A Fishy Clue!
One of my favorite board games has always been Clue. It’s all about the mystery, the investigation, following the clues to discover the culprit, the whodunits. Was it Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick or Miss Scarlett in the dining room with the lead pipe?
So, where might I be going with the title, A Fishy Clue? Is my story about a fish or something altogether different? What kind of clue could I be talking about?
I’ll toss out a few hints, just to tease and tantalize—red, pungent, distraction, false. Have you got it? If you haven’t, here are a few more—object, person, rabbit trail, misleading. Have you figured it out yet? Here are a few more—divert attention, trick, misdirect. What clue could all of these terms possibly describe?
It’s okay if you haven’t guessed what I am talking about. The clue is more likely to be familiar to an author than a reader. It is the ubiquitous—Red Herring. What is unique is that a red herring, in and of itself, doesn’t exist. It is not a species of fish.
What was originally meant by the term was to describe a fish, typically a herring, smoked or cured in brine. The process creates a pungent odor and turns the flesh reddish, hence the term red herring. Some historians claim red herrings were used to train dogs for fox hunts, while others assert it was horses, not dogs. Either way, the purpose was to distract or train animals using the pungent scent of the red herring.
It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the term red herring was applied to a story. According to multiple sources, the term’s originator was William Cobbett, a journalist who wrote an article criticizing the English press for the premature reporting of Napoleon’s defeat. In the article, Cobbett compared the tactics to mislead the public to the use of the red herring’s pungent odor to distract dogs.
For authors, a red herring is the heart of distraction, leading the reader to a false conclusion.
“First “tracker” book I’ve read, but I was truly engrossed in the book. It kept me guessing back and forth who the leak was, and dang-it-all, I picked the wrong guy!” Review of Au79.
How often have you read a book and believed you knew where the plot was headed, only to reach the final pages and discover, “Dang it, it wasn’t who I thought it was.” It came about due to the red herrings the author dropped into the plot.
“And to be completely honest, I did not figure out who the antagonist was until the very last part of the story.” Review of Deadly Keepsakes.
Red herrings in fiction, mysteries, thrillers, detective stories, basically any story where a crime has been committed prolong the mystery and tension. The author can distract the reader’s attention by providing clues leading the reader down a false path of deduction. A red herring can be almost anything, a character, object, or location. All with one purpose: to mislead, lay a false trail, and keep the reader guessing.
“I always try and decipher the clues to unmask the killer, but I wasn’t even close in this book.” Review of Murder’s Legacy
I have long been a fan of Agatha Christie, an author who was a master of misdirection. One of my favorite books is Murder on the Orient Express. The plot is riddled with red herrings, including twelve passengers. Likewise, so are the Sherlock Holmes mysteries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle was another master at providing subliminal hints and clues, leading the reader down the wrong path. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, the reader is led astray by the butler. In A Study in Scarlet, it is a partial word found at the crime scene.
In an author’s arsenal of writing techniques, the red herring is one of the most powerful. What better way to engage the reader, and pull them into the plot, than with details meant to lead them astray. Hopefully, by the conclusion of the story, the reader will be surprised and enjoy the misdirection.
“Dickason has a knack for keeping the reader guessing until the end.”
I’m always “On The Hunt” for new ideas. If you have a question or a comment, please let me know.
Anita Dickason is a retired police officer with a total of twenty-seven years of law enforcement experience, twenty-two with Dallas PD. She served as a patrol officer, undercover narcotics officer, advanced accident investigator, tactical officer and first female sniper on the Dallas SWAT team.