and those who do smoke are more likely to use lighters than matches. Accordingly, branded matchbooks are much less common. However, other forms of advertising merchandise are still common (such as branded pens), keeping the spirit of the trope alive even after the matchbooks themselves disappeared from public recognition.
In fiction, no one ever shares matchbooks with a friend or acquaintance. Once it's in your pocket, it's locked there like a Clingy MacGuffin, a permanent memento of your journey.
- A matchbook from the "Devil's Lair" bar led Izumi to find Ed and Greed in Fullmetal Alchemist.
- Used in Batman #0, 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").
- Blackbird: At the beginning, when Nina wakes up the morning after the big earthquake, she thinks the Grand Oasis Diner was a dream until she finds a matchbook from there in her pocket.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- Sensation Comics: In one Wonder Woman story Chic Novelle realizes the gang that's taken her sister has abducted another victim when she finds a Fearless Men Magazine matchbook, since she knows that a reporter for the Magazine who was looking into the gang for a story always carries a matchbook from his job.
- In Another Thin Man, a matchbook leads Nick to the "West Indies Club", which leads to a vital clue.
- Asian School Girls: When Vivienne goes missing, her brother searches her room and finds a matchbook from The Kitty: the strip club where she has been working. He and Hector go to the club where the bouncer is able to point them in the right direction.
- A minor plot point in Back to the Future Part II: Marty steals a matchbook from Biff's crapsack 1985 "pleasure paradise". Once things return to normal, the matchbook changes the name of Biff's business from "pleasure paradise" to "auto detailing", which Biff asked Marty's opinion on earlier in the movie.
- The Baker Street Dozen:
- An important clue in Sherlock Holmes in Washington is that the microfilm that the Nazi agents had been hunting all over the place for was concealed within a matchbook that the British agent they killed was carrying.
- In The Woman in Green, Sir George uses his dying strength to grab and firmly grasp a matchbook from Bancroft House as a Dying Clue.
- Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop II recovers a matchbook from a failed hitman, and is able to recover Cain's fingerprint. Oddly, though' not the hitman's fingerprints, even though he was the last one to handle it and didn't have gloves.
- 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).
- In Castle of Sand the only clue found by the body was a matchbook to an establishment called Bar "Ron". This leads to the witness who saw the dead man with another man, and recalls the mysterious mentions of "Kameda."
- In Harper, Harper pulls a matchbook out of the pocket of the dead guy who came for the ransom money. It leads him to the nightclub where Betty Fraley is performing.
- Used as a clue in Dark City.
- Variation in Die Hard with a Vengeance: an aspirin bottle that the villain jokingly hands to McClane turns out to be stamped with logo of a hotel in Canada where he and his men are using as a hide out.
- Used in Eddie and the Cruisers 2: Eddie Lives!, of all places. Diane the artist chick meets the hero, a disguised Eddie Wilson, at a hockey game and becomes so obsessed with painting him that she tracks him down at the bar featured on the matches he had briefly used to light a cigarette.
- 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 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.
- A variation in Lady in Cement: going by the swizzle stick. Tony finds a cup full of swizzle sticks embossed "Jilly's" in Sandra's apartment. Going to the club, he discovers it was where she worked.
- Parodied in 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.
- 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 '60s.
- Roger O. Thornhill uses his monogrammed matchbook to deliver an important warning to Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) near the end of Hitchcock's North By Northwest.
- Subverted in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies: the title character finds a matchbook with an important clue written on the flap, but completely fails to pay any attention to it. Twice.
- 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.
- A branded napkin is the clue in Sinners And Saints (2010), for a club that closed down five years before, so the police realise the villains are using the supposedly derelict building.
- 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 the story 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".
- In Stray Dog, Sato the detective notices a matchbook in the home of the bad guy's girlfriend. It leads him to the hotel where the bad guy is hanging out.
- 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.
- In Switchback, Lane realizes that Bob really is a Serial Killer by seeing that he's got a matchbook from a motel where a high-profile double murder was committed.
- The Untouchables (1987). Frank Nitti has the address of Jim Malone written on a book of matches, but he forgets to dispose of it after killing Malone. Later in the film Elliot Ness makes Nitti empty his pockets for a search, but is forced to hand his gun back because Nitti has a gun permit endorsed by the Mayor of Chicago. Ness then decides he needs a cigarette and picks up the matchbook to light it...
Ness: (reading) 1634 Racine. You know I used to have a friend who lived there?
- This was used (or homaged) in Watchmen, in the film at least.
- Invoked Trope in War (2007). Rogue kills Joey T and makes it look like the Yakuza did it. Chang orders Joey's brother not to seek revenge at this time, but Rogue follows him out of the building and lights a cigarette for him, pointedly telling him to keep the matchbook. The matchbook shows the name of a tea house where the Yakuza will be meeting that night.
- Burke intentionally subverts this, by going out of his way to obtain matchbooks from bars he's never visited, and deliberately dropping them.
- 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.
- 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 Halfway House, Ellery Queen 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 Hitchhiker's 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.
- 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.
- Averted in The Saint short story "The Saint and the Sizzling Saboteur". The police find the matchbook used to set fire to the victim. One of the officers thinks this might be the clue that breaks the case open, only for the lead detective to reach into his pocket and pull out a matchbook, saying that he has no idea where this particular bar is or how the matchbook came to be in his possession.
- Happens in The Yiddish Policemen's Union along with many other Film Noir tropes.
- Lampshaded in Batman (1966) 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 bookstore 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, because he found one that said "Arizona Matchbook Company" on it. They end up being ignited by his hot plate, and setting the place he's squatting in on fire.
- 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.
- CSI: NY: In "White Gold," Hawkes and Flack find a matchbook stuck to the victim's back with blood; having fallen out of the killer's pocket when he dumped the body into a dumpster. This leads them to the bar where he hangs out.
- 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 possession of a Canadian official's daughter, in a distinct aversion of the Clingy Macguffin quality of clue matchbooks in fiction.
- Endeavour: In "Home," Morse finds a matchbook with the phone number of the Girl of the Week written on it. He initially goes looking for the girl and learns that she is a cigarette girl at a nightclub and brought the matchbooks home with her. When she goes missing, Morse uses the book to identify the club she works at and goes looking for her.
- The Equalizer: In "No Conscience," a chronic womanizer gets kidnapped by industrial spies who kept insisting that "she said she gave it to you" and refuse to believe his claims of innocence. Realizing he's going to be tortured, The Casanova quickly "confesses" and promises to get "it" to them within 36 hours — he then has to hire the Equalizer to help him sort through 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 realized she was being followed and passed the microdot on to him to get rid of it. He passed it to his date-for-the-night, who passed it onto another man in the singles bar, who passed it on to a girl...
McCall: ...and before you know it we've got a case of matchbook, matchbook, find the bloody matchbook.
- Inspector George Gently: In the episode "Peace & Love," the murder victim has a matchbook from a particular bar in his pocket. Played with slightly, in that the barman remembers him even though he only went there once because he swiped all the matchbooks.
- Jonathan Creek: In "Daemons' Roost," the matchbook the killer used to light the furnace turns out to be an important clue to the killer's identity (although not the one it first appears to be).
- Kamen Rider Build: This is one part on how Sawa managed to find out nascita was also Build's hideout - he dropped a matchbook with the cafe's name after defeating Needle Smash that was attacking her. The second was Souichi leaving the refrigerator/hidden door open. Subverted when it turns out Build actually didn't drop any matchbook. Sawa is a spy who simply followed Build to the nascita and find out about the hidden door herself. The matchbook (which she took from the nascita) and opened door are excuses to make her looks less suspicious.
- Magnum, P.I.: Tom Magnum sometimes finds matchbooks, but his adventures take place in the 1980s when people were starting to smoke less. He's more likely to find business cards.
- One classic Mission: Impossible episode depended on a bad guy noticing something about a matchbook in order to fall for the team's Batman Gambit.
- 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 (i.e. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 The Rockford Files, Jim Rockford often finds matchbooks as clues. This is a 1970s show.
- 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
- Warehouse 13: Myka realizes that a matchbook is an important clue in the "The Big Snag" episode as the name of the hotel where it is from is the same as the mother of Anthony Bishop, the author of the Noir novel that they are trapped in.
- A variant is used in Breaking Bad when Hank finds a napkin from Los Pollos Hermanos in Gale's apartment. Since Gale is a vegan, and the restaurant is built around fried chicken, Hank correctly deduces that the restaurant is somehow connected to the drug trade.
- 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?
Doctor: That's the trouble with clichés.
- In the pulp action game Adventure!, each skill description has a small story vignette. The one for the Investigation skill has two people utterly fail to find any clues, and one of them laments that if this was a detective novel, they would at least have found a matchbox or something.
- 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.
- In Batman: The Telltale Series, Batman finds a matchbook to the Skyline Club on a dead goon.
- In the Casebook Trilogy on the second case one of the clues is a matchbook for an Irish pub. In England. So the chances of anyone else having one are very rare.
- In The Darkside Detective, one of the people McQueen interviews hands over a matchbook from the club he was partying at on the night in question. The club itself is irrelevant — except in that the nature of the club gives an insight into the nature of the person—but McQueen later uses the matches themselves to throw light on the matter when the case takes a dark turn.
- In Discworld Noir, a major clue early on is a matchbook from the Octarine Parrot.
- Fallout: New Vegas uses a version of this: If the player visits his "grave" he can find Distinctive Cigarette Butt and later in Boulder City he can find Distinctive Lighter. Both are unique items and can be presented as proof of Benny's 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.
- Played straight while investigating a disappearance at the Ultra-Luxe.
- In Kingdom of Loathing, pygmy janitors will sometimes drop matchbooks, which can be used outside of combat to unlock a bar in the Hidden City (they can also be used in combat to give the enemy a hot-foot).
- 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.
- A matchbook from the bar Vodka shows up in Max Payne 2, though it isn't so much a clue as a "Eureka!" Moment trigger.
- 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.
- 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.
- One of the Feelies in the Infocom game The Witness (a Film Noir Murder 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 the Adventure Time episode "Root Beer Guy," the titular Root Beer Guy finds a matchbook which leads him to Lake Butterscotch, where Finn and Jake pretend to drown Princess Bubblegum as part of a mock-kidnapping to test the police force.
- 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".
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)