Saturday, November 7, 2009

False Clues and "Red Herrings"

One reason that crime fiction and mystery lovers get addicted to the genre is that they enjoy solving the puzzles and trying to find and make sense of the clues in a good mystery. So when it’s too easy to figure out who the murderer is, this can leave the reader dissatisfied. That’s why many authors use false clues and “red herrings” to keep the reader guessing. False clues and “red herrings” also make sense on a realistic, logical level. A real-life murderer is usually only too happy to lead the police astray and make someone else look guilty of the crime, so it adds a touch of realism to a story to have a fictional murderer do the same.

Sometimes, the murderer is quite deliberate about planting false clues and providing “red herrings.” That happens in several Agatha Christie novels; I’ll just make mention of two of them. In The ABC Murders, Poirot is drawn into the investigation of what seems like a sordid, “ordinary” (If there is such a thing) murder of an elderly shopkeeper by her seedy drunkard of a husband who’s threatened her life more than once. The only problem with that theory is that Poirot received a letter warning him of the murder and challenging him to catch the murderer; that letter couldn’t have been written by the chief suspect. When Poirot receives another letter, and another, each followed by a murder, he and the police realize they’re on the trail of a much more sinister killer. In this novel, the killer brilliantly plants false clues and for quite a time, leads Poirot and the police astray by the use of a very clever “red herring.” It’s not until late in the novel that we realize that the killer has planned everything in advance.

That’s also the case in Third Girl, in which Hercule Poirot investigates a young woman’s claim that she may have committed a murder. Poirot and his friend, Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional detective novelist, have very little to go on at first, since the young woman, Norma Restarick, isn’t clear on any of the details. But they soon realize that someone’s developed a well-planned scheme to frame Norma for murder. They realize just how ruthless the killer is when Ariadne Oliver herself walks directly into danger and narrowly misses being killed. At the end of the novel, when Poirot explains who the killer is and what the motive is, the reader can see just how thorough and devious the planting of false clues has been.

The killer also plants false clues and provides “red herrings” in Charlotte Macleod’s The Withdrawing Room, the second of her Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn series. Kelling has made the sad decision that she’s going to have to open her Boston brownstone home to boarders in order to make ends meet. Most of them are very nice, if quirky. One of them, though, Augustus Quiffen, is rude, obnoxious and far too curious about other people’s business. One day, Quiffen is killed by falling under a subway train, and nobody, least of all Sarah Kelling, is particularly upset by his death. However, the next day, Sarah receives a visit from a stranger, Mary Smith, who says that Quiffen’s death was a murder, and that she actually saw the murderer push Quiffen under the train. She can’t positively identify the murderer, but she’s sure Quiffen’s death was deliberate. As Sarah works to figure out who killed her former lodger, she’s helped by her most recently-arrived lodger, art expert Max Bittersohn. When they find out the truth behind Quiffen’s death, they realize that the killer has planned Quiffen’s death in advance, and was well-prepared with a very convincing “red herring.”

Sometimes, the murderer doesn’t deliberately plant false clues and plan for “red herrings,” but takes advantage of circumstances. Those circumstances serve as “red herrings” that protect the murderer – for a time. There’s a classic example of that in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links. In that story, Hercule Poirot receives an urgent letter from Paul Renauld, a wealthy Canadian √©migr√© to France. Renauld claims that he’s in imminent danger from a secret he possesses, and begs Poirot to come to his aid. Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to France, only to find that they’re too late; Renauld’s been stabbed to death near the grounds of his villa. As Poirot and Hastings investigate the murder, they slowly learn that several people involved in the murder are hiding secrets. As they find out the real truth behind the murder, Poirot realizes (almost too late) that the murderer has taken advantage of a very convenient circumstance to cover up what really happened.

Of course, very often, it’s the author who provides the “red herrings” and false clues. In those mysteries, there is often a set of suspects, all with equally compelling motives for murder, and the sleuth needs to sift through those motives, the evidence and what the suspects say to get to the truth. Agatha Christie was a genius at creating stories where more than one suspect has a strong motive for murder, and the reader has to sift through the clues to find out which ones are false. I’ll just mention one of her novels as an example. In Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Emily Arundell, a wealthy, elderly spinster, writes to Hercule Poirot, asking his help in a very delicate, family matter. Oddly enough, Poirot doesn’t receive the letter until two months later. When he and Captain Hastings travel to Market Basing, where Miss Arundell lives, they find that they’re too late; it turns out that she died shortly after writing that letter. Hastings is inclined to let the case go; after all, Emily Arundell is dead. Poirot’s curiosity is piqued, though, and he begins to ask questions and look into Emily Arundell’s death. He soon finds out that her death was murder, and that there are plenty of suspects. Her nieces and nephew were all desperate for money and were counting on a large inheritance. Her companion actually did inherit Emily Arundell’s fortune, and that has raised many eyebrows. Christie plants several tempting “red herrings” and false clues throughout the novel as Poirot finds out who actually killed Emily Arundell.

Ellery Queen does the same thing in The Last Woman in His Life. That novel focuses on the death of John Levering Benedict III, a wealthy playboy who’s invited Queen to spend a vacation in his guesthouse. On the night after Queen arrives, he gets a frantic call from Benedict, saying that he’s been murdered. Queen rushes over to the house, but by the time he gets there, Benedict is dead. The only clues to the murder are a green wig, a glittering evening gown and a pair of gloves. Staying in the house with Benedict are his three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. Any of them could have murdered Benedict, and Queen soon learns that they all had motives. What’s fascinating about this novel is that when Queen finds out the truth about Benedict’s mruder, we learn that many of the clues that seem so obvious early in the novel turn out to be false, and that many of the characters are so intriguing as suspects because they’re “red herrings.”

Several of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse mysteries also use that strategy of presenting a list of suspects, all with viable motives. Morse, who's all too human, sometimes follows false clues, too, only to realize he's mistaken. For instance, in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Morse and Detective Sergeant Lewis investigate the death of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of the Oxford Board of Examiners. As they find out the backgrounds of the other Board members, they find that all of them had secret lives, of which Quinn was aware. Because there are several suspects with strong motives, Morse and Lewis have to sift through the clues and find the ones that point to the real killer. In true Morse fashion, the key clue doesn't occur to Morse until late in the novel, after he and Lewis believe they've already solved the case. Dexter's use of likely suspects as "red herrings" in this novel keeps the reader guessing.

In my own Joel Wiliams mysteries, I have to admit that I do a very similar thing. In my stories, there are “red herrings” among the valuable clues. They come chiefly from the fact that more than one person has a motive for murder, so the clues could point to any one of several people. Williams and the police (and the reader) have to figure out which of those clues points to the real murderer, and which I put there, as Lewis Carroll wrote, “to annoy, because he knows it teases.” : ).

Of course, not all mystery novels make use of false clues or “red herrings.” Some very well-written police procedurals, for instance, keep the reader engaged by having the sleuth graduallly get closer and closer to the truth as the evidence gets sifted out. Others keep the reader guessing what will happen as the murderer and the sleuth play a “cat and mouse” game.

What’s your preference? Do you like to sift through clues, looking for those “red herrings?” Or do you prefer a straightforward procedural where the evidence slowly reveals who the killer is? Do you like “cat and mouse game” novels?


  1. I do like cat and mouse game novels! It's so much fun sifting through the clues, figuring out what's a genuine clue and what might be a red herring. As long as the writer doesn't drag out a red herring all the way to the end of a story...I like to have them revealed as false as the sleuth goes along.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - You make a well-taken point! It gives the reader a sense of satisfaction when it becomes clear which clues are real and which are "red herrings." It can really take away from the novel if, at the end of it, the sleuth "magically" produces a crucial piece of evidence that shows that a clue was false.

  3. Yes - and no!

    A reasonable number of red herrings works for me, but I am not sure modern writers would get away with running through ALL the characters of a village and suspect them one after the other as they did in the golden age.

    Didn´t you forget to mention Sayers´The Five Red Herrings, by the way? I don´t remember the story in detail (not the best Sayers in my opinion), but as a non-native reader I enjoyed learning a new phrase: red herrings ;)

  4. Dorte - I'm so glad you mentioned The Five Red Herrings! As you know, I'm very fond of Lord Peter Wimsey and of course I should have mentioned that one. How about we just say I deliberately left that one for you, OK? ; ). Seriously, though, you are completely right that today's crime fiction reader doesn't want to have to wade through too many false clues. As with anything else, "red herrings" are most effective when used in moderation - like maybe five of them ; ).

  5. Yes, I did consider that possibility! Very kind of you to give ME a chance.

    (Well, honestly, I sometimes need it - but you probably don´t know yet that I suffer from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, including concentration problems which is why I sometimes skip long blog posts or at least choose not to try to comment on them).

  6. And, indeed, "The Herring Seller's Apprentice", in which there are false clues and red herrings aplenty (Len Tyler). Very amusing and clever book.

    I like red herrings/false clues, especially when the falsity arises from the perception (via preconceived ideas) of the detective. If the detective looks at events in an objective way, they fall into a different place than if the detective looks at them in a way coloured by his/her own prejudices and experiences.

    This is quite a common device in the private eye novel, where the solution comes not so much from unearthing new clues but from looking at events in the "right" way.

  7. Dorte - I didn't know that about you; I'm even more grateful now that you take the time to read and make comments on what I write, and you're welcome to talk about Lord Peter Wimsey any time you want : ).

    Maxine - You are absolutely right! The best "red herrings" are the ones that are created by the sleuth's perception (and therefore, often, the reader's). That's what I like about Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, Caroline Graham's Tom Barnaby and of course, Christie's Poirot: the reader can follow them as they follow a certain course, realize they were wrong in their perceptions, and look at the case again "the right way round." That adds a nice level of interest and it does reflect reality. What we see really is a matter of perspective.

  8. I like to sift through the clues too. One of the reasons why I always loved Christie's books.

  9. Martin - I couldn't agree with you more. One of the best things about Christie's work, for me, is matching wits with her; of course, I seldom win.... ; )

  10. You cite some of my favorite mystery novelists here -- makes me want to go back and read some of the classics. As for clues and red herrings, I love it when the author plants them so cleverly and in such a subtle way that the ending seems like a fantastic twist. That "oh, wow, now I see it," finish is fun.

  11. Patricia - I agree with you. It's particularly effective for me when the author has done such an effective job that the reader almost doesn't pick up the clues. It's especially effective, at least for me, when the clues "hide in plain sight," if the reader only pays attention.

  12. I'm with the group; give me clues and red herrings and let me muddle my way through. My only criteria is when I get to the end and the solution is revealed that it makes sense. Do not hold back information only to spring it on me as the guilty party is identified; that's cheating. Sure, hide the real clue among useless flotsam or tell me something right at the beginning when I'm sure to have forgotten it by the time I'm at the end. Just make it a 'ta da' with a logical conclusion. I have no problem feeling like an idiot, but I have huge problems feeling I didn't have a chance.


  13. Elspeth - You really put that so well - far better than I could. False clues and "red herrings" are only really effective if the real clues are there for the reader to see - right from the beginning. Otherwise, it's just not fair to the reader, and like you, many readers feel cheated if they don't have the chance to figure out who the murderer is. Surprises only work well if they're logical and there's some hint to them, so that they make sense, given the rest of the story.