Today, I have an extra special treat for you all as I have Andrew Cartmel, whose debut novel The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax is out today, is here talk about the role of the “McGuffin” to the plot of the story. So please give a warm welcome to these two stalwarts of the Sci/Fantasy/Horror genre. *cues applause*
One of the fundamental building blocks of a mystery or a thriller is the ‘McGuffin’. In case you’re not familiar with the terminology, this is an affectionate nickname for a plot device. It was popularised, if not actually invented, by the film director Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Vertigo, North By Northwest) — a chap who knew a thing or two about mysteries and thrillers.
The McGuffin in a story is the object which sets the action in motion. It’s the thing that your good guys — and also your bad guys — are after; and which people are willing to kill to get hold of. In the golden age of the spy movie it was usually a secret government file on microfilm. In The Maltese Falcon — one of the greatest detective stories of the golden age — it was the titular bird, a gold statuette encrusted with precious stones. Hitchcock didn’t much care what his McGuffin was; he was more interested in the plot hijinks which surrounded it.
Indeed, in some tales we never even learn what the McGuffin is. For example, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction hinges on a briefcase which the gangsters are determined to get hold of at any cost. And they do. And they open the briefcase and see what’s inside. Not so the audience… we never learn what the fuss was about. Tarantino manages to get away with this approach, but others have come a cropper with it — the Robert De Niro thriller Ronin also never tells us what was in the suitcase which was the cause of so much mayhem, but the audience doesn’t buy it, and consequently the movie falls flat on its expensive face.
Instead, the best approach is to have a convincing and carefully thought out McGuffin in your story. Such an item is definitely a valuable asset in a mystery novel — because it’s always nice to have your characters searching for something worth searching for — it makes them more sympathetic and draws the reader in more effectively.
The world of the Vinyl Detective is one where rare records drive the action (and records can be very rare and valuable — they’ve been known to change hands for millions of dollars). The nice thing is that records have to be made by somebody — the musicians who recorded them. So when I’m telling the story of a rare record sought after by my heroes and villains, I am also telling the story of the people who created that record. And that’s the essence of a memorable novel, mystery or otherwise — fascinating characters.
Many thanks to Andy for this brilliant article and if you want to find out more about The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax, check out the details below.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Like the beautiful, mysterious woman who wants to pay him a large sum of money to find a priceless lost recording — on behalf of an extremely wealthy (and rather sinister) shadowy client.
Given that he’s just about to run out of cat biscuits, this gets our hero’s full attention. So begins a painful and dangerous odyssey in search of the rarest jazz record of them all…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Cartmel is a novelist and screenwriter. His work for television includes Midsomer Murders and Torchwood, and a legendary stint as Script Editor on Doctor Who. He has also written plays for the London Fringe, toured as a stand-up comedian, and is currently co-writing with Ben Aaronovitch a series of comics based on the bestselling Rivers of London
books. He lives in London.