Detours: On the Road with Red Herrings

GUEST POST: Lisa Daly, author of Mystery, Ink.: A Novel Way To Die   

Detours can be frustrating when we’re in a hurry. But in mystery novels what fun would it be without a few detours? Detours provide scenic views, information about characters and their motivations, backgrounds, access to the victim, clues that may or may not be important.

In my upcoming Mystery, Ink. Novel titled, A Novel Way To Die, I won’t alert you to red herrings with a detour sign, but you may realize at the end of the book, a few scenic routes were taken. It’s all part of the journey of reading mystery novels. We’ve come to expect the unexpected and look forward to taking the road less traveled in books if not in life as well.

The term red herring is an idiom that means distracting a reader from making the proper conclusion usually in a mystery, based on the idea that hunters would use smoked red herring to trick scent hounds to take them off track during fox hunts. It was learned later, however, that this literary term was invented by the journalist, William Cobbitt from an article he wrote in his weekly newspaper, Political Register published in 1807. He used this term again in 1833 referencing the practice. This reinforced the idiom in the minds of readers enough to stick. But it’s believed no herring was ever harmed for this purpose.

Years later, in Episode 148 of MythBusters, it demonstrated that while smoked herring could detour a hound from a scent temporarily while he ate the treat, he retraced the scent and found the target after all. A keen observer and reader can do the same with red herrings in mysteries.

What are some of your favorite red herrings from mysteries? Maybe it all seemed to add up, the clues, the motive, the timing. But no, the would-be villain was just made to look guilty, when all the time it was the cousin’s barber. The cook who hated her boss, the cook with access to the rat poison that killed the boss, was just a red herring.

A red herring could be a person, an object or clue, a setting, or a missing motive or opportunity. But just as a scent hound can enjoy a tasty bite for a moment, many mystery book readers enjoy the hunt and love to sniff out the true criminal before the sleuth at the end of the book.

A Detour can make life a little more interesting as long as you are not in a hurry and you are reading a murder mystery. So the next time you’re in traffic and you see a Detour sign remember one of your favorite mystery books that took you off the scent temporarily and how you got back on track. If you were surprised by the ending, however, then I hope you enjoyed the treat that distracted you for a while. In the end it’s all about the journey. In life and in books, detours should always take you where you wanted to go.

About Lawrence and Suella Walsh
Managing Editors of Mystery, Ink. Novels. Taught writing for 20 years at Johnson County Community College. Freelance writers with 12 published books and more than 100 articles and short stories in national magazines. Owners of Walsh Writing Services.

One Response to Detours: On the Road with Red Herrings

  1. Kelly Moothart says:

    This is an excellent summary of how red herrings work–I love the analogy to detours!

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