How can stinky fish help you write a mystery?
“Red herrings,” a staple in classic/traditional mysteries, refers to false
suspects and clues that the writer sets up to confuse the reader. One of the pleasures of reading mysteries is to work the author’s puzzle and match wits with the sleuth to reach the same deduction. The skillful use of red herrings will not only keep the reader hooked to the final page, but can lead to a second reading of the book to find the clues missed on the first go-around.
Agatha Christie used red herrings well by populating her stories with numerous suspects, all with valid motives, and then rounding them up into the drawing room in the final chapter to reveal the killer. The reader then, no doubt, slaps her forehead and says, “Why didn’t I see that!”
Originally, red herrings were fish kippered by smoking and salting until they turned a reddish-brown. Before the invention of iceboxes, these fish were quite pungent. According to legend, hunters used the odious fish to train their tracking dogs. The smelly fish was used to lay a false trail on the ground to throw the dogs off the correct scent. Likewise, red herrings in a mystery lead the reader down the wrong path, away from the killer’s identify, and keep her off balance until the end.
Here are ways to develop good red herrings in a mystery:
1. Multiple suspects. When creating suspects, my motto is: The more, the merrier. A mystery isn’t much fun if the sleuth has only one or two possible suspects to pick from.
2. Motive, means, opportunity. These are the three requirements needed to convict a person in a court of law. Red herrings also need these traits to keep the sleuth’s interest.
Red herrings all need a reason to bump off the victim; otherwise, the sleuth would not pursue them.
The false suspects must also be capable of doing the dirty deed. If the victim was crushed beneath a 200-pound boulder, then obvious the small, frail elderly woman couldn’t be a suspect unless she owned a forklift truck that could lift the rock.
3. Equal emphasis. Someone once said he always figured out the killer in Agatha Christie’s work because “the killer is the character she never talked about.”
Many mysteries shove the red herrings up front. The most likely suspects and the ones given the most page space are generally the red herrings. Spend time with all the suspects so that the red herrings don’t stand out.
4. Deception and lies. A good mystery writer is a first class liar on the page (but hopefully not in real life) and knows how to make the characters lie.
When I served as a jail chaplain, I learned that the cells was full of innocent persons—or so thought the inmates who either blamed others for their crimes or justified their actions in their own minds.
Criminals plead “not guilty” because they won’t admit to their guilt. In a mystery, the killer will conceal, detract and cover up. The sleuth’s job is to shift through the falsehood to find the truth.
5. Alibis are made to be broken. In a premeditated murder, the killer will carefully set up an alibi to create the illusion that she was nowhere near the crime scene. In a crime of passion, the killer may retrace his stops and quickly set up an alibi after the fact, perhaps by resetting the victim’s watch, writing a false name in the dead person’s appointment book or deleting a computer file to hide his presence.
The red herrings may or may not have alibis. Those without will be under more suspicion. The killer may fool the reader with an apparently foolproof alibi. But the sharp sleuth will probe further.
6. Play fair. One of my biggest pet peeves as a reader is feeling cheated by the author who pulls the killer’s identity out of thin air. Some writers spend 300 pages creating suspects, only to reveal the murderer as a throwaway character who briefly appeared once on page 130—or even worse, someone who pops up for the first time on page 290.
Another gripe is the writer who concocts a far-fetched motive on page 298 or presents an ending so bizarre and unbelievable (Uncle Joe was actually murdered by space aliens!) that the reader scratches her head in frustration. The reader needs enough clues scattered throughout the story that the conclusion is obvious and satisfying.
The killer’s motive can be hidden, but not illogical. The writer can spring a surprise motive as long as she sets up the characters with the right characteristics to make the resolution possible.
A suggestion is to have one or more persons read your first draft for the express purpose of checking out your red herrings (putting grammar, spelling and other concerns aside). Was the mystery too easy or too hard to solve? Did the suspects keep the reader interested? Did the climax make sense?
With my book, I added more clues in the second draft. Two characters who showed up late in the story were moved earlier. I also turned another character into a “suspect.” I felt these changes made the mystery more delightful and puzzling.
So get out those red herrings and confound your readers—just as long as you eventually lead them onto the right trail. Happy hunting!
Bio: Sally Carpenter is native Hoosier now living in Moorpark, California.
Her debut mystery, “The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper,” is a Eureka! Award nominee for best first mystery novel as well as the first book in the Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol series.
She has a master’s degree in theater from Indiana State University. While in school two of her plays, “Star Collector” and “Common Ground,” were finalists in the American College Theater Festival One-Act Playwrighting Competition. “Common Ground” also earned a college creative writing award. “Star Collector” was produced in New York City and also the inspiration for her book.
Carpenter also has a master’s degree in theology and a black belt in tae kwon do.
She’s worked a variety of jobs including actress, freelance writer, college writing instructor, theater critic, jail chaplain, and tour guide/page for a major movie studio. She’s now employed at a community newspaper.
She’s a member of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles chapter and “mom” to two black cats. Sally’s next writing project is the second Sandy Fairfax book, “The Sinister Sitcom Caper.” Contact her at Facebook or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper”
Eureka! Award nominee