There 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.