Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Staying True to Your Mystery's Red Herrings

The so-called red herring in a mystery is a false path the sleuth follows. As s/he starts down a trail it seems to be one  that will help solve the crime. It eventually becomes apparent that a suspect or lead is not what the crime-solver hoped it would be.

From the detective, PI, or amateur sleuth's perspective, following a false clue is largely a waste of time. It could mean a person who provided the lead is not to be trusted, and that's good to know -- but the red herring still takes time to address. It diverts the PI from the best path.
From the reader's vantage point, the red herring can be a good thing. The book won't end soon. Many times I've wished a good novel were longer.

So what do I mean about staying true to red herrings? They must appear to be logical clues, not simply time wasters or a chance for the sleuth to look brilliant. The reader doesn't want to read fluff or feel the wrong path could have been easily avoided.

Some of the best false directions are from the classic mystery writers -- Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammet (especially The Maltese Falcon), Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels and of course Raymond Chandler's Sam Spade (especially The Deep Sleep). The pace of these older novels is slower than what readers seem to expect in more current books, but don't let that turn you off. Follow the detective's mental trail and you'll learn a lot about good writing.

Though not mysteries in the classic sense, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books have a plethora of twists and diversions. Some are natural, because Harry and friends are kids -- they make the occasional false assumption (based on past experiences with other characters). I think the path to Professor Snape's role in the stories is strewn with some of the best red herrings in literature. And when they are revealed, they make sense and pull together several story lines.

People occasionally tell me they especially like the false clues in a couple of my books. What they can't tell (thankfully) is that I decided that the murderer would be someone different than my original intention. The ultimate bad guy made sense, but so did the one I originally planned. Don't tell anyone.

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