Red Herring: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You're probably wondering what a non-existent fish species has to do with literature, right? If so, you'll definitely want to read more to discover the origins of the 'red herring' and how this slippery (not to mention smelly) colloquialism wiggled its way into becoming a literary staple.

Getting Them Hooked: Red Herring Defined

The story of the 'red herring' begins with men in red coats, or rather with those who tried to stop them. In 18th- and 19th-century Britain, fox hunting was a hugely popular pastime among members of high society. During this same time, herring was the predominant product being pulled in from the seas surrounding the island. Some of the earliest animal rights activists made use of this fact by using the pungent odor of the cured fish to distract the hunters' hounds, giving the fox time to make a getaway. Whether such diversionary tactics actually work with tracking hounds is still subject to debate, but it's undeniable that the 'red herring', like the smell it implies, still lingers with many would-be sleuths.

Kippers (above) are the original red herring.
Photo of kippered herring

In literature, then, the term red herring is applied to information provided by an author to intentionally distract the audience from the true object or person of interest. As such, this literary device is widely used by writers of mystery and detective fiction to keep their audiences guessing, often until the final moments. Although they can (mis)lead to a great deal of confusion, the role of red herrings in creating plot twists and unexpected outcomes is actually what often keeps people interested in the story since they result in what can be very entertaining and satisfying moments of discovery, such as those found in the coming examples.

Red Herring Examples

The Ailing Englishwoman

Perhaps one of the most notorious villains in all detective fiction, Professor James Moriarty made his first and only real appearance in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Final Problem. This 'Napoleon of crime' has pressured detective Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson into fleeing Britain, at which point the duo takes to a small village in Switzerland. While strolling the Alpine vistas with Holmes, Watson receives an urgent message from their hotel that there is an Englishwoman there who is very ill and would like to see an English doctor. There was no Englishwoman at the inn, of course, and the message had really been sent by Moriarty as a means of getting Holmes alone. Realizing he had been duped, Watson returns to the area near Reichenbach Falls where he had left Holmes, only to find signs of a struggle leading over the cliff face.

Conan Doyle had planned that the fateful duel between Moriarty and Holmes at Reichenbach Falls (pictured above) would be the end of both great minds, but public outcry led to the eventual revival of the famous detective.
Drawing of Holmes and Moriarty tussling on the cliff above Reichenbach Falls

'M' Stands for Misdirection

It is theorized that the masterful albeit illegal exploits of Moriarty (right) may have been taken from the career of Alan Worth, a real-life British criminal.
Drawing of Professor Moriarty in his study

If Holmes can be revived, so can Moriarty. The Professor returns in Alan Moore's graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume I as Britain's foremost criminal mastermind. As imagined by Conan Doyle, Moriarty operates all of the syndicated crime in the country at some level; however, the role of Moore's Moriarty in society's seedy underbelly is in fact a red herring. In actuality, Moriarty is the 'M' of MI5, Britain's top-secret intelligence service, who has been deep undercover keeping an eye on the illicit goings-on. He clearly makes a convincing criminal since Moriarty himself admits his surprise that Holmes never discovered his true identity.

La Aringarosa

Dan Brown's esoteric thriller The DaVinci Code is full of cryptic clues concerning the enigma of the Holy Grail. With all of these uncertain variables, it's nice to think that some things are as they seem, but this is certainly not the case. Readers are led to believe by his overzealous desire to save the church from the corruption of the modern era that Bishop Aringarosa, the idealistic leader of Opus Dei, is the story's primary antagonist. Through his protégé Silas, he is responsible for the deaths of several members of the Priory of Sion, a clandestine organization established to protect the truth of the Holy Grail; nonetheless, the current conflict between the Priory and Opus Dei is being orchestrated by 'The Teacher,' who uses the path of death and destruction to cover his own designs for the Grail's secrets.

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