“It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
—“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”
One of the most pleasant and rewarding ways to read the Holmes canon is to try and situate oneself in the mind of the great detective, following his “train of thought” as much as one can. Its pleasure derives from those rare moments when one guesses which turn the story will take, what small scrap of information in Conan Doyle’s ample amounts of prose Holmes would seize upon to crack the case. A careful reader would be rewarded by being able to guess that Holmes might deduce something from the clothing of a client, footprints, tobacco ashes, or soil left at the scene, just before one turns the page to discover that both they and the maestro were indeed humming the same tune.
Conan Doyle, despite his protestations to the contrary, was quite the consummate professional himself when it came to composing, as such, for mass audiences and accounting for the fairly wide variance in age, education and social class of his readership. He knew quite well that, in order to retain his audience there needed to be those precious moments of identification with the brilliant protagonist. But, too much identification comes at the expense of being truly caught up in the action of the story and threatens to spoil the fun, such as when one knows, before the climax, how a magician accomplishes a trick. Thus, in many of the stories, there are moments when a reader cannot possibly anticipate Holmes and are instead placed in the position of identifying with a similarly astonished Watson. “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,” emblematic of several of the later stories in the Adventures, accomplishes this through the careful placement of false leads, multiple possible suspects, and “fakes”—clues which, though seemingly important, are ultimately of little consequence to the plot.
The example of the “Beryl Coronet” introduces an example of a “fake:” a type of plot device which, though its appearance in English literature dates back at least to Shakespeare’s Henry V, most likely completed in 1599 and, famously, Hamlet, whose early ‘First Quarto’ version appeared in 1603, but did not have a common name until Alfred Hitchcock, noting its pervasive use in films, gave it one in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University. Said plot device is the MacGuffin. While Hitchcock was fond of using humorous stories to illustrate the narrative concept, the closest thing to a definition Hitchcock gave came in a 1966 interview with fellow film director François Traffaut: stating that the “Macguffin […] the device, the gimmick, if you will... the only thing that really matters is that [it] must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me… [it is of] no importance whatsoever.” Thus, for Conan Doyle, as with many writers of popular tales, a MacGuffin may lead its reader down a false path, but keeps the levels of intrigue and attention pitched very high, ensuring that, when Holmes turns that attention away from the obvious object of interest, or in a completely unexpected direction the reader cannot anticipate, the astonishment becomes ever more palpable and, important for an serialized author, keeps the reader eagerly anticipating another such adventure.