A red herring is a fallacy that introduces something irrelevant to a larger narrative.
This is done in order to purposely divert the reader’s attention from the main subject or real issue of a passage, poem, or book. This technique is used most prevalently in literature where writers employ it as a dramatic device to increase the suspense and complexity of a work.
When writers use red herrings a reader’s attention moves from the main characters/central drama to something peripheral and in the end meaningless. The “red herring” in a story is an intentional distraction. A reader who engages too fulsomely with the distraction might be led to false conclusions about what a passage means or what is coming next in the story.
Origins of Red Herring
The origins of the phrase “red herring” are slightly complex. Originally it was thought that the phrase came from the very real practice of using a red herring, a kind of dried red fish, in order to train hunting dogs. They would follow the scent and learn through practice what they then put into use during an actual hunt. But, more recently it has been determined that the practice was actually in relation to training horses by dragging a dead a cat or fox.
The term was made popular in February of 1807 after William Cobbett told a story that depicted dogs distracted by the smelly fish. The phrase appeared in an article he wrote for the Political Register. There is no actual species of fish known as a “red herring” but the phrase is used to refer to a hazily smoked kipper that has a strong smell and flesh that turns red.
Examples of Red Herrings
Example #1 The Final Problem by Arthur Conan Doyle
One of the most popular stories in the Sherlock Holmes series, ‘The Final Problem features Holmes and Watson falling victim to a red herring in the form of a note. This note informs them that there is a woman in their hotel whose in need of medical assistance. Rather, when they return to the hotel it turns out that the note was written by James Moriarty, Holmes’ nemesis. It was done intentionally in order to lead the characters down the wrong path.
In this example, the reader and the characters in the novel are taken in by the note and convinced that the hotel is the best place for them to go. It creates added tension and drama as it results in Holmes being left alone with Moriarty.
Example #2 And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
And Then There Were None is one of Christie’s best-known novels and has a wonderful example of a red herring within its pages. The story revolves around ten people who die one by one on a remote island. The circumstances are strange and mysterious as each death leaves the survivors with more questions than answers.
One of the main features of the story is a poem called ‘Ten Little Indians’. In this poem, there is a line that suggests that one person will be sealed up at sea by a “red herring”. It connects into a series of events in which one man disappears only to be discerned drowned in the ocean rather than slinking around as the killer.
Example #3 Hound of Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Another example of a red herring that appears in a mystery story is in ‘Hound of Baskervilles by Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle. This is another very popular story in the Sherlock Holmes series and features a classic example of how a red herring can lead readers. Introduced into the story is the character of Barrymore, an escaped convict, who seems like the perfect suspect. But, it turns out that he is only in the story to divert the reader’s and Holmes’ attention away from the real killer.