Monday, November 12, 2012

Red Herrings Stink

A guest post by Nancy Springer.

I’m not sure I really am a mystery writer. Up until I received my first Edgar, I thought I was a generic novelist interested in crime. I don’t plot, I don’t murder a character before chapter three, and I don’t plant red herrings. As far as I’m concerned, the less my fiction resembles a fox hunt, the better.

Fox hunt?

Well, you know how we refer to traditional mystery writing: Sleuth hounds sniffing out the trail of the criminal, but led astray by red herrings. That’s fox hunt imagery. In many a jolly good British fox hunt, a prankster dragged a red herring across the fields, because the odor of the smoked fish was so strong it would almost certainly throw the hounds off the track.

Contemplating overdressed people on expensive horses galloping behind a pack of dogs, Oscar Wilde dubbed fox hunting “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the inedible,” thus begging the question: why? Why kill a fox? I have often wondered similarly, why the first body, the second body, and the third body?

I prefer to write crime fiction that is corpse-optional, about missing persons, abduction, stalkers, family secrets, bad guys poaching endangered animals or other environmental crimes. There are many non-cadaverous alternatives to murder, and they occur to me naturally enough when I try to write a mystery novel, as opposed to a fox hunt. I consider plotty plots with red herrings to be egregiously deceptive. Instead, I try for an original, character-driven work, a well-crafted narrative with no need for artifice. I say fences, foxes, red fish, forget it.

Why? Because a fox hunt is essentially an old-fashioned, frivolous pursuit, and so is the contrived murder mystery. Many of us, self included, enjoy a good the-butler-did-it, but today’s world, crime is no game. Nor, I think, do we want it to be. In today’s atmosphere of bad news, domestic abuse, drug trafficking, violence in the schools, and worse, I think there’s a need to acknowledge that villainy is not a cozy, orchestrated logic problem; evil is here, now, and it is messy. I think we need to write honest no-tricks mystery. Red herrings stink.

Nancy Springer has written fifty novels for adults, young adults and children, in genres that include mythic fantasy, contemporary fiction, magical realism, horror, and mystery -- although she did not realize she wrote mystery until she won the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America two years in succession. Dark Lie is her first venture into adult suspense.
Born in New Jersey, Nancy Springer lived for many decades near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, of Civil War fame, raising two children, writing, riding horseback, fishing, and birdwatching. In 2007 she surprised her friends and herself by moving with her second husband to an isolated area of the Florida panhandle, where the birdwatching is spectacular and where, when fishing, she occasionally catches an alligator.

A review of Dark Lie is posted on Stuff and Nonsense today.  I'm also giving away a copy of Dark Lie, courtesy of The Penguin Group.  Please stop by and comment to enter!


  1. A powerful and opinionated post. But I think many mystery readers would disagree. For police procedural writers like myself, the red herring has a broader meaning. It's not a trick or an artificial construct, it's simply the nature of an investigation, which often goes in a few wrong directions until the right evidence is gathered or another crime is committed. And readers seem to enjoy going along for the ride.

    But I agree that mysteries can be just as interesting without a pile of bodies and that many other crimes are as intriguing as murder. Which is why I write about all kinds of criminal activity.

  2. I abhor red herrings when they're artificial and manipulative. When they're well done and consistent with the plot they can be remarkable in their seamlessness.

    I appreciate your preference to write "corpse-optional" crime fiction. My first two books have multiple bodies, but the one I'm writing now doesn't have one. At least not yet.

  3. I agree with LJ, that red herrings are not always those artificially constructed reader manipulations. In a real crime, they would be the many paths the police follow to narrow down their list of suspects from many to one. And even in my not-so-real world of Peri's sleuthing, as I take her toward solving the crime, she may make a few false turns because that's where the evidence leads her.

    It's interesting that you don't consider murder as necessary for a mystery. I was recently with a bunch of mystery readers and they all opined that without a body, there was no mystery for them. Maybe I was just with a group of bloodthirsty people!

    For myself, if the story and characters are compelling enough, any crime will do, but I think the threat of death must be on the horizon to ratchet up the tension. The kidnapper must have a ticking clock or their victim will die. The law enforcement may be walking into an ambush when confronting the poacher. That kind of thing. Mrs. Peacock in the drawing room, wondering who made off with her diamonds, is not enough.

  4. Thanks for your thought-provoking post, Nancy. This statement of yours hit home with me:

    In today’s atmosphere of bad news, domestic abuse, drug trafficking, violence in the schools, and worse, I think there’s a need to acknowledge that villainy is not a cozy, orchestrated logic problem; evil is here, now, and it is messy.

    But then again, cozy mysteries and other crime fiction are perhaps a valid way of allowing us writers and readers to vicariously help catch bad guys and rid society of one less evil-doer.

  5. Crime fiction can comment on society, it can contain action-packed fights or be puzzles. If you're writing in the MYSTERY genre of crime fiction you need a couple of red herrings to keep things interesting. If you do social commentary you need to show things that are wrong or full of injustice, if you write action-packed stuff you need a gunfight or two.
    I do think you can write a mystery without a dead body though. Finding out who the kidnapper is or where the fugitive is hiding can be as interesting as uncovering murder.

  6. Thank you so much for your guest post, Nancy. I'm beginning to realize that a mystery doesn't need to include a death.

  7. I side with LJ and Peggy on red herrings. When they are heavy-handed and obvious, they stink (no pun intended). But I also think that if you are writing and your detective, police or not, just follows a straight line from crime to criminal, there's something missing. A lot of crime fiction readers (myself included) read for the puzzle. If the protagonist doesn't take a wrong turn or three there's no puzzle.

    As for crime without death, yeah, I think it's possible. But I also think the threat of death, or at least severe injury, has to be there at some point.

  8. As with all these sorts of global comments, "it depends." In all cases, the quality level of the writing, plotting and conception is vital. If the red herrings are logical, grow out of the natural fabric of the story and setting, they belong in the novel. I do think murder is important, but I'm more interested in how the killer got there and how the murder affects the killer and those around him or her.

  9. One of the problems with trying to trick your reader is that it can backfire as readers grow more savvy about what to expect. I've read two books recently where I figured out who the behind-the-scenes bad guy was simply because that character didn't need to be in the story – unless he was really the villain. I enjoy suspense, where the villain is known and the hero has to escape/track/capture him, even if there isn't the mystery puzzle to solve.

  10. Kris… that's interesting and food for thought. The bad guy should have another reason for being part of the story, aside from the fact he's the bad guy.


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