11 July 2015

Odor of Red Herrings

by B.K. Stevens

I will unfortunately be out of town when this posts, but I'd like to ask you to join me in welcoming my friend and mystery writer B.K. Stevens to our SleuthSayers group. She has signed on to be a part of our Saturday team, and we feel truly honored to have her on board. She is the author of two mystery novels--Interpretation of Murder (recently released by Black Opal Books) and Fighting Chance (coming in October from The Poisoned Pencil /Poisoned Pen Press)--and many short stories, most of which have appeared in the pages of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Welcome, Bonnie! It's great to have you here.--John Floyd

In my former life as an English professor, when I introduced composition students to basic principles of logic, I often told a charming little story about the origin of the term "red herring." English hunters, I said, used red herrings to train hounds to stick to business while tracking down a fox. The hunters would drag smoked or cured herrings, which apparently have a reddish color, across the fox's path. If hounds got thrown off scent by the pungent smell of the herrings, they weren't ready for the hunt.

File:Red herring.jpg
misocrazy from New York, NY -
 Cropped from Kipper
It's a well-known story--you may have heard it before. Students enjoyed it, and it gave them a vivid image to associate with the logical fallacy of using an irrelevant argument to distract readers or listeners from the real issue being debated. In all, the story made a fine teaching tool.

Imagine my disappointment when I learned it isn't true. An English pamphleteer introduced the term "red herrings" in 1807, claiming he used them to train hunting dogs. But there's no evidence indicating he, or anyone else, ever actually did. A variation on the story, which claims fugitives used red herrings to confuse the bloodhounds pursuing them, also seems to have no basis in fact.

In my new life as a full-time mystery writer, I still contend with red herrings, but red herrings of a different sort. Not everyone in the mystery world agrees about how to define red herrings, or about how they should be used. I once worked with an editor who defined a red herring as a suspect who "in fact has nothing, zero, nada to do with the crime." (That's an exact quotation--I have the e-mail in front of me. And I pray the editor never reads this column.) A mystery can't be realistic unless it includes such red herrings, she argued. After all, in real life, detectives waste plenty of time chasing down leads that lead nowhere, that prove completely irrelevant to the crime.

I'm sure that's true. I suspect it's one reason police reports seldom make bestseller lists.

To me, a red herring is anything--a person, a clue, a theory--that temporarily throws the detective off scent, or at least seems to. It doesn't have to be completely unrelated to the crime. In my opinion, it shouldn't be. As a mystery reader, I get frustrated with red herrings that contribute nothing to the solution of the crime. I feel as if the author's padding the plot and wasting my time.
Let's say the detective spends the first fifty pages of a novel tracking down someone seen near the victim's house on the night of the murder. If it turns out that this person went to the house only because he'd misread the address on a birthday party invitation, that he didn't even know the victim, chances are I won't read page fifty-one.

On the other hand, let's say this suspect went to the victim's house because she was his stockbroker, and he'd realized she'd intentionally pushed him to invest in ways that would benefit her but bankrupt him. He didn't kill her, but his confession helps the detective figure out the motive of the actual murderer, another disgruntled client. That's a red herring that doesn't stink. Not every clue should lead directly to the murderer, but every clue should lead somewhere.

As a reader, I also resent it when the only truly relevant clue turns out to be one detail hidden in the middle of a paragraph on page 117. If I miss that detail, I'm out of luck. I have no chance of figuring out the solution to the mystery, because everything else in the novel is misdirection and fluff.

It's far more satisfying, I think, when every element of a mystery plot turns out to be relevant in some way, factually or thematically. The central challenge, for both the detective and the reader, is to figure out how clues are relevant, to put everything in context and realize how evidence should be interpreted.
A prime example of such a mystery is the first one I read as an adult, the one that set me on the path of eventually writing mysteries of my own. It remains my ideal of what a mystery should be. Gaudy Night is one of Dorothy L. Sayers' longest Lord Peter Wimsey novels (perhaps the very longest?) and contains many clues. (I'm tempted to say "hundreds of clues," but I'm not willing to count, so I'd better just say "many.")

In my opinion, not one of these clues is a mere red herring. Not one "in fact has nothing, zero, nada to do with the crime." Every clue points to the culprit, either directly or indirectly--every detail about every prank, every word in every poisoned pen message, every bit of information about which people the culprit targets and which people he or she doesn't target, even every amusing but seemingly irrelevant encounter Harriet Vane has with characters such as Reggie Pomfret and Viscount Saint-George.

Harriet keeps careful track of the clues, even putting together a sort of scrapbook, but her conscientious efforts don't lead her to the solution. The problem is that she's looking at the evidence from the wrong point of view. She's wrong about the nature of the fury driving the culprit, and therefore she's wrong about everything else. When Lord Peter examines the case from the right point of view, all the scraps of evidence snap into place, all pointing to one inevitable conclusion.

It's been decades, but I still remember how I felt when I first read Lord Peter's speech to the Senior Common Room. I literally smacked myself on the forehead. "Of course!" I thought. "That has to be it--it's the only way everything makes sense. Why didn't I see it until now? What an idiot I've been!"

Really good mysteries always make me feel like an idiot.

In any excellent literary work--mystery or otherwise--everything comes together. In D.H. Lawrence's "Odor of Chrysanthemums," all the references to chrysanthemums--the ones at Elizabeth Bates' wedding, the ones in the room when her daughter is born, the ones in her husband's button-hole the first time he's brought home drunk, the ones her son shreds in the yard, the ones she tucks into her apron band--come together when she lays out her husband's body in the parlor, and someone knocks over a vase of chrysanthemums. In a truly excellent mystery, all the red herrings come together at the end, and we realize they aren't mere red herrings after all.

So the story about hunters using red herrings to train their dogs is apparently only a myth. That's not so surprising. When you think about it, the story doesn't make much sense. Would an intelligent hunting dog be likely to show much interest in something that obviously smells fishy? Would an intelligent reader be likely to stay interested in a mystery filled with clues obviously designed only to deceive? To hold our interest and our respect, mysteries must present us with a rich array of clues. Some may seem merely distracting at first, but when we interpret them correctly and figure out how to fit them into the overall context, they all point us, ultimately, in the right direction.

Chrysanthemum sp.jpg


  1. Interesting insights into what works (and doesn't) in a mystery plot. I still like the red herring story, even if it is a myth, because (as you said) it provides such a good image of misdirection.

    Again, it's great to have you aboard, Bonnie!

  2. Welcome, B.K.! And all the things we learn and then find out aren't so, very disillusioning :)

  3. Thanks for joining us, B.K.! I, too, like the red herring myth, and I, too, love Gaudy Night. But I don't mind if some of the clues don't lead anywhere, because I'm a strong believer in the doofus factor - the fact that some people do stupid stuff for no reason whatsoever but because crap happens. And I kind of like the occasional "doofus".

  4. Thanks for the welcome, John and Paul! I'm honored to join this illustrious group. I was disillusioned, too, when I found out about the red herring story--I'd seen it confidently presented as true in many well-respected textbooks.

  5. Thanks, Eve--I'm delighted to be part of this group. And I'm always glad to meet another Gaudy Night fan. I don't know how many times I've read that book. Several times, I've picked it up to check on one detail and ended up reading the whole thing.

  6. Welcome, B.K. Great piece. I agree with you on the definition. I remember back in the seventies the wonderful book MURDER INK edited by Dilys Winn had a chapter on Red Herrings and listed the Watson characters as RHs because they distracted the detective, misinterpreted clues, etc. i always thought that was stretching it.

  7. Excellent discussion, Bonnie. I completely agree that clues must play fair with readers. The best ones are clever and compel us to use our intellects to see if we can figure out who the perp is.

  8. That seems like a stretch to me, too, Rob. Among other things, how often does a Watson character actually distract the detective, at least regarding the solution of the mystery? The Watson character offers misinterpretations, and the Holmes character shows his or her superiority by pointing out their flaws.

  9. Thanks for your comment, Jacquie. That's one reason the end of GAUDY NIGHT made such a strong impression on me: I felt that Sayers had played completely fair and given the reader plenty of evidence, but I'd still failed to figure things out because I'd accepted Harriet's false assumptions and looked at the evidence from the wrong perspective. It's fun to figure out the solution to a mystery, but it's almost as much fun to feel that the author has beaten you fair and square.

  10. Great to see you here. Have fun. Terrie

  11. I'm not surprised people still cling to the red herring 'myth.' Even the generally reliable Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable quotes it.
    An interesting and informative blog. Enjoyed the read.

  12. Thanks, Terrie. I'm having lots of fun already! John, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I wish the red herring myth WERE true--it gives us such a concrete and (sorry) colorful image of something that throws us off scent.

  13. I love Dorothy Sayers and love your article. What a great description of red herrings, even if challenged by history. John Dickson Carr littered the landscape with red herrings and I remember at least once the clue resided in the middle of a paragraph on page 117… and I’d somehow missed it. Great gnashing of teeth!

  14. Great piece, Bonnie. Loved the history of the red herring term - who knew? And the right perspective angle - Lord Peter and Harriet. Makes me want to read it all over again! Never read the DHLawrence Ode story - on the list now.
    Looking forward to more of your contributions.

  15. Sayers was brilliant. Excellent Sleuthsayers debut blog post, Bonnie! Delighted to have another Femme Fatale on here :)

  16. Thanks for your comments, Leigh and Marian. Leigh, I get very frustrated when figuring out a mystery depends on noticing the one or two genuine clues hidden in a mass of irrelevancies--that's about as intellectually satisfying as figuring out where Waldo is. What Sayers does is far more fair, and far more ambitious: She packs almost every page with relevant evidence and challenges us to figure out how it all fits together. As Marian says, it's all a matter of perspective. Marian, I think you'll enjoy the D.H. Lawrence story (not that it's exactly cheerful). I just couldn't resist playing with the title, since I was writing about something that also has an odor.

  17. Thanks, Melodie! I'm looking forward to your debut post later this month. I'm not sure I qualify as a femme fatale, but I'm definitely a fellow Sayers fan. (Just about everyone who's commented here seems to be a Sayers fan.)

  18. Bonnie, welcome to SleuthSayers. It's a group of fun people and you never know what interesting topics they will bring up next, whether it's about the writing business or the business of life and crime.

  19. I agree with you 100%! Thanks for the great insight in how to make writing satisfying for the readers.

  20. Thanks for the welcome, R.T.--it's a pleasure to be greeted by a fellow AHMM writer. I'm delighted and honored to be a SleuthSayer!

  21. It's good to hear from you, Miriam! I'm glad you found the post helpful.

  22. You've solved a mystery that's bothered me for some time! I read a submission call for mysteries and it said that no red herrings were allowed. I didn't understand what that meant at all! But if I put your meaning on the words, it all comes together. Thanks for clearing this up!

  23. I'm glad you found the post helpful, Kaye.

  24. Terrific post, B.K.! Glad (and honored) that you're here with us!

  25. Thanks, Dixon! It's an honor to be a SleuthSayer (and a lot of fun).


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