A cozy mystery isn’t complete without the use of “red herrings.” A red herring is a false clue the author uses to send readers and the fictional sleuth in directions that don’t lead to the real villain. It is simply a tool to distract from the real culprit.
In the literal sense, no fish called a red herring exists; rather, the term refers to a fish that’s been strongly cured in brine or heavily smoked. The process makes the fish smell and turns the flesh a reddish color.
There is some debate about the etymology of the term red herring. The most common theory is that the strong smelling fish were used to train hunting dogs. The red herring would be dragged along a trail until a puppy learned to follow the scent. Later on, the trainer would drag a red herring perpendicular to the trail of the animal being hunted, and the dog would eventually learn to follow the trail of the animal. Another theory points to escaping convicts who used red herring to throw off hounds in pursuit.
No matter how the term came about, a cozy mystery wouldn’t be complete without red herrings to compel the book’s sleuth to go in directions that don’t point to the real villain. The cozy author can do this in several ways. The red herring used most often is giving other characters a motivation to kill the victim. Another technique used is to lead the sleuth astray with gossip or by planting false evidence at the scene of the crime. Sometimes the wrong victim is killed by accident—another red herring.
Cozy authors owe it to our readers to provide enough red herrings to make a story interesting. We also need to make sure all the red herrings are explained at the end of a book; for instance, if the sleuth uncovers a potential murder weapon at a possible suspect’s house, but that suspect turns out to the innocent, we need to know why the weapon was there.
One notable example of the use of a red herring is the convict Seldon in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Sir Author Conan Doyle. The reader believes that Seldon must be involved in the murders, but he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I'd love to hear from our readers. What is your favorite red herring from a cozy mystery that you've recently read?