Fair Play and Red Herrings

If an essential element of what makes a good mystery is the presence of a puzzle to solve, then the intellectual game—find the killer before the detective does—played between the author and the reader, must be played fairly. But what exactly is fair play?

Mystery novels are filled with red herrings, that is, false trails set by the author in the form of ambiguous clues, erroneous emphasis, innocent characters cast in unflattering light. Like the smelly, salt-cured fish that has been dragged across the trail to mislead hunting dogs, red herrings lure the unwary reader down the wrong path.

One test of whether or not a writer is playing fair with his or her readers was proposed by Marie F. Rodell, a New York literary agent, in her book, Mystery Fiction:Theory and Technique (New York, Duell, Sloan and Pearce,1943, p. 99).

Doubt about the fairness of any given point or situation can best be solved by answering the question: does the use of this point or situation make it impossible for the average reader to solve the puzzle himself without prompting by the detective? If the answer is yes, then cheating it is.

But clearly this won’t do. Agatha Christie’s 1927 masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, fails it miserably. Average and not-so-average-readers, apparently agreeing with Ms. Rodell, were fooled by the queen of mystery and cried “Foul!

Dorothy L. Sayers, however, in her essay, “Aristotle on Detective Fiction,” Oxford Journals, Vol. 1, Issue 1, p. 33, disagrees.

…The person telling the story is not necessarily the author. Thus in The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd, the story is told by the detective’s fidus Achates or (to use a modern term) his Watson. Arguing from the particular to the general, we may be seduced into concluding that, because the original Dr. Watson was a good man, all Watsons are good in virtue of their Watsonity. But this is false reasoning, for moral worth and Watsonity are by no means inseparable. Thus, the first man sinned and laid the blame upon his wife; but it would be an error to conclude that all men, when they sin, blame their wives—though in fact they frequently do. There may yet be found rare men who, having wives, yet refrain from blaming them and are none the less men on that account. So despite the existence of a first innocent Watson, we may yet admit the possibility of a guilty one….

As Miss Marple reminds Gwenda Reed in Joan Hickson’s BBC version of Sleeping Murder, when she says, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

“Because you believed what he told you. It’s very dangerous to believe people. I haven’t for years.”

But if an author’s use of red herrings, expected or unexpected, to keep the reader from discovering the identity of the killer is fair play, maybe we should ask: What isn’t?

I would argue that it is never fair play to create a mystery in which there are not enough clues for the reader or the detective to identify the killer. In other words, it is never fair play to create a mystery in which the puzzle cannot be solved.

Of course, the author can bring in some sort of deus ex machina to provide the solution. Swooping in like a god of old, the author in the guise of the detective may miraculously unmask the killer.

But good mysteries play fair with the reader. They contain solvable puzzles. And the best, like the challenging Saturday New York Times’ crossword puzzles, are not easily solved.

But what do you think?

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi,
    I love solving mysteries. It should be pointed out that other works of fiction often use this same method to intrigue its readers. I do, though it isn’t a mystery so I don’t hide a lot. Isaac Asimov in his Foundation Trilogy also used it. I read this in college and sat with friends at lunch who had already read it. I solved the mystery and named the villain before I finished. Much to everyone’s surprise.

    • Nancy,
      You are so right. Red herrings are used in many genres of fiction. And they are part of every politician’s bags of tricks. As for your spotting the villain much to your friend’s surprise, it is spoken like a true puzzle solver!

  2. I personally like it when the facts are all there, but I have to put them together to make sense of them. If the author uses red herrings I’m running only on intuition and get frustrated and seldom return to that author.

    • Christi,
      I agree. In a good mystery the “facts” necessary to solve the puzzle of whodunit are all there. Otherwise, the puzzle presented to the reader by the author is not solvable and all you can do is guess. The proper used of red herrings is to direct the reader’s attention away from those “facts.” Red herrings should not be used in place of those “facts.” Hope this helps.

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