May 29, 2023
Red Herrings in Mystery Writing

Red Herrings in Mystery Writing

The Art of Misdirection: Mastering Red Herrings in Mystery Writing

Mystery. The word itself sends a thrilling shiver down the spine, a shot of adrenaline through the veins, a charge of excitement to the brain. We are innately curious creatures, after all. We relish the challenge of untangling Gordian knots, of unraveling cryptic riddles, of piecing together fragmented puzzles. And no genre of writing stokes these fires of curiosity and exploration more fervently than mystery does. But at the heart of every tantalizing mystery, lies the artful dance of misdirection.

Misdirection, you ask? Quite simply, it’s the skilful maneuvering of readers’ attention away from the true solution, the genuine perpetrator, the real motive. A misdirection done well can be likened to an expert magician’s sleight of hand, where you’re convinced the rabbit is being pulled out of the hat, while it’s been hidden behind a silken handkerchief all along. One particular breed of misdirection in mystery writing, which is both a writer’s delight and reader’s quandary, is the crafty red herring.

Red herring is a phrase borrowed from the world of hunting, where a smoked fish was used to distract hounds from their quarry. And just like those dogs of yore, we readers are often misled by the scent of a red herring, leaving us panting and bewildered in a maze of unexpected twists and turns. So, what does it take to master these sinuous, slippery, and oh-so-delicious red herrings?

For those wielding the quill or tapping the keyboard in the name of mystery, I’ll share my insights on how to become a maestro of misdirection. But beware, readers, for we’re about to pull back the crimson velvet curtain and reveal the tricks of the trade.

The first order of business is subtlety. A red herring must be a shadowy whisper rather than a screaming headline. It should nudge the reader gently off the path without them realizing they’ve been led astray. However, this is a delicate balance. The clue must be significant enough to notice but not so glaring that its purpose is obvious.

Consider creating characters who have something to hide, a motive to lie, or a reason to mislead. Readers are naturally suspicious of such characters, so they can serve as perfect vehicles for red herrings. For instance, the jealous ex-lover who still holds a grudge, the shifty-eyed janitor who always seems to be lurking around, or the seemingly innocent aunt with a secret past. But remember, the idea is not to deceive maliciously. Rather, it’s about crafting a narrative landscape that’s layered and compelling, where every character, no matter how innocuous, has potential for intrigue.

Second, timing is everything. Introduce a red herring too early, and it might be forgotten; too late, and it might seem a desperate attempt to divert attention. The trick lies in weaving it into the narrative at the right moment, usually just as the true clues are gathering momentum. It’s like adding a twist to the dance when the rhythm gets predictable.

For example, as your detective is inching closer to the truth, introduce an unexpected piece of evidence or a new suspicious character. This keeps the readers on their toes and cultivates a page-turning momentum. Every new chapter then becomes an opportunity to challenge assumptions, to re-evaluate the web of relationships, and to tantalize with the thrill of the unknown.

Third, a red herring should be believable. It’s not about creating outlandish scenarios or improbable characters, but about crafting diversions that make sense within the world of the story. Every clue, whether true or misleading, must be plausible. Unlikely coincidences or far-fetched events will only serve to break the reader’s immersion and trust in the story.

Make sure your red herring could feasibly lead to the conclusion you want your readers to draw. If you’re trying to implicate the butler (it’s always the butler, isn’t it?), then plant evidence or create circumstances that would reasonably make him a suspect. Perhaps he has a concealed criminal record, or he had access to a key piece of evidence. But, in the grand finale, it turns out the butler was merely a red herring, and it was the quiet librarian who committed the crime.

Finally, every red herring should eventually be explained. A skillfully laid red herring doesn’t just disappear once it has served its purpose. Instead, it is resolved, explained, and incorporated into the overall narrative. Why did the butler lie about his whereabouts on the night of the murder? Maybe he was planning a surprise birthday party for the victim and didn’t want to ruin the surprise. This gives closure to the reader and adds depth to the character and story.

Becoming an adept angler of red herrings is a journey of understanding human nature, of recognizing our inherent biases and preconceptions, and then exploiting them masterfully. The magic lies in being able to guide and misguide at the same time, to give and take away in equal measure, and to make the reader trust you, even as you lead them delightfully astray.

So, mystery writers, don your invisibility cloaks and sharpen your quills, for the path to the mastery of red herrings is a thrilling adventure, a grand game of wits, and a fine dance of deception and revelation. And remember, at the end of it all, it’s not just about surprising the reader; it’s about creating a story world so captivating and immersive that every detour, every misstep, is a joyous part of the journey.

Readers, the next time you dive into a gripping mystery, remember to appreciate the crafty red herrings that lure you off the trail. These devious diversions are not mere roadblocks; they’re tributes to our human love for complexity and riddles, beautiful testaments to our never-ending quest for the truth, even in the labyrinth of lies. Now, that’s the art of misdirection for you!


The Best Misdirections in Mystery Novels

Ah, the lure of the red herring, the delicious scent of misdirection! There’s nothing quite like the thrill of a well-placed diversion in a mystery novel. The allure of a seemingly important clue, the frustration of a false lead, the satisfaction of a riddle solved, only to realize that you’ve been led astray all along.

Red herrings are the stalwart companions of the mystery genre, the ever-faithful sidekicks to the detective’s quest for truth. They are the sherbet lemons that add zest to our literary diet, the narrative pranksters that challenge our assumptions and tease our intellect. In short, red herrings are the salt to our mystery souffle, the absinthe in our literary cocktail, giving it that delightful tang of uncertainty and complexity.

Let’s embark on a merry chase through the pages of some of the finest mystery novels, in search of the best red herrings that have ever swam across their chapters. And hold on to your detective hats, dear readers, for this is going to be one riveting journey!

First off, let’s dive into Agatha Christie’s iconic novel “And Then There Were None.” In this masterpiece of misdirection, ten strangers are invited to a secluded island, only to be picked off, one by one, according to a chilling nursery rhyme. Throughout the book, Christie carefully plants red herrings that implicate virtually every character, casting a shadow of suspicion over all and keeping the reader guessing till the very end. The plot is so finely tuned that even when you think you’ve sniffed out the red herrings, you’re likely still off the scent. Such is the genius of Dame Christie!

Our next stop is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” where the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes encounters a particularly spectral red herring. The legend of a ghostly hound haunting the Baskerville family is presented as the central mystery. Yet, it turns out to be a diversion from the real human villain. Conan Doyle, with his masterful narrative sleight of hand, leads us into the marshes of supernatural, only to reveal a deviously human hand behind the crimes.

Dipping our toes into the modern era, we come to the labyrinthine plot of “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn. Flynn employs a clever red herring when she introduces us to Amy Dunne’s diary, which is later revealed to be part of Amy’s meticulous plan to frame her husband for her murder. The diary is our window into Amy’s mind, and we trust it implicitly, only to realize that it’s been leading us astray.

Next, we delve into the shadowy realm of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson. Here, Larsson expertly weaves a tale of corporate corruption, personal vendettas, and unspeakable crimes. The story is a treasure trove of red herrings, with multiple plot lines that seem relevant but are cunning diversions. One of the most brilliant instances is when the focus is directed towards Harriet’s possible murderers, making us forget about the central mystery – Harriet’s whereabouts.

Finally, let’s traverse the winding roads of “Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty. The entire novel is built around a single, captivating question – who died at the trivia night? Moriarty cleverly drops hints about various characters, sparking suspicions, and spinning an intricate web of red herrings. The reader is led to believe that one of the leading ladies is the victim, but in a stunning twist, it’s revealed to be a character that was least expected.

The red herrings in these novels are not mere plot devices; they’re skillful strokes on the canvas of the narrative, adding depth, intrigue, and excitement. They are the chameleons of the story world, adept at camouflage, experts at misdirection. These mystery masters have shown us that the art of misdirection is not just about veiling the truth, but about embellishing the journey towards it, making it more mesmerizing, more engaging, more alive.

In the end, it’s not about the destination, the whodunit, or the how-done-it, but about the journey. It’s about those tantalizing detours, those confounding crossroads, those false trails that take us off the beaten path, only to lead us back to it. And, as we navigate this winding maze, we realize that the best part of a mystery novel is not the revelation of the truth, but the delicious thrill of being led astray. So, here’s to those red herrings, the unsung heroes of mystery, the masters of misdirection. Long may they swim in the waters of intrigue!

More Mystery Features



Overleaper – A Podcast

An American soldier must stop her doppelganger from a parallel dimension who has plans to assassinate the President of the United States.

Starring Thora Birch   —   Free wherever you get your podcasts 

Overleaper on apple podcasts
Overleaper on Youtube
Overleaper on Spotify