Leading up the garden path with RED HERRINGS

Red herrings are most commonly used in mystery fiction by writers to lead readers down the garden path – Roopa Banerjee

A red herring is a literary device used to mislead or distract readers/listeners from the main narrative, to prompt false conclusions. It may be used intentionally, as in mystery fiction or rhetorical strategy (e.g, in politics) or inadvertently in argumentation.

Red herrings are most commonly used in mysteries and thrillers by writers to lead readers down the garden path. Authors deliberately add information which misleads readers into following a false trail, astonishing them with a completely different denouement. Red herrings build suspense and enable dramatic narrative twists.

Why is it called red herring? There lies an interesting tale. Red herring is an allusion to a pungent type of pickled herring used to train hunting dogs. Dog trainers teach dogs to hunt by training them to follow a trail of scent, and a hunting dog needs to be able to follow the scent of a single animal without being distracted by other interesting odours. To test canine capability, trainers would drag pickled fish/herring across the trail in an attempt to mislead them. Thus, in literature, a red herring is a false clue that leads readers or characters in a narrative astray.

In 1807, British journalist William Cobbett (1763-1835) used the phrase ‘red herring’ for the first time to criticise the press for prematurely reporting Napoleon’s defeat, comparing it to using smoked red herrings to distract dogs from another scent trail. Thus Cobbett was accusing the press of intentionally using fake news to mislead the public.

Red herrings are of two types: intentional and coincidental. Intentional red herrings are used by authors to deliberately mislead readers trying to solve a mystery. Coincidental red herrings are when a story contains false clues deliberately placed by a character or protagonist.

An interesting example of an intentional red herring is in Agatha Christie’s famous novel And Then There Were None. Ten people guilty of murder but never convicted for their crimes are trapped on a remote island. One by one, they begin to die in ways resembling the deaths of the characters in the nursery rhyme Ten Little Soldiers, and the guests realise that someone on the island is planning their deaths. Without giving away the ending, the actual killer, is also supposedly murdered, eliminating him as a suspect in the minds of the readers. This is an intentional red herring.

Another example of a red herring is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story: A Study in Scarlet. The word RACHE written in blood on a wall at the murder scene is the red herring which misleads Sherlock and Inspector Lestrande in completely different ways. It’s one of the rare examples of a red herring which is both intentional and coincidental.

In his bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code, author Dan Brown makes one of his characters seem like the mastermind behind all evil events, but later on reveals that someone else had been pulling the strings all along. In The Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling, Harry Potter suspects an important character of the murder of his parents, but later realises that he was being misled by red herrings.

The next time you read a mystery or thriller, look out for red herrings!


If you would like to explore the world of red herrings, I recommend the following reading list where the writers have made excellent use of this literary device. Match the book titles with their authors and check them out in your local bookshop or library for a rivetting red herring read!

1. Hound of The Baskervilles
2. The Withdrawing Room
3. Great Expectations
4. Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone
5. Murder on The Orient Express

A. Agatha Christie
B. Charles Dickens
C. Arthur Conan Doyle
D. Charlotte Macleod
E. J.K. Rowling

Answers: 1-C, 2-D, 3-B, 4-E, 5-A

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