Red Herring

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Part of the SummerGame2015 Game

Red herrings are clues meant to mislead the reader and obscure the true answer to the puzzle. You know, when all the evidence seems to lead to fact that the butler did it, but the perceptive and effective detective sees through the flimsy device and realizes that the real murderer was really the supposedly-crippled shopkeeper! Or the jilted fiancee! Or someone's secret twin! Or just whomever!!! The important thing here is that the goal of the red herring is to cause misdirection. Classic examples include Mr. Barrymore in a book about a dogged deerstalkered detective or communism in the greatest of board-game-based films.

Did you know a red herring is a real thing, though?! Well, it is. Sort of. Herring is a real thing. It's a small, oily fish, part of the Clupea family, and they are often consumed salted, smoked, or pickled. In fact, kippers are a British breakfast item and they are just a split, salted, and smoked herring. This preparation, which gives the fish a rosy hue, is related to the development of the term "red herring." A certain 19th century writer claimed to use the rather odoriferous treat on his hunting dogs to block out the scent of a hare and prevent their running off in hot pursuit. This story is probably apocryphal, but that's how the legend of the "diverting fish" began.

Herring is extremely popular in Scandinavia. It's entirely possible that pickled herring open-faced sandwiches are fueling all the excellent crime fiction coming from that region. The genre is known as Scandinavian noir, and its trademarks include stripped-down prose, careworn detectives, and a dark, moody atmosphere. Some of the stories by authors like Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell employ the red herring as a literary device, as it's a classic mystery element.

A red herring can really be anything that distracts--a person, an object, something mentioned seemingly offhandedly--when the real clue is something completely different.

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