But Me, I’m the Catalyst*

MacGuffinsLegendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock is said to have coined the term ‘MacGuffin.’ That particular story may be called into question, but there’s no question that Hitchcock made the term, and the concept, popular. So what’s a MacGuffin? It is, as Hitchcock says, nothing. Really, it’s a possibly inconsequential thing that serves as a catalyst for a story’s plot. And it drives the plot because for whatever reason, the plot revolves around it (think, for instance of the One Ring in Lord of the Rings).

Most people think of MacGuffins as film devices, and they certainly are. But we also arguably see them in crime fiction. There are lots of examples in the genre, and space only allows me a few. I’m sure you’ll fill in the gaps though; at least, I hope you will.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, the MacGuffin is a photograph. The King of Bohemia is about to marry, and there’s only one potential impediment to that wedding. He was once involved with actress Irene Adler, and there is still a compromising photograph of them. It wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in and of itself, but the king knows that his wealthy and powerful fiancée will not go through with the wedding if she finds out about his relationship with Adler. The king hires Sherlock Holmes to get the photograph in order to prevent his fiancée from learning of the affair. Holmes agrees, and he and Dr. Watson begin their search. As fans will know, it turns out that Irene Adler is more than a match for Holmes.

Agatha Christie used MacGuffins, too. In The Mystery of the Blue Train, for instance, wealthy American business tycoon Rufus Van Aldin decides to cheer up his daughter Ruth by purchasing a ruby necklace. One of the stones on the necklace is the famous ‘Heart of Fire.’ Ruth is, as you can imagine, delighted by the gift. Shortly thereafter, she takes a trip to on the famous Blue Train. She tells her father she’s going to Nice, but in reality, she’s planning to meet up with an old lover Armand de la Roche. Van Aldin cautions his daughter not to take the rubies with her, but as it turns out, she doesn’t listen to him. When she is murdered during the train journey, it’s assumed right away that the killer’s motive was robbery, since the necklace is missing. Hercule Poirot is also on the train, and he works with the police to find out who murdered the victim. In this case, quite a lot of people want that necklace, and it’s interesting how Christie uses it to drive this plot.

Jonathan Gash’s The Judas Pair introduces the reader to Lovejoy, an antiques dealer and collector who is passionate about the business. One day he gets a visit from George Field, who presents him with an irresistible puzzle. According to Field, his brother Eric had recently acquired a set of legendary dueling pistols – the Judas Pair. Stories of this priceless pair of pistols have circulated for years, and few antiques people really believe they exist. But Field insists that they do. Further, he says that his brother was shot with one of them. His idea is that if the pistols can be tracked down, the killer will be, too. Lovejoy is no police detective, but the thought of getting his hands on those pistols proves too tempting to resist. So agrees to look into the matter. In this novel, the Judas Pair serves as the MacGuffin. It’s just a couple of pistols, and in that sense inconsequential. But that pair of pistols drives the action.

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, the MacGuffin is a painting. Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call one day from Simeon Pawlovsky, a local pawn shop owner. He and Pawlovsky are by way of being friends, and now Pawlovsky needs Revere’s professional expertise. He’s acquired a painting that he thinks may be valuable, and he wants Revere’s opinion. Revere agrees and makes the trip to the pawn shop. When he arrives, he’s shocked to find that the painting is very likely a priceless Velázquez, one of several taken by the Nazis ‘for safekeeping’ during World War II. He wants to do some more research on the painting, but he’s concerned about such a valuable item remaining in the shop. Pawlovsky insists that there won’t be a problem, though, and Revere reluctantly goes to do his background research. By the time he returns two hours later, Pawlovsky has been murdered. Revere feels a strong sense of guilt at leaving his friend in such a vulnerable situation, so he wants to do what he can to help catch the killer. He believes that if he can trace the painting from the time it was taken during the war to the time it ended up in the shop, he’ll be able to find out who the murderer is. The novel is really about the murder and its investigation more than it is about the painting. But the painting drives the plot and motivates quite a lot of people.

A MacGuffin is often an object, but it doesn’t have to be. Some MacGuffins are people. For instance, in Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride), Gunder Jorman takes the unexpected decision to find a wife. He may not be the most physically attractive or youngest or wealthiest ‘catch’ in the world, but he’s a steady worker and responsible man. He thinks he’ll make a good husband, and he decides to go to India to find a bride. Shortly after he arrives, he meets Poona Bai. The two find that they are well matched, and soon enough, she agrees to marry him. Poona has some things to do to finish up her life in India, so the arrangement is that her fiancé will return to Norway. She will follow shortly thereafter. On the day of Poona’s arrival, Gundar’s sister Maria is involved in a terrible car crash, and he needs to remain at the hospital with her. So he asks a friend to meet Poona at the airport and bring her to town. The two miss each other though, and Poona never makes it. When her body is found in a field near town, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate to find out what happened to the victim. To do that, they’ll have to trace her movements from the time she left India. So the plot really revolves around and is driven by her presence.

A crime novel doesn’t, of course, have to have a MacGuffin. Many don’t. But a MacGuffin can be an interesting way of pulling the plot together. Which MacGuffins have you liked best?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Anna Nalick’s Catalyst.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jonathan Gash, Karin Fossum

26 responses to “But Me, I’m the Catalyst*

  1. It certainly seems to make certain books work better, and in spy fiction this also seems truer, where the specifics of the object of pursuit really never seems to matter very much, whether its the Lektor decoder in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE or the location of Oktober’s base in THE BERLIN MEMORANDUM

    • You have a well-taken point, Sergio. For certain stories (and you’ve mentioned terrific examples), having a MacGuffin adds interest to the plot and, well, ties it all together. Thanks for those instances, too; I should have mentioned spy fiction, and really didn’t.

  2. Ah, the woman…I do like Scandal in Bohemia and I’d completely forgotten about the word MacGuffin, so thank you, Margot. Once again and excellent and informative post 🙂

    • *Blush* Thank you, D.S. 🙂 I’ve always rather liked Irene Adler. And yes, she is the woman, isn’t she? I think Conan Doyle did use that ‘photo very effectively in the story, too.

  3. Reblogged this on Nordic Noir and commented:
    …forget that well known hamburger
    chain feast on this instead …

  4. Thanks for this great blog, hope you don’t mind if we reblog it….

  5. Patti Abbott

    Although I loved the recent MR. HOLMES, I really hated that the McGuffin, his old case, was so dull. The risk of that is substantial.

  6. My favourite MacGuffins of all time are the Maltese falcon in Dashiell Hamet’s THE MALTESE FALCON; and the suitcase filled with mysterious glowing stuff in Mickey Spillane’s KISS ME DEADLY, which Tarantino also referenced in PULP FICTION.

    Another great topic, Margot!

  7. Well, coincidentally I’m in the middle of re-watching LotR so I shall look out for that MacGuffin. Though I must admit “One MacGuffin to rule them all and in the darkness bind them” doesn’t have quite the same effect… 😉

    • 😆 No, it doesn’t, FictionFan. I like Tolkein’s words better, somehow. That ring really is a good exammple of a film MacGuffin, though, so I’m glad you’re getting the chance to see it in action, so to speak. Coincidence is a funny thing.

  8. A great post as always, Margot. I agree with Angela. The Maltese Falcon is also one of my favourites MacGuffins.

  9. You never ever fail to enlighten me Margot! Thanks for that. I feel am becoming a better writer because of people like you.

  10. As several others have already mentioned The Maltese Falcon, surely one of the best examples of a successful McGuffin, let me offer a slightly more obscure one: the Gyrth Chalice. In Margery Allingham’s The Gyrth Chalice Mystery,” the chalice is a priceless treasure of the crown. It is the target of a criminal syndicate which is attempting to steal it, but it has very powerful protection indeed. The chalice, the pursuit of the object itself and the mysterious protection which seems to insulate it from harm, make that object into a very potent McGuffin.

  11. ‘MacGuffin? Very interesting, Margot. Thanks for highlighting the term and what it can or does to crime fiction. I don’t know if this is a “‘MacGuffin” moment but as a teenage reader I liked it when the cop, the protagonist, in James Hadley Chase novels went, “I gave him my cop look.” It meant so many things about the lead character. I have never forgotten that line.

    • Oh, that’s a great term, Prashant – the ‘cop look.’ And you are reminding me that I have yet to put any of Chase’s novels in the spotlight. I really ought to do that.

  12. Col

    Hmm, I think I had heard of the term but never really understood it or gave it much thought. Another visit to the blog and something else learned….pretty much every time I visit!

    • That’s very kind of you, Col. You do see it in a lot of spy and heist kinds of novels, where some papers, a painting, some jewels or something else valuable serves as a MacGuffin. When it’s done right, I think it can add to a plot.

  13. I agree with Sergio, spy fiction very often uses MacGuffins. I just finished reading Charity by Len Deighton and one object was definitely a MacGuffin. Often I don’t even notice such elements as such until someone else points them out.

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