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One day while browsing a flea market, Tintin comes across and buys an old model ship, thinking it would make a good present for Captain Haddock, but is immediately approached by two men who both want to buy it back from him. Tintin refuses, puzzled as to why the model is so sought after. When he shows the ship to Haddock, Haddock immediately recognizes the model as the Unicorn, a ship depicted on a portrait he has of his ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock, a captain in the service of King Louis XIV.
When Tintin returns to his apartment, he finds that the model has been stolen. Upon further investigation, Tintin and Haddock discover that the model ship is one of three models that Sir Francis made of his ship that each contain a parchment with a clue to the location of a sunken treasure that Sir Francis got from a ruthless pirate named Red Rackham.
The Secret of the Unicorn is the first in a two-part story that is concluded in Red Rackham's Treasure. Hergé once cited it as his personal favourite Tintin story, though he would later come to prefer Tintin in Tibet. Along with The Crab with the Golden Claws, it is the basis for most of the plot of Steven Spielberg's 2011 film adaptation.
- Berserk Button: Haddock does not take it well when Thomson and Thompson accuse him of murdering Mr. Sakharine.
- Big Bad: The Bird brothers.
- Big Damn Heroes: Snowy, Haddock and the Thom(p)sons arrive in the nick of time to save Tintin when he's being held at gunpoint by the Bird brothers.
- Chekhov's Gunman / Chekhov's Gag: Aristides Silk the pickpocket becomes vital to the plot when he steals Max Bird's wallet, containing the last remaining parchment.
- Clear My Name: A very brief example when the Thom(p)sons accuse Haddock of murdering Sakharine. In truth Sakharine isn't even really dead and Haddock had nothing to do with the attack on him.
- Cool Ship: The Unicorn.
- Dismantled MacGuffin: The three parchments each containing a part of the coordinates of the sunken Unicorn.
- Dying Clue: Barnaby is too weak to speak after being shot, but he points at a nearby flock of sparrows before passing out. He was, of course, hired by the Bird brothers.
- Gotta Catch Them All: The Unicorn models and the parchments.
- His Name Is: Barnaby is shot before he can tell Tintin the name of his employer.
- Hufflepuff House: Sakharine, more or less. He is the third party that wants the ship model, though he doesn't seemingly know about the parchments in them.
- Identical Grandson: Haddock to his forefather Sir Francis Haddock.
- Informed Ability: Tintin notes that Max Bird is the more dangerous of the Bird brothers at one point. There isn't really much to back this up at that point, and in fact, it's the other brother who held him at gunpoint and almost shot him from behind mere minutes before.
- Leave No Survivors: Red Rackham won't...
- Kitsch Collection: Silk the pickpocket has a huge collection of stolen wallets, sorted alphabetically. Every single wallet under "T" belongs to the Thom(p)sons!
- Pirate Booty
- Ransacked Room
- Red Herring: Sakharine the ship model collector is accused by Tintin of stealing his model, but he is actually innocent.
- Running Gag: The Thom(p)sons' wallets are stolen almost every time they appear.
- Stab the Scorpion: Haddock saves Tintin from G. Bird in this manner (with a whiskey bottle).
- Sticky Fingers: Silk.
- Spanner in the Works: Silk the pickpocket, for both Tintin and the Bird brothers.