BEHIND THE BOOK: David Corbett

Something More Than a MacGuffin

Transforming Doc Holliday’s love letters into a Hitchcockian trope helped fulfill

a lifelong ambition to bring those letters to life

Long before I had any idea a concept like “antihero” existed, I found everything about Doc Holliday fascinating. Whether I encountered him in film, TV, or the books I devoured about the disappearing frontier, it was obvious he possessed a unique place in the national imagination.

He not only epitomized the American West’s “Good bad man,” that iconic frontier Frankenstein constructed of part bitter war veteran, part desperado—a haunted loner clinging to the last scraps of his decency, often in the role of outlaw lawman—he managed to combine that with elements of the Byronic hero, encapsulated by these lines from The Corsair:

He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d

The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;

And scorn’d the best as hypocrites 

Doc Holliday

Doc’s particular combination of intelligence, daring, southern gentility, and sheer drunken meanness created a nearly inexhaustible supply of contradictions to contemplate. 

None of those contradictions, however, approached in sheer mystery the fact that, throughout his years in the West, he carried on a devoted correspondence with his cousin Mattie, who became a Catholic nun. The fact that Sister Mary Melanie, as she became known, was believed by some to be Doc’s secret longtime love only made that correspondence more intriguing. 

Unfortunately, the letters were destroyed long ago by the good sister herself, and the family has jealously guarded her unsullied reputation. In fact, so esteemed was her regard within the Holliday clan that she became the inspiration for the virtuous character Melanie in Gone With The Wind;  Margaret Mitchell was related to both Doc and Mattie.

Regardless, no one now living knows what secrets the letters actually contained—a silence that cries out for fictional rectification.

Over twenty years ago I got the idea of basing a book on those letters, but could never quite convince myself that the letters alone, no matter how deftly composed or creatively imagined, would make for a compelling epistolary novel. Also, the biographies of Doc that existed up until only a decade or so ago more resembled patchwork folklore or open hagiography than historical fact.

In the meantime, I wrote five novels and numerous stories in the crime-action-thriller vein, and gained a greater understanding of the genre’s history. In particular, I learned how much the action stories of the post-Civil War dime novels contributed to the popularity of what we now call crime, mystery, or thriller fiction. 

As the subject matter of these early pulps turned from the frontier to the city, and “the man who knows Indians” evolved into “the man who knows criminals,” heroes like Old Sleuth and Nick Carter, as much if not more than Poe’s Auguste Dupin, helped define the emerging genre, even if they tended to fight their way to the story’s resolution rather than puzzle it out.

Finally, I had long become aware of the power of what Hitchcock referred to as the MacGuffin, the inscrutable object that a story’s characters are avidly, relentlessly, violently pursuing.

In his famous 1962 interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock described in detail what he meant by this device, adding that over time he had come to realize that it was really an empty vessel. In its “purest expression,” he said, it was “nothing at all.” 

By this he meant that the real story always concerned why the characters were pursuing this elusive object—to save themselves, save another, confirm their sanity, redeem their reputations, safeguard a secret, etc.—rather than identify what the damn thing was.

In time, with my understanding of the genre and story mechanics constantly evolving and the ever-present apparition of Doc Holliday lurking at the back of my mind, a concept for a novel eventually crystallized: the supposedly destroyed letters would resurface and serve as the MacGuffin in an action story over who has a genuine right to possess them—and what lengths they will go to in the process.

I still felt obliged to write some of the letters (and have been gratified by some readers’ belief that I discovered them rather than penned them myself), and that meant creating, from what facts I could reliably stand behind, a love relationship many denied ever existed. 

For the inclusion of the letters to be dramatically meaningful, however, the correspondence also would have to echo the present-day story line, serving in some way as subtext—i.e., the events of Doc’s life as revealed in the letters, especially his love for Mattie, would need to be reflected in the characters and events of the action-story plot. 

Mattie Holliday

Admittedly, focusing this much attention on the content of the letters would seem to contradict Hitchcock’s admonition that the MacGuffin be essentially meaningless. But the approach I chose did honor his conviction that the why of the pursuit is more important than the what—i.e., what gets said in the letters helps explain why they are so valuable to the people fighting over them. Specifically, the need for a redemptive love, which informed the profound, enduring affection between Doc and Mattie, also motivates the present-day characters’ pursuit of the letters. 

And just as Doc’s relationship with Mattie grew complicated by his liaison with the infamous Big Nose Kate Elder, so too would a love triangle and the secrets thereof add conflict and nuance to the main story.

Big Nose Kate Elder

Subtlety required that the mirroring of the two narrative planes be suggestive, not programmatic. Rather than having Doc represented in the present by Character A, Mattie by Character B, and so on, I would need to show how the same obsessions, conflicts, and dilemmas affected various individuals in both time frames in a variety of ways, evoking the old proverb, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

I also realized the love reflected in the letters couldn’t be static but had to develop over time, to create a narrative arc. This required not only a critical examination of the historical record but an imaginative one, since as already noted there is no concrete evidence such a relationship existed at all.

As part of that effort, I researched just what form romantic correspondence between men and women took in mid-nineteenth century America. I learned that, due to the disappearance of the chaperone as a necessary element of courtship, women often required a “proof of love” to protect themselves from less-than-honorable suitors. 

This led me to ask not only what proof Mattie might have sought from Doc, but what he might have demanded from her in return. This opened the door not only to exploration of Doc’s dark side, which Mattie would no doubt ask he put aside, but the Catholicism Mattie refused to give up, and which, by prohibiting marriage between first cousins, created an impregnable barrier to wedlock. (Interestingly, the name Mattie would choose upon completing her novitiate, Sister Mary Melanie, linked her to a saint who had in fact married her first cousin.)

The issue of how to prove someone’s love is legitimate echoed the question of how to prove that the rediscovered letters between Doc and Mattie, supposedly destroyed, were not themselves elaborate fakes. I chose to make that question all the thornier by beginning the story with the letters in possession of an individual once referred to as the Man Who Forged the West—a notorious charlatan, ostensibly reformed, now working on behalf of the galleries, museums, and foundations he once took great pleasure in swindling, much as Doc took pride in relieving suckers of their money at gambling tables throughout the West.

The interweaving between the Doc-and-Mattie correspondence and the pursuit-of-the-MacGuffin storyline proved the most challenging aspect of the novel’s construction. However, one thing was certain: there was no way to end the novel without somehow evoking the most famous moment in Doc Holliday’s life—the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

To do that I had to create adversaries who were not merely greedy but violent. Once again, the past offered insight into the present. Arizona’s long history of militias and vigilantes provided ample material to adapt to my purposes, as did the West’s allure for veterans hoping to escape the ghosts of a brutal war. And Tombstone’s politics, with Republicans and Democrats at each other’s throats—and battling news sources offering irreconcilable narratives— offered obvious echoes to current events.

But the real driver of the action remained a spirited young woman blindly intrigued by the moral enigma on whom she has a hopeless crush. As with Mattie and Doc, so with Lisa Balamaro and Tuck Mercer, the main story’s two key characters. Throw in a few bitter secrets, an ancient resentment, vanity, vengeance, the promise of love—and the right MacGuffin—and who knows? You might just have something.