by ZJ Czupor

The Art of the Red Herring

“Four little Indian boys going out to sea; a red herring swallowed one and then there were three.”

The above line is the seventh stanza from a longer American nursery rhyme, “Ten Little Indians,” (1869). The entire rhyme is written as the epigraph to Agatha Christie’s novel, And Then There Were None, which foreshadows her story where strangers arrive on an isolated island off the Devon coast of England and die—one by one—as justice for their past crimes.

If you follow the original poem, Christie gives away all the clues you need to predict the crimes. The “red herring” in the seventh stanza suggests trickery in the murder mystery.

Christie (1890-1976) said her novel was the most difficult book to write for it concerns characters who die from choking, poisoning, bludgeoning, chopping, more poisoning, shooting, a bee sting, drowning, hit in the head by a bear statue, another shooting, and finally a hanging.

Red Herrings are a popular literary device in mysteries often used to throw off readers with a misleading clue and false conclusions. It also prolongs the mystery and suspense of the story’s heart.

Amy’s diary in the novel, Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (Crown Publishing Group, 2012), is a recent example of a successful red herring in which every single step of the story leads us down a wrong path, but also helps the reader to understand her character.

Mystery writer Tana French is also a modern master of the red herring. She explains that as she writes she thinks about what clues would cause the most interesting series of reactions in her detective, rather than how various clues would fit into the solution of the crime. More on Tana French’s approach to writing red herrings can be found in this revealing interview.

How the term, “red herring” first appeared is open to debate. The first-known usage was in a 13th century poem in a line which reads, “He etep no ffyssh but heryng red.” Here the poet was referring to a heavily smoked kipper fish. Another idea is that the term referred to hunters who used a pickled herring (a very pungent fish with reddish meat) to distract their hounds during fox hunts. The herring was used to train the dogs to ignore the powerful scent and to follow the original scent of the fox. And in 1807, journalist William Cobbett criticized the English press for prematurely reporting Napoleon’s defeat, comparing the press coverage to a “political red-herring.”  

Christie’s novel first appeared in the UK in 1939 (Collins Crime Club) with a title I won’t repeat here, for in today’s sensitive climate the title would just be plain offensive and is considered a racially loaded ethnic slur. But I will say the original title was based on a minstrel song. Even in 1939, the title was considered too offensive for American publication. The U.S. edition appeared in 1940 with the title changed to And Then There Were None. And in further capitulation to modern culture, Christie’s website, for And Then There Were None, has changed the nursery rhyme from Indian to soldier boy.

In her novel, the guests never knew their murderer and that has become the basis of many Hollywood films, although it is now somewhat of a cliché for modern audiences. But Christie was the first to do it. There were ten film adaptations; three stage versions; and several variations on the theme for television. The story also has inspired several video games, a graphic novel, and a board game—and even an episode on the animated TV series, Family Guy, titled, “And Then There Were Fewer” (2010).

The novel is considered one of the world’s best-selling mysteries, with more than 100 million copies sold in more than 50 languages. It’s also considered to be one of the “best-selling books” of all time.

And that’s your mystery minute.