1. You are offered a 15% discount on shoes if you purchase a particular brand.
2. A Tupperware store offers your TV channel $100 000 to promote their products.
3. A basketball team offers $500 000 to a TV station in return for positive coverage.
4. A shareholder offers a banker $750 000 in return for preferential interest rates and higher dividends.
Which of these do you think would qualify as bribery?
Now compare your answer(s) with the standard definition from Wex’s Legal Dictionary:
“Bribery refers to the offering, giving, soliciting, or receiving of any item of value as a means of influencing the actions of an individual holding a public or legal duty.”
Bribery involves a violation of trust and a breach of authority. Offering incentives to consumers (i.e. the first two examples) wouldn’t fall into this category as there’s no abuse of power in exchange for unfair advantage.
But what about the third example? Would it be bribery if the LA Lakers paid $500 000 to ESPN in exchange for positive coverage? That depends. If the money was being used for advertising purposes, it wouldn’t be considered bribery. If it resulted in journalists violating their reporting standards? It would be.
The final example would definitely qualify as bribery. The banker in this scenario would be abusing their position to offer advantages that aren’t available to any other client through dishonest and possibly illegal means.
Bribery in crime fiction works great for whodunnits and thrillers alike. You can increase the stakes by adding money as a motivating factor, magnifying the potential consequences for your criminals.
Many countries like the US and the UK punish bribery by requiring the defendant to repay several times the amount and also sentencing them to prison. But in a country where bribery already is rife, such as Russia and South Africa, the higher moral authority could be an international organisation. Setting a bribery case in a corrupt country could make your detective’s work much harder and involve unanticipated risks to their personal safety.
Some people believe bribery is untraceable, though that isn’t the case. Sure, it may take years to uncover, but it can’t remain secret forever. This is usually due to at least one of the following reasons:
Receiving advantages in a short period of time attracts suspicion. (Similar to: insider trading)
Since substantial payments are often made in advance, they can be tracked more easily. (Compare with: money laundering).
Whistleblowers may tip off the authorities.
Those receiving large cash payments may spend them lavishly, attracting attention.
Bribery rarely happens once, and so investigators can follow repeated patterns of behaviour.
When writing about bribery, it’s important to maintain balance. Focusing too much on the detection side at the expense of the crime will dilute the high stakes and tension. Also, it’s helpful to have more than one bribe.
Why? Well, the person offering a bribe may not get what they want. Or, it may not meet expectations and they might need something else in order to reap the full benefits. The person receiving a bribe may get greedy and attempt a double-cross. They could even have a crisis of conscience and refuse any more bribes.
You have a real chance to show the character dynamics between the person giving and the person accepting a bribe. They both fear the law– and each other. What will they do to protect themselves/their own interests?
Don’t forget other links in the bribery chain such as accountants, unscrupulous lawyers, middle men, and so on. Increasing their involvement as the story progresses will complicate affairs for the criminal(s) and your detective.
Also, don’t be afraid to explore unusual scenarios. Here are a couple great examples:
(Crime Thriller) “A whistleblower at the SEC has 10 hours to expose a team of top prosecutors for accepting bribes from the oil company they are investigating, before the prosecutors drop their investigation.”
(Murder Mystery– Howdunnit): “A famous oil magnate is murdered for threatening to expose bribery at a competitor’s firm, leaving his son to expose the villains before the killer strikes again.”
Including bribery amongst other crimes will always increase tension.
Be careful with dialogue when presenting the crime:
“If I bribe you with $100 000,” Mr X said, “will you let me become District Attorney?”
Ridiculous, isn’t it? Don’t tell readers what they already know or can infer from the context. Show them what they don’t know: the moral fiber of each character, their attitude towards money, the length of time it takes them to accept a bribe, the measures they take to conceal the bribery, and the consequences.
“The envelope sat between them, untouched. Mr. X leaned back in his chair.
“Is that–?” said Mr. Y. His palms were sweaty.
“$100 000. An additional $50 000 will be yours if you have me in the DA’s office by December.”
According to Harvard Business School, knowledge of bribery is more harmful to employees than a negative company image. Morale decreases even when employees are only aware of small bribes. It isn’t hard to see why. Cheating your way to success brings no satisfaction and others risk being seen as a co-conspirators if they don’t report the bribery. Economists also state that bribery hurts the economy by encouraging some to acquire disproportionate wealth through unfair advantage. Consider ways to include these factors in your story.
Don’t skimp on dialogue in favour of “active” detection. Yes, your detective will probably search through bank statements, but they also need to interrogate suspects and deduce whether testimonies are true or false. Proving bribery means establishing whether there was a quid pro quo relationship. Someone’s interpretation of quid pro quo may not match with the law or ethics, and vice versa.
Definition of quid pro quo from Wex’s Legal Dictionary:
“Latin for “something for something.” An exchange of acts or things of approximately equal value.”
If you’re interested in writing about bribery, here are some prompts to get you started:
1- Write a scene in which a character with high integrity accepts a bribe.
2- Write a scene in which a character with low integrity refuses a bribe.
Have you read any stories that included bribery? Have you ever considered using it as a plot device? Please feel free to share your thoughts below!
Deborah blogs at Story Scribes. She loves Victorian murder mysteries, steak, and Mathematics. Not all at the same time.