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Watch out for the red herring

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not so elementaryRed herrings are common in mystery novels like the Sherlock Holmes series.
not so elementaryRed herrings are common in mystery novels like the Sherlock Holmes series.

A foreshadow is a technique where the author gives us a hint of the future. There could be a clear indication of the future, like in a prophecy, or a subtle hint. A red herring is when the author gives us a hint to mislead us into believing something other than the truth.

The history of why this technique is called ‘red herring’ is interesting. A kipper fish is a type of herring. It is treated with brine (salt-water) and smoked in order to preserve it. This gives the kipper a reddish colour, hence the name ‘red herring’. A red herring has a very strong pungent smell.

The story goes that if you want to confuse a hound dog on a trail, placing a red herring near the trail would confuse the dog. The dog would lose sight of the original trail. Hence the phrase “red herring” is used when the speaker or writer wants to confuse the person seeking an answer.

In literature, a red herring is common is mystery novels. Authors like Agatha Christie and movie makers like Alfred Hitchcock would often use red herrings to confuse the reader and make him believe something else. This enhances the mystery and makes a greater impact when the surprising truth is finally revealed. Arthur Conan Doyle frequently uses this technique in the Sherlock Holmes series as well.

Giving an example of a red herring would be unfair to you as it might reveal the climax of a story. By tradition, one isn’t supposed to reveal identities or give clues to readers who haven’t read a book yet. In the famous Agatha Christie play Mousetrap, the audience is asked at the end of the play not to discuss the play with those who haven’t seen it.

Although we won’t give you an example of a red herring, we will tell you this: Do you think Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series is a red herring? Write in your answers to school@thehindu.co.in with the subject as “red herrings” and we’ll mention your name in this column.


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