What You Need is Some Fresh Publicity*

Publicity StuntsThere are plenty of times when people want to call as little attention to themselves as possible. That’s especially true if one is by nature a private person, or the matter is something personal, and one doesn’t want it getting around. But there are also times when publicity is exactly what’s needed. Whether it’s to sell a company’s product, tout a particular political candidate, or boost a particular cause, publicity can be very helpful. So, sometimes, people or companies do publicity stunts to call attention to themselves.

I don’t have to tell you how often that happens in real life. And it happens in crime fiction, too. Space only permits me to share a few examples; I know you will think of many more.

Agatha Christie took part in a publicity stunt to boost tourism on the Isle of Man. She wrote a short story called Manx Gold, in which engaged couple Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker take part in a scavenger hunt to find treasure that’s buried on the island. It seems that Fenella’s eccentric Uncle Myles has stipulated in his will that the treasure goes to whichever of his potential heirs finds it first. Each competitor gets the same clues, and soon enough, it’s clear that someone is willing to kill to win. The story was linked to an actual competition on the island. Four identical snuffboxes filled with Manx half-pennies were hidden at various places on the island. The story, which was printed in instalments, provided clues to those boxes. Anyone who could find all four snuffboxes would win £100. Interestingly, no-one ever claimed the prize.

Hollywood is well-known for publicity stunts, and that’s exactly what happens in Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts. Queen is working temporarily at Magna Studios, where he’s doing some screenwriting on a biopic of famous stars John Royle and Blythe Stuart. The couple had a famous, very public, very stormy romance that ended bitterly. Each then married someone else, and each now has an adult child. Now, Magna wants to reunite the couple for the film. To everyone’s surprise, they agree. What’s more, they rekindle their romance, and decide to get married. So, rather than fighting the force of love, so to speak, Magna decides to use the wedding as a publicity stunt for the film. The plan is for the couple to marry on an airstrip, and then immediately board a private plane for their honeymoon trip. The wedding gets an awful lot of hype, and everyone’s there for the big day. Royle and Stuart duly marry; then, they and their children get onto the plane. But by the time the plane lands, the newlyweds are dead – murdered, as it turns out, by poison. The couple’s children claim they’re innocent, but it’s hard to imagine who else had the opportunity. Queen looks into the matter and finds out the answer.

Sometimes, publicity stunts are undertaken for a good cause. In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, for instance, Mma Sylvia Potokwani wants to raise awareness and money for the orphanage she runs. So she decides to have a publicity-stunt parachute jump. And she can’t think of anyone better suited to jump than Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who runs Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. He’s committed to the orphanage, and spends quite a lot of time there, fixing equipment and doing repairs. But Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is not eager to do the jump. Not only does he tend to shy away from publicity, but also, there’s the very real danger. Still, he allows himself to be persuaded. His fiancée, Mma Precious Ramotswe, finds a solution. She persuades Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s assistant, Charlie, to jump instead, telling him that it will impress all of the girls. The idea works, and the orphanage gets the publicity it needs.

A publicity stunt backfires badly in Anthea Fraser’s Eleven That Went Up to Heaven. In that novel, wealthy conference center owner Richard Vine decides to hold a publicity-stunt party to which he’s invited several guests, twenty of whom are also named Richard Vine. Hours later, a minibus crashes not very far from where the party was held. There are ten fatalities; five of the victims are called Richard Vine. What’s more, it’s soon clear that this was no accident. Now DCI Webb and his team have to find out whether the deaths were related to the publicity stunt, or whether someone had another reason for killing.

When a trial gets a lot of media attention, very often, the attorneys involved do, too. And that publicity can be a real help to their careers, especially if they want to work for a large, rich firm, or even go into politics. There are, of course, limits to what lawyers are allowed to do in terms of publicity.  They’re expected to behave professionally. Still, every attorney knows how important publicity can be, not just for the case at hand, but also for the future. In John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, small-town attorney Jake Brigance gets the opportunity of a lifetime when Carl Lee Hailey hires him. Hailey has been jailed for murdering Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard. But this isn’t a typical case. Cobb and Willard had brutally raped Hailey’s ten-year-old daughter, Tonya, and there are plenty of people who support Hailey. Just as many, though, want this case to go away. The national media get hold of the story, and one plot thread in this novel is the way Brigance and his counterpart for the prosecution, Rufus Buckley, make use of the publicity.

Publicity stunts and grandstanding have their place. They can help people’s careers, support a cause, and much more. These are only a few crime-fictional examples. Now it’s your turn to take the stage.

ps. The ‘photo you see is of player cards for two of the players for the (US) National Football League (NFL)’s Philadelphia Eagles. Several years ago, a menswear store opened not far from where Mr. COAMN and I were living. As a publicity stunt for the store, several of the players were in the store, signing player cards and greeting fans. I got to meet three of them – all very courteous and gracious. It turned out that the event was a real success.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joan Baez’ Time Rag.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthea Fraser, Ellery Queen, John Grisham

33 responses to “What You Need is Some Fresh Publicity*

  1. I enjoyed those examples, Margot, especially Agatha Christie’s “treasure hunt.” I have a “thing” for treasure hunts! I was thinking the substitute parachutist would pull the ripcord and a bag of rubbish would fly out of the chute pack. Hmm, food for thought. Thanks for another interesting post. I’ll jot down this idea for a future Mac McClellan mystery! 🙂

    • Oh, I like that idea of using a parachute jump, Michael! No reason you couldn’t use that in one of your Mac McClellan stories. And I always thought Manx Gold was interesting, more for its history than for the actual story itself. It’s really a creative strategy, I think.

  2. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Mystery/crime writer Margot Kinberg ties publicity with murder and mystery!

  3. Rex Stout used similar gambits involving publicity and publicity stunts in several of the Nero Wolfe stories. In “Before Midnight,” for example, there’s a contest for a perfume company which runs into a slight problem: the person who creates the contest, which involves solving a series of riddles, is murdered and the answers stolen. Clearly someone in the final round of contestants doesn’t mind murdering to win the million dollar prize, and it’s up to Nero Wolfe to sniff the killer out…sorry, couldn’t resist…

    • Ha! No need for apologies, Les. And you’re right; several of the Wolfe stories have that sort of plot point, don’t they? I’m very glad you filled in that gap. And thank you for reminding me of Before Midnight. Don’t tell anyone, will you, but I’d completely forgotten about that story. And it’s a fine example of what I had in mind with this post, too.

  4. I’d never heard that story about Agatha Christie before, how intriguing that no-one claimed the prize.

  5. I love the idea of five victims all with the same name! But how confusing to write, I’d imagine. My favourite crime fictional publicity stunt is in Colin Watson’s ‘Broomsticks over Flaxborough -a detergent company has hired some pretty girls, dressed them up in little white outfits and set them to knock on doors asking residents if they have a box of Lucilite (I think). If they can produce one, they win a prize. The ‘Lucys’ are used to add a lot of humour to the book, with some of the strange reactions they get from the people they visit, plus they can provide a lot of info about who was around at the time the crime was committed. It’s such a lovely old-fashioned form of publicity.

    • It really is, FictionFan! And what a great example of the sort of publicity stunt I had in mind with this point. It actually sounds like a good read, too; I may have to seek that one out. I jsut have this great mental image of these ‘Lucys!’ 🙂

  6. Tim

    Here is what I do not understand. How do you know so much about so many different authors and books? I cannot remember what I had for lunch! But I appreciate the additions you make to my “I might read this (and then quickly forget) someday” list.

  7. kathyd

    The parachute jump in The Full Cupboard of Life was a creative way to raise funds for the orphanage. And fun to read about. Poor Charlie, but I’m glad Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni didn’t have to jump.
    And Grisham does put media to good use in A Time to Kill.
    Nero Wolfe does publicity stunts in many books. He likes the drama and also often gets witnesses and potential suspects into that West Side brownstone in all kinds of ways. Clever that way, he is.
    And another topic which astounds the blog’s readers with knowledge that we forget.
    You must write an encyclopedia of crime fiction.

    • Thanks, Kathy. And you’re right about Nero Wolfe; he is clever about getting people he wants to visit him at the brownstone, isn’t he? I like that about him. And I agree about Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni; I’m very glad he wasn’t the one who had to jump. I think Mma Ramotswe had a clever solution.

  8. Col

    I can’t actually think of anything and I’m unfamiliar with your examples. More coffee needed!

  9. kathyd

    No one can keep up with COAMN!

  10. Publicity can be a two-edged sword so to speak. It can help in a criminal investigation, but it can also hurt it. Great examples, Margot.

  11. Margot, both Alexander McCall Smith (and Colin Dexter) are on my wish-list. I have a couple of books by the former and quite a few by the latter that I hope to read eventually. I’m particularly keen on reading Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

    • I like that series very much, Prashant. It’s got a wonderful sense of place, and I do like the character of Mma Ramotswe. As far as Colin Dexter goes, I’ve always liked his Inspector Morse quite a lot, too. If you get the chance to try these series, I hope you’ll enjoy them.

  12. As I read your examples, which were excellent by the way, I couldn’t help but think of how many crime writers will use Pokemon Go to hatch new plots. I bet there will be a slew of new thrillers and mysteries based around this game.

    • Thank you, Sue. And I think that the Pokemon Go context would be fabulous for a crime plot. What a great context! And of course, quite timely. *Head now buzzing with ideas*

  13. Margot: There was a real life sports promoter from Saskatchewan, Wild Bill Hunter, who was known for his constant efforts to gain publicity for teams and events. The pinnacle was the day he called a press conference that when the attendees arrived they learned was to announce a press conference.

    In my other writing position as a sports columnist I have often been surprised by how polite big powerful football players are off the field.

    • Oh, my goodness, Bill – a press conference to announce a press conference? Now, that is definitely a publicity event. I hadn’t heard of Wild Bull Hunter, before – at least more than perhaps vaguely – so thanks.

      As to football players, I’m glad you’ve found them to be polite off the field. I like it when they don’t take the fans and the press for granted. And yes, they can be big. When I met the Eagles players, we shook hands. One of the had a hand span that went up past my wrist.

  14. These are great examples Margot. One that springs to mind immediately is a children’s book called Masquerade. It had many people searching for a golden hare. Here’s a link http://www.abebooks.co.uk/books/kit-williams-treasure-golden-hare/masquerade.shtml

    A friend of mine suggested that to get people interested in the crowdfunder I’m planning I should put a big add on the fence out the front of my house and register it as a pokemon go hotspot. I’m not so sure about that lol 🙂

    • Ha! I can just see that hotspot sign, D.S.! Well, you’d certainly get interest, if nothing else, wouldn’t you? Thank you very much for sharing the link to Masquerade. And now you’ve got me thinking of the great Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. You’ve got a great example there of using a publicity stunt, so thanks for filling in the gap.

  15. I recently read John Dickson Carr’s Mad Hatter Mystery – there’s a kind of publicity stunt in that, but (although it’s easy to guess) I won’t spoiler it.

  16. I never would have thought of publicity stunts in mysteries. Amazing. I guess no subject has been missed.

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