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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The MacGuffins of Sherlock Holmes

The Great Agra Treasure (The Bristol Observer, 1890)
In last week’s blog post, I mentioned the use of MacGuffins as one of the frequent plot tropes in the Canonical Holmes stories. This deserves more comment.

Alfred Hitchcock coined the term “MacGuffin,” but good old Wikipedia offers the best definition that I have found: 
“In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is a person, place, or thing (such as money or an object of value).”

In other words, it doesn’t really matter what the MacGuffin is. My favorite MacGuffin is the eponymous Maltese Falcon. In principle, the characters could have been chasing after a package of money – but the Falcon is so much more exotic and romantic, especially given its history.

The Canon is full of MacGuffins, although sometimes we don’t know what they are until they are found:

  • The Great Agra Treasure
  • Irene Adler’s photo with the King of Bohemia
  • The beryl coronet
  • The crown of Charles the First
  • The naval treaty
  • The blackmail papers in Milverton’s safe
  • The black pearl of the Borgias
  • The document in “The Adventure of the Second Stain”
  • The Bruce-Partington plans  
  • Baron Gruner’s diary
  • The Mazarin stone

Should we include the long parade of missing persons in the Canon? I’m not that sure we can say they are “unimportant to the overall plot.” But for the sake of completeness, let’s mention Hosmer Angel, Neville St. Clair, Lady St. Simon (who did not exist), Lady Frances Carfax, Godfrey Staunton, Lord Saltire, and – last but far from least – Silver Blaze.

Have I missed any Canonical MacGuffins?


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