I looked it up once. Did you know that herrings, once smoked, turn reddish? I didn’t. In my writing world, I associate red herrings with false clues, logical fallacy, evasive information, a diversion of attention. I didn’t know they were really real. I thought they were a reflection of the real but non-existent, thus misleading.
Mystery authors use red herrings in order to make the puzzle of the mystery tale an active interaction between the reader and the author. I think mystery readers have to work harder than any other fiction readers. Not only are there the normal elements to keep track of, such as character arcs and plot points, but the added element of purposeful distraction makes readers question everything.
Nothing can be taken at face value. The reader MUST mistrust the author. The author is out to fool the reader. The author purposefully misleads down dark alleys, shrouded doorways, and tunnels. The successful mystery writer has the reader searching for patterns, discarding data, elevating other pieces of information. The best mystery is a hard--but, doable--verbal jigsaw puzzle.
Because it must be solvable by the attentive reader. Or at least be a satisfying solution to the discerning reader who agrees that, even if not solved before the end, the author’s solution was foreshadowed appropriately. No good mystery writer uses the deus ex machina device. The clues, though obscured, must be there.
But back to the expression, red herring. For centuries, red herrings have had a dual meaning. My Oxford English Dictionary (Yes, I do have my very own OED!) records the first use in print of the misleading definition in 1686. That was a while ago, eh? In print, it was used as drawing the red herring food across the track to provide a distraction from the real issue.
Edgar Allan Poe, considered the first modern mystery writer (father of the detective story), used red herrings on occasion. Now it is de rigueur for mystery writers to use false clues to keep the mystery going.
On a food note, I guess I could use red herrings in some Jamaican dish or another in an upcoming book. That would be a twist in a culinary mystery no one would see coming--real red herrings to conceal the literary ones! Speaking of culinary mysteries and red herrings, have you read Mission Impastable yet?
For more info on red herrings, read these: