One of the critical but perhaps the most entertaining part of any mystery is the continual misdirection of the reader. That ploy ensures a satisfying surprise at the end. To prevent premature exposure to who done it, writers often use a literary tool called a red herring, which leads the reader astray in two ways. One way presents false, distorted, or ambiguous information. The other distracts from the subject at hand either by changing to a new topic or allowing a new event to disrupt the current scene.
After teasing readers with clues of the mystery's true ending, a skilled writer often throws in a red herring to pull his audience away temporarily. This planned postponement adds deeper layers to the the plot and weaves in more doubts about previous suspects. However, the writer intends to reintroduce the same subject matter during the climax. At that point, the reader will likely remember many, if not all earlier hints, clues, diversions, and distractions, which can help him say, “Of course, I should’ve known that!”
Admittedly, in my first book I had almost too many red herrings and too many innocent characters for the reader to suspect. I started to remove one of the planted questionable characters, but decided in the end to keep them all because I did have logical reasons to to explain their innocence that would eliminate each as a suspect. Yet in revising my second book, A Promotion to Die For, I have found a shortage of innocent characters that look guilty. I have also found too few diversions and distractions. So, with book one, the red herrings came easily, but book two will take some work.
I’ve always wondered why this literary technique of trickery appropriated the name of a fish, a herring no less. More research revealed a long history of red herrings being dragged over ground to create scent trails to train dogs, and possibly horses. Apparently, red herring, a very smelly fish when dead, proved useful for distracting ardent searchers. One theory going all the way back to the 1600s included fugitives using red herrings to cover their own scent, thus, throwing off bloodhounds that were chasing them.
The turning point that popularized the name as an extended metaphor came to fruition in the early 1800s. An English journalist named William Cobbett wrote a story that told how he, as a boy, had used a red herring to mislead hounds that were following a rabbit. Though a fictional story, Cobbett used it to criticize what he believed was a naive press that fell for false information about a defeat of Napoleon. Supposedly, Corbett’s criticism caused the repeated republishing of versions of this tale for many years.
I think as writers, we may all appreciate how red herrings serve in the mystery genre. But, if you didn’t know the back story on how this term evolved, you now know as much as I do.