By Beth Groundwater
At the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in April, I spoke on a panel of mystery authors titled "Fooling the Reader Fairly." My topic on the panel was red herrings, or false clues that are deliberately planted in mystery novels by authors to mislead the sleuth--and the reader. In debates, the term applies to the situation when an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. I thought I'd share my panel comments on this stinky topic with Inkspot readers.
A "red herring" is a very strong kipper, meaning a small fish—usually a herring but not always—that has been cured in brine and smoked. This process makes the fish smell pungent and turns its flesh red. In 1807 William Cobbett wrote how he used them for training hunting dogs, dragging the stinky fish across the trail of a fox the dogs were supposed to pursue to lay a false trail, thus confusing them and throwing them off the original scent. When the dogs weren’t thrown off, they were deemed trained. Supposedly escaping convicts did this to throw bloodhounds off their track, but there’s no direct evidence it was ever actually done.
The use of herring to throw off a scent hound was tested in a 2010 episode of the Discovery Channel series MythBusters. Although the hound used in the test stopped to devour the fish and lost the fugitive's scent for a while, it eventually backtracked and found its target, resulting in the myth being classified as "Busted."
There are two main ways a clue can be false:
1. It can seem to prove means, motive or opportunity for the wrong suspect, an innocent, such as in my book, A Real Basket Case, when Claire’s husband Roger is found holding the gun that killed Enrique, the handsome young massage therapist (means), when both Roger and the police assume Claire was having an affair with Enrique (motive), and Roger is apprehended on the scene moments after the shooting (opportunity).
2. It can seem to disprove means, motive or opportunity for the true killer. I'm not going to give an example of this here, because I don't want to give away whodunnit in any mystery novel, spoiling the read. I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader!
There are many kinds of red herrings, such as:
- Physical evidence, such as the workgloves and beer cans found on the scene of a fly fisherman’s murder in my recent release, Wicked Eddies
- A snippet of dialogue or gesture that divulges motive or seems to show motive, such as the discovery that the victim in my book, Deadly Currents, was having an affair (so did the wife kill him?) then the discovery later that he had cut off the affair (or did the mistress kill him?)
- An alibi that removes opportunity, and is later proven to be false OR that seems to be false at first and is later proven to be true
- When clothing, shoes, vehicles, or the descriptions of people themselves are very similar (for example, in my book, To Hell in a Handbasket, there are six black Range Rovers that figure into the plot, all owned by different people who were given the cars as gifts by one character)
One tricky thing for mystery readers to remember is that a single clue can be both a clue to the right solution and a red herring to the wrong solution. The confusions that result from red herrings can make for a very tasty read indeed!
Do you have a favorite red herring that you came across while reading a mystery or that you used in writing a mystery? Please share it here, but don't give away whodunnit in any book!