With the last episode of BBC One’s current series of Sherlock tonight, Rohan Gavin, author of new detective series Knightley & Son, takes a look at the challenges faced by detectives in pursuit of their “maguffin”…
There are many reasons I love detective stories. They take us on a journey into the unknown, with only our wits (and those of the detectives) as a guide. They use words like “gumshoe”–slang for a private investigator, taken from the soles of the shoes they used to sneak about in. They deliver hard-boiled one-liners like “To say goodbye is to die a little.” (Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye). They feature dangerous females, diabolical villains, and heroes who often get philosophical from the bottom of a whisky glass, or–in my heroes’ case–the end of a large packet of chocolate biscuits.
With Knightley & Son I tried to create a detective series for modern times and modern children, but that harked back to all the traditions I love: deductive reasoning, smoke, mirrors, and plenty of fog. A good mystery is like an elaborate card trick. Clues and revelations have to appear at just the right moment. The reader is led down a dark alley, then the rug is pulled out from under our feet and we realise we’ve been led astray. Good may be bad. Allies might be foes. Truth may be lies.
Another important ingredient is what Alfred Hitchcock called the “maguffin”: an object that everyone’s chasing. He called it a maguffin because it’s a nonsense object: it could just as easily be a precious jewel or a missing sock, as long as it pushes the plot forward. In Knightley & Son, it’s a bestselling self-help book, called The Code. And the highly unusual effect this book has on its readers sets up the mystery that the Knightleys must solve. As soon as the maguffin appears, we know the rollercoaster ride is about to begin.
Perhaps what I love most about detective stories is that solving the crime is only half the battle. Detectives often become so entangled in the plot that they have to face their own weaknesses. They fall in love–often with the wrong person. They make wild accusations–often blaming the wrong person. They have to overcome a series of hurdles, fighting off villains (or in my story step-parents as well) and only once they’ve passed all these tests can they solve the case.
But at what cost? Frequently the maguffin has been lost or destroyed. And the detective has sacrificed friendships along the way. Sherlock Holmes could never get his steel-trap mind around Dr Watson’s decision to get married. Holmes felt it would take away his trusty partner in solving crime–caring little for where it would leave poor Watson. Similar dilemmas face my father and son duo. For a detective, true love is only an illusion that gets in the way of clear reasoning.
But logic doesn’t always work. The world can’t always be explained. Nor can the mysteries of the human heart. And so by the end, once the case has been cracked, we often feel like the real mystery is yet to be solved… until the next instalment.
Rohan Gavin, for Waterstones.com/blog
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