Red Herrings

What is a red herring? On the simplest level, it is a kipper or a herring fish that is heavily salted and smoked. As a result of this process the fish turns red and has an extremely  strong smell.

How did the term red herring come to mean throwing one off the scent? Some will dispute the origin, but I will share the story because it seems to make sense.

It is said that red herrings were used to train young hunting dogs to follow a scent. Once the dogs were trained to follow the strong fish smell the lighter scent of a fox or a rabbit was substituted. As a final step in the training the red herring was crisscrossed through the animal scent to throw the dogs off. When the dogs could ignore the red herring and follow the true scent they were ready to hunt.

In mysteries a red herring refers to a clue or even a character designed to throw the reader and the detective off the scent of the real culprit. A mystery often cited for its red herring is
Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. In fact, Hercule Poirot discusses the red herring during his solution of the case:

 “Further to confuse the issue a red herring was drawn across the trail—the mythical woman in the red kimono.  Again I am to bear witness to this woman’s existence. There is a heavy bang at my door. I get up and look out—and see the scarlet kimono disappearing in the distance.”

However, I think the Christie story goes beyond the incident of the red kimono. Unlike some stories with a single red herring, I think the entire story is about red herrings designed to mislead Poirot and that’s what makes this mystery unique. Let’s take a closer
look at some of Christie’s red herrings.

  • Ratchett, the victim, screams out in the night. He states in French that he had a
    nightmare but Ratchett spoke no foreign languages. Does the French phrase point to the conductor, Pierre Michel or Ratchett’s secretary, Hector MacQueen or perhaps a stranger?
  • Ratchett received threatening letters—do the letters point to passenger Antonio Foscarelli who might have mob connections or does it point to a hired assassin
  • A conductor’s uniform button found in Ratchett’s compartment points to Pierre
    Michel or was there another conductor in the car?
  • Another passenger, Mrs. Hubbard, reports a male intruder in her compartment.
  • Mrs. Hubbard also finds the murder weapon in her compartment-did the intruder leave the weapon as he escaped from the dead man’s compartment?
  • The Maid, Hildegarde Schmidt states she passes a man in a conductor’s uniform who is small, dark and a stranger.
  • And back to the red kimono—reported to be a tall woman, but could it have been a small man?

Many of the other clues like the pipe cleaner or the dainty embroidered handkerchief cast suspicion on the passengers. However, the red herrings are directing Poirot to a stranger who has entered the train disguised as conductor and somehow escaped–perhaps as a woman wearing a red kimono. But just like the hunting dogs, Poirot ignores the strong smell of the herrings and finds the true scent to solve the case.

What’s your favorite mystery with a red herring?

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