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.

Monthly Author Profile: Sue Grafton

Character Development

Recently at one of our Sisters in Crime meetings I had the opportunity to speak about one of my favorite female mystery authors, Sue Grafton.

First of all, I admire anyone who has written about the same character, like Kinsey Millhone, for as long as Sue Grafton has. W is for Wasted is the latest book in her alphabet series. It is the twenty-third book in this series with three to go. To accomplish sustaining this character throughout the series means Kinsey is a rich character. This didn’t come by accident but was very well thought out. Reading Sue’s series is a study in character development.


Secondly, I also admire the way she weaves her subplots into the story as she reveals her main plot. She does this in such a way that she has an intricate tapestry where every word written affects the next word. She is not afraid to introduce a new subplot wherever it is required to tell her story. In T is for Trespass she introduces a new character shortly before the climax of the main plot.

In the new subplot a young girl, Peggy Klein, helps Kinsey discover information about the villain. The other subplots going on here are Kinsey trying to find information about the villain’s past, working under a restraining order so she cannot approach the villain, while trying to keep her friend, Gus, safe from the villain who is his caretaker. Peggy is also in pursuit of this caretaker who murdered her grandmother and then absconded with the family inheritance. This young girl also tells Kinsey that the police are looking for this caretaker.

All this takes place in one scene towards the end of the book, and it happens so smoothly. The new subplot fits flawlessly into the rest of the story in a masterful manner.


Sue Grafton is one of the most generous writers I’ve come across. As a writer, I know that while I am writing my novel my creativity gets bombarded constantly with other ideas, most of which are distractions. What writers end up doing is putting these interruptions in the margin, on a post-it note, or in a notebook. Sometimes they are ideas for another project or they might affect what the writer is presently working on. What Sue has done is keep a journal of these distractions and questions on five of her novels, and she has published them on her webpage for the world to see. You can find them in the right-hand margin of her home page under Sue’s Journals.

These are some of the reasons I admire Sue Grafton.




Creating Skeet Bannion

When I write fiction, I always begin with character. For me, all story and plot arise from character. I knew I wanted to write about urban, mixed-blood Indians. I am one myself, and so are many of my friends all around the country. In fact, there are more Indians living in cities now than on reservations. This is, in large part, due to the BIA’s big urban relocation program of the 1960s and 1970S when they moved whole families from the reservations far away to cities where they knew no one and were culturally isolated. We’re seldom written about. When non-Indians write about us, they want to write about Indians living ancient traditional lives on reservations or about urban Indians who are drunks and drug addicts. Neither is an accurate portrait. So I wanted to write about an urban mixed-blood Indian professional living in Kansas City (because I know the city), and I made her Cherokee because I’m Cherokee.

I also wanted to write about a university setting, but I didn’t want to do it from an academic perspective. I wanted an insider who was yet an outside of sorts. I thought of the campus police forces, which most people don’t realize are actual police forces with arrest and investigative powers. I thought of how their chiefs often are recruited from nearby large urban police forces. So I decided to make my Cherokee Kansas Citian a campus police chief.

I couldn’t make the university one in Kansas City, however, because I’d been an administrator at the major Kansas City university for decades, and I didn’t want people to treat my book as a roman á clef, trying to find real-life figures behind each fictional character. Thus, I created a small university town right outside of Kansas City with various features I liked in a variety of small towns around the metropolitan area. That brought me face to face with the question of why my Cherokee cop left a successful career (it had to be successful, or they wouldn’t want her as a police chief) to live in a small town and head a campus police force. So I dug deeper into my character, Skeet Bannion, and discovered her alcoholic, verbally abusive cop father and her unfaithful cop ex-husband who doesn’t want to let her go. Suddenly, Skeet had excellent motives to flee Kansas City—and not incidentally, a load of emotional baggage to deal with, as well.

As I dug deeper and deeper into her character, I discovered Skeet was estranged from her mother, and her Cherokee grandmother had been the most formative influence on her. So had mine, consequently I gave Skeet my own beloved Elisi who died when I was thirteen, but I had Skeet’s Gran still living as Skeet hit her mid-thirties. I discovered Skeet’s best friend and surrogate mother, retired psychologist Karen Wise, who owned Forgotten Arts, the fiberarts shop I’ve always wanted, and raised angora goats and Romney sheep for their fiber on her farm just outside of town. I discovered Karen had brought Skeet into her circle of women friends who now became Skeet’s friends, as well, and Miryam Rainbow and Annette Stanek were created. I discovered that a neighbor teen took care of Skeet’s yard and pets and that his father had deserted him and his mother, that his mother was a victim who had hooked up with a con-man stepfather. And suddenly, I had a murder and we were off to the races in the first Skeet book, Every Last Secret.

Linda Rodriguez’s second Skeet Bannion novel, Every Broken Trust (St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books), was September’s selection for Las Comadres National Latino Book Club. Her first Skeet novel, Every Last Secret, won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition, was a Barnes & Noble mystery pick, and is a finalist for the International Latino Book Award. For her books of poetry, Skin Hunger (Scapegoat Press) and Heart’s Migration (Tia Chucha Press), Rodriguez has received many awards and fellowships. She is president of the Borders Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, a founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of the Macondo Writers Community, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, Kansas City Cherokee Community, and International Thriller Writers. She spends too much time on Twitter as @rodriguez_linda and on Facebook at  She blogs about writers, writing, and the absurdities of everyday life at

Available at Amazon.

every broken trust-1

Meet Marv, our cowboy/coroner sleuth


Being a ninth generation family farmer like myself allowed me to approach the idea of getting into Marv Henderson’s head with a unique perspective. While I did not attend veterinary school like him, I did grow up on a 240-acre farm and raised beef cattle, which I still do. It is a lifestyle that will course through your veins and seep into your marrow if you are around it long enough. As such, it never quite leaves you even if you do go off to be an arts and entertainment editor at a major newspaper or teach high school social studies at a private school. The experiences gained while growing up on a farm/ranch and being out in nature with domesticated animals and wild ones alike provide a heightened respect for life in general, something which I attempted to infuse into Marv.

Marv and I also coincidentally share a major life tragedy – he lost his father when he was 17 and I lost mine when I was about to turn 16. This commonality between us allowed me to deeply relate to him because that sense of sudden loss at a critical age does not go away no matter how old you become. It is from that experience that I was able to infuse a degree of loneliness into Marv, something which he is comfortable and uncomfortable with at the same time. There is also a heightened sense of self-reliance that comes with it. There is a fear of looking weak if one has to ask someone else for help and a reluctance to accept it if it is offered freely. The impact of this creates a proverbial crater on the social landscape as the ability to easily make friends, to work well with others, to have romantic relationships, etc. is muted to a significant degree. It is a disconnect that is difficult to hurdle.

While creating Marv I also drew upon a multitude of experiences I have had with various large animal veterinarians. He is in many ways an amalgamation of all their collective personalities. Each one I have known over the years has had something unique or memorable about them that I added to Marv. This ranges from his cantankerousness to his flashes of a temper to how he walks and more. So it was these experiences and traditions I used in the hopeful attempt to breathe life into the template of Marv Henderson.

Available at Amazon.




Table Rock 007blog

In the predawn hours of a recent summer night, I was sitting on the deck of our cabin on Table Rock Lake when I looked up and saw what, for a mystery writer, is a gorgeous, mystical night sky. Of course, my first thought was to remember the opening line of Madaleine L’Engle’s novel, A Wrinkle In Time, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Now that line is considered to be a cliché, but that was not the case when Madaleine L’Engle wrote it.  Even so, it is a powerful image, and it reminds me of why I became a mystery writer and later an editor of mystery novels—one of the elements mystery novels have in spades—eerie, macabre, unnerving images that can be visualized to evoke strong emotions within the reader.

I only have to look to the master, Edgar Allen Poe, to conjure up such images and bring the muse.

A small sample of Poe’s dark magic:

Clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens

Insufferable gloom


White trunks of decayed trees

Bleak walls

Vacant eye-like windows

Dreary tract of country

And that’s just on the first page of “The Fall of the House of Usher!”

My process:

I often read that page and then easily come up with such adjectives as:







The list goes on and on.

So when Lawrence and I created the Mystery, Ink. Bookstore, I knew immediately that, among other things, it must possess an unnerving gargoyle, unearthly skeletons, low-wattage lighting that cast dark, macabre shadows on the walls. And the chilling effect of the huge black cat, Hercule, Nattie’s personal pet, who sizes up every customer with those enormous cat eyes.

Legacy of  “dark and stormy night”:

Writers may not use those exact words, which virtually all mystery writers know, when they create images, but the legacy of those words lives on in other, more indirect ways. When you read your next mystery novel, consider whether or not you see that legacy.

Suella Walsh

Managing Editor

Mystery, Ink. Novels






Blog Pictures 2013 003c



   You enter the bookstore, head straight for the mystery section, and begin to browse. Still it’s only a casual relationship between you and the books on the shelves. You, then, see a cover that catches your attention. Your interest is peaked. You read the first line of the novel, and if it’s well written, that’s the moment when you are hooked.

Mystery readers know the significance of that all-important first line. Through such devises as vivid action, a strong sense of character, or a rich setting, that sentence must compel you to turn the page. The driving force in a mystery novel is tension, and you, the mystery reader, want it from page one.

Excellent Examples of Mystery First Lines:

“When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter.

No Second Chance by Harland Coben

“I wasn’t thinking about the man who’d blown himself up.”

   DeJa Dead by Kathy Reichs

“Gordon Michaels stood in the fountain with all his clothes on.”

Banker by Dick Francis

“He seemed incapable of creating such chaos, but much of what he saw below could be blamed on him.”

The Pelican Brief by John Grisham

Why do these words create such great openings? For many reasons, of course. But primarily because each of them creates a question in the reader’s mind, a question worthy of further reading in order to discover the answer.

Examples of Mystery, Ink. Novels First Lines:

“I didn’t know her for very long, but when I heard she left town, I worried.”

The Girl My Town Forgot by Markus Kane

“He’s going to take it all away from me, everything I hold dear.”

A Killing Strikes Home by Paffi S. Flood

At Mystery, Ink. Novels, it is our goal to bring you into the fictive dream with a catapulting jolt, and hold you in that dream until the last word of the novel.

QUESTION: If the first line of a mystery novel was, DO NOT ENTER, would you enter and keep reading, or would you put the book down?

Suella Walsh and Lawrence Walsh

Managing Editors

Mystery, Ink. Novels

Goldminds Publishing (Nashville, Tennessee)



Who Should You Thank?

Guest Post – Markus Kane


Who Should You Thank For the Invention of the Murder Mystery? Look to Your Lawyer

Murder mysteries are everywhere. In 2013, a Library Journal survey showed that more than half of public libraries report that mysteries are their single most popular genre, and that the category is responsible for almost a quarter of printed fiction published each year.

Readers, it seems, have a taste for murder.

But it wasn’t always so. As a genre that boasts millions of adoring fans, authors of household name status, and enough new yearly material to fill a morgue, the murder mystery is a youngster.

The American Roots of the Murder Mystery

In 1841, American author and poet Edgar Allan Poe published The Murders in the Rue Morgue, a short story that introduced the exploits of sleuth C. Auguste Dupin. Widely credited by critics as the first true detective story, Poe followed it in 1842 and 1845 with two more shorts featuring Dupin. With them the detective genre, and its now well-known tropes, was born.

The world Poe lived in was a world of change. The police forces that modern readers take for granted were relatively new phenomena, as was mass literacy and access to cheaply produced reading material. Poe, born in 1809 and dead just over 40 years later, grew up in a world where the tales of police exploits became huge best sellers. In 1828 and 1829, a four-volume memoir written by the former head of the French Sûreté thrilled readers in Europe and America with the tales of the life of a criminal investigator. The success of those books spurred a long-running interest in the lives of police and the criminals they chased.

The Mystery Author of Mysteries

But while Poe may have written the first murder mystery short stories, the first true mystery novel (probably) sprang from the mind of an English lawyer.

According to Paul Collins, the first true murder mystery/detective novel appeared in 1862 and 1863, published as a serial in Once a Week magazine. The Notting Hill Mystery tells the story of Ralph Henderson, an insurance investigator tasked to prove that the nefarious “Baron R__” killed his wife by poisoning her with acid.

The author of the serialized novel was credited as “Charles Felix,” a man no one at Once a Week had ever met. A well-reviewed book in its time, Charles Felix only published three other works, then appeared to disappear forever.

But Collins says that Charles Felix never disappeared at all. He claims that Felix was actually Charles Warren Adams, a lawyer who just happened to be the sole publisher of Saunders, Otley, and Co.

Adams had bailed out the publishing company after its two owners died, and used his position to publish his first novel, Velvet Lawns, under the Felix pseudonym. The Notting Hill Mystery followed a year later.

For Collins, the tip-off came when he discovered a mention of Adams in a gossip column, stating that Charles Felix was his well-known pen name. That, along with the book’s descriptions of legal procedures and other clues, lead Collins to conclude that the murder mystery novel sprang from Adams’s hand.

So, the next time you find yourself wandering the shelves looking for a new mystery, give some thought to where the genre began and, maybe, thank your lawyer.

Markus Kane is a writer (and former attorney) living in Kansas City. His newest novel, Mystery Ink: The Girl My Town Forgot, is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.