Red Herrings in Contemporary Crime Literature

From Crime Reads:

When plotting a tale of suspense, any writer worth her salt understands the importance of distraction—intriguing details that lead the reader down a path of uncertainty, false clues intentionally planted to mislead, and of course the phenomenon of the unreliable narrator. This is why the red herring is a staple in mystery writing. These sneaky devices can serve to ratchet up the suspense as the author gleefully provides twist and turns throughout the book.

When writers use the art of distraction, the reader remains off balance, constantly wondering if they will ever gain a sure foothold on the story. The best writers understand that red herrings are not simply shiny objects to avert your gaze—they are well-constructed traps the reader can’t help but enter, often against their better judgment.

For me, what happens in my mind while I read is just as important as what happens on the page. It’s the experience of reading a book that stays with me. The way my pulse pounded during certain scenes. The feeling of uncertainty that made me stay up later and read just one more chapter (and then one more after that, because I won’t be satisfied until I know the truth). The way the writer took me on a rollercoaster traveling through the dark, at the mercy of the treacherous track with no idea how it all will end.

Is it possible to include too many red herrings? There’s certainly no magic number, but the best writers understand how to distract in covert ways, never drawing too much attention to the false clues they’re planting. Understatement works best, and my favorite reading experience is finishing a book and then immediately having the desire to start over and read again from the very beginning, armed with the knowledge I now have, so that I can dig in and reassess everything I thought I knew.

Red herrings keep the reader turning pages, yes, but they also keep the reader wondering what the hell is actually going on. Just when you think you’d got it all figured out, another clue appears. Is this one a red herring or the real thing? These books play with the reader’s mind in wonderfully twisted ways, using red herrings masterfully and keeping the reader guessing. And second-guessing.

. . . .

The Witch Elm by Tana French

French’s masterfully plotted tales of suspense have earned her the devotion of fans, loyal readers who eagerly await her next book. The Witch Elm begins with Toby, a generally likeable nice guy, who has just been brutally attacked by burglars. He’s a bit foggy on all the details, and in need of assistance while recovering, so he moves back into the family homestead with his uncle. The place is full of teenage memories for Toby and at first the place is a comfort—until things start to get a little creepy. A skull is found in the elm tree in the garden, and so police descend onto the property and begin their investigation. Is Toby simply an innocent man lunged into unfortunate circumstances? French might want you to believe that, but as each chapter unfolds, she exposes Toby’s worst fears, using them to her advantage and laying fresh (and possibly false) trails at every turn.

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

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