A red herring could refer to a herring kippered by smoking, but as an idiomatic expression, it refers to a literary device used to mislead the reader. Given that mystery authors are faced with the nearly impossible task of writing a story that the reader should be both able and unable to solve, they often resort to using plausible false clues, that is, red herrings.
As you’d expect, scholars disagree on the origin of the idiom. But the earliest reference to using the exceedingly pungent kippered herring to distract hunting hounds comes from an 1807 article by William Cobbett, who claimed to have used a red herring to deflect hounds from the pursuit of a hare. And so, with enough repetition, the idiom took hold that a red herring was a false clue.
A popular example of a red herring is in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. In fact, one character’s name in Italian loosely means “red herring.” But my favorite example is in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None with the apparent murder of the murderer. Don’t worry. I haven’t spoiled the story for you. As the title suggests, everyone is murdered anyway.
And what about the Miriam bat Isaac stories? Yes, with such intelligent readers, I too have had to resort to planting red herrings, but I’ll leave it to you to identify them. You can start your training by clicking here.