What Is a Red Herring?

Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective story, or at least brought it to perfection. In what he called his stories of ratiocination, he sometimes included a sly literary device called the 'red herring.'

A red herring is a false clue or misleading piece of information a mystery writer uses to deliberately hoodwink readers so they will not be able to solve the puzzle too quickly.

Origin of the phrase

The phrase red herring is not from biology. It refers to strong-smelling herrings or similar fish that have been so powerfully cured with saltpeter that their flesh turns red.

According to one urban legend, bloodhounds were thrown off the scent of escaping convicts who confused the dogs by dropping red herrings.

In another legend, packs of dogs were trained with red herrings to follow game. Masters of hounds taught them to follow a drag composed of dead game. Once the dogs could consistently follow a scent, they would be tricked with the strong false scent of red herrings until they learned to ignore the herring and follow the real quarry.

However, it is unlikely that hunting dogs would actually mistake the scent of fish, however strong, for the scent of fox, deer or fleeing convict. Perhaps such dogs would choose to follow the scent, find the fish and stop to eat it.

Five Red Herrings, or Twelve

Dorothy L. Sayers, a prize-winning mystery writer from the 1920s and beyond, actually titled a mystery novel 'The Five Red Herrings.' She gave her readers fair warning. The engrossing book, which is set in an art colony in Scotland, is still available and still a great read.

In 1994, British author and politician Jeffrey Archer published a book of short stories called 'Twelve Red Herrings.' Each story features a twist at the end and relies on a red herring to decieve the reader.

Murders in the Rue Morgue

In this groundbreaking story, Poe's detective Dupin solves the murders of two women whose bodies are found in a locked room. The story misleads the reader with a red herring concerning the voice of the murderer. Various witnesses describe the voice as that of a Spaniard, an Italian, a German, an Englishman, or a Russian. Actually, no foreigner did the crime, as the reader must wait to learn.

The Purloined Letter

C. Auguste Dupin swiftly solves this case by ignoring the nonessentials that surround the problem. He pays no mind to the political situation, the relationship between thief and victim, or in fact to the plight of the victim. By ignoring these red herrings, Dupin easily sees through to the heart of a case that has baffled the best efforts of the police.

That is how readers must treat red herrings, if they want to triumph over the schemes of writers who supply them with mysteries. Readers must ignore the nonessentials. They must also remember that mystery writers set out to throw them off the scent by any means necessary, and often succeed.

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