Mystery fans talk about MacGuffins as something elusive that drives the mystery. It can be an object the sleuth hunts down, like the falcon figurine in Dashiell Hammett’s famous 1929 novel The Maltese Falcon. If the MacGuffin is something the protagonist believes exists for whatever reason, and if it’s something sought but never seen, then we can’t be sure if it really exists. Maybe it’s a myth.
Alfred Hitchcock is credited with using this technique well in his films. Here is how he explained the term “MacGuffin,” according to Wikipedia:
It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.” The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well,” the other man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.
This started me wondering. If the MacGuffin is really nothing, as Hitchcock claimed, then is it a myth? If the characters in the story believe it’s something, then it might be real, right?
But if it’s nothing, then here’s what I wonder:
1. How important do you think the MacGuffin is for a mystery?
Personally, I think it’s very important, especially for a mystery.
MacGuffins may or may not exist, but they keep the sleuth sleuthing. For example, in mysteries where the sleuths are journalists, the story they are pursuing is often the MacGuffin. In archeology mysteries, it’s often what’s buried in the barrow. In the old gothics, or newer paranormal mysteries, it’s the secret in the tower (or basement). Often the niche of a niche mystery serves as the MacGuffin, for instance the knitting circle keeps wanting to meet, but bodies keep getting in the way. In my own Nell Letterly mysteries, it’s the missing husband who is the MacGuffin. His being missing is what pulls Nell through her adventures. And if he ever shows up (which he might, several books down the road), then he’ll become real and not a myth at all. As Hitchcock said, “That’s no MacGuffin!”
And I also wonder, dear sisters and readers:
2. What’s the MacGuffin you use in your mysteries? Or, what’s your favorite MacGuffin that you’ve read?