A red herring is a piece of information designed to distract or mislead one. It’s most often found in murder mysteries, specifically of the whodunit variety, in which the primary interest lies in figuring out the identity of the murder. A red herring in such cases is usually an apparent clue designed to make you think that someone apart from the actual murderer is the killer. All well and good, but what does any of this have to do with herrings?
In case you’re not well-versed in North-Sea marine life, a herring is a common type of fish, often eaten in Northern Europe. When it’s smoked and split open down the middle, it’s known as a kipper in English, and often eaten at breakfast. When a herring is smoked, its flesh turns a reddish colour (some suggest that the word kipper comes from old words for copper, due to the colour).
And apart from being a tasty breakfast staple, kippers were also reportedly used, from medieval times on, by fugitives from the law. They would use a kipper’s strong odour to distract dogs following their scent, just as a red herring in a story distracts you from a train of thought leading to the real murderer. We can even say it throws you off the scent, another idiom with the same origin.
A good red herring is an organic part of the story, and is easy to believe. An interesting example of one can be found in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
***spoilers for The Da Vinci Code, even though you’ve probably seen/read it***
In the novel, we’re expected to believe that the sinister Bishop Aringarosa is the mastermind behind the confusing goings on. Late in the novel though, we discover that Aringarosa is not the one pulling the strings at all. This might have been a surprise, unless you have a good knowledge of Italian. In that case, his name might have led you to discount him as a suspect: aringa is the Italian for herring, and ros(s)a means red. Cute. Even though the character is also called Aringarosa in the Italian translation of the novel, this might not be such a giveaway for Italian readers. The actual Italian translation for the term red herring is falsa pista (false track), so someone would need a good level of both Italian and English to get the pun.
***spoilers end for The Da Vinci Code, even though you’ve probably seen/read it***
There’s something quite attractive about a good murder mystery, and well though-out red herrings are essential for them to be effective. Plus, they’re not bad for breakfast either.