Red Herrings We've Known and Loved...

Classic Murder Mysteries, Who-Done-Its and Detective Films

Red Herrings We've Known and Loved...

taraco
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taraco
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Joined: February 23rd, 2004, 5:37 am

August 9th, 2018, 5:44 pm #1

After watching SECRETS OF THE BLUE ROOM (1933) recently, it got me to thinking about one of the tried and true devices of any mystery worth its locked room: Red Herrings.

SECRETS OF THE BLUE ROOM, like any creaky 30s mystery, has Red Herrings galore: Lionel Atwill, the butler, the maids, some guy who keeps coming to the door. 
blueroom3.jpg

In other films, Bela Lugosi capitalized, or was exploited, on his spooky reputation to play the Red Herring in film after low-budget film.

The device isn't confined to black-and-white curios. From all the Thin Men and Whistlers and Philo Vances to Agatha Christie and Dan Brown, Red Herrings are everywhere.

All the modern murder mystery binge-fests -- THE KILLING, GRACEPOINT/BROADCHURCH, TRUE DETECTIVE, PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, etc. -- have numerous fishy characters to throw the viewer offtrack. Dunno yet who did it in Amy Adams' SHARP OBJECTS on HBO, but a guy in a confederate flag shirt kept walking through crowd scenes in Sunday's episode. Could he be...?

So some questions:

-- Are Red Herrings as old as the mystery genre itself? Did Poe have Red Herrings? In Shakespeare? The Bible? Who was the first Red Herring?

-- Why are they called Red Herrings?

-- What makes a good Red Herring?  Is the butler always a Red Herring?

david
'But the room was locked from the inside!'
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blufeld
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August 9th, 2018, 7:35 pm #2

Not a big mystery man as you all there, so I stick with I'm familiar with-THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES.  So many adaptions in the movies, not to mention the novel. so I'll go with Hammer's.  To me, Dr. Mortimer is the red herring.  I'll answer one of your questions: Is the butler always a red herring?  In Hammer's the butler (Barrymore) is not really a red herring.  He's under suspicion, but it's short lived.  Mortimer all the way!
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will
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Joined: November 17th, 2009, 2:23 am

August 9th, 2018, 9:01 pm #3

Poe used a red herring in Murders of Rue Morgue. Neighbors heard a voice in a foreign language none of them was familiar with. It was actually the ape.

The first story I can think of that had elements of the detective story is The String of Pearls, which is the penny dreadful novel that introduced Sweeney Todd. But there is no mystery Todd is a murderer. There is still mystery in it. How is he killing the unfortunates that sit in his barber chair? Suspicious people watch the shop and see people go in, but not come out. We know Mrs. Lovett is an accomplice, but we don't know until the end of the novel what is in those meat pies. A magistrate introduced late in the story functions as detective.
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will
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August 9th, 2018, 10:38 pm #4

The ultimate Red Herring is Abbott and Costello Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff.
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PhantomXCI
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August 9th, 2018, 11:54 pm #5

taraco wrote:Who was the first Red Herring?

-- Why are they called Red Herrings?
According to Wikipedia, the earliest known usage of the term "red herring" was in 1599.  It's believed the term evolved from the practice of dropping smoked (i.e. red) herring to throw hounds off the scent.
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ewrjk
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ewrjk
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August 10th, 2018, 5:57 am #6

Secret of the Blue Room has a much more unusual red herring than the one you mentioned, taraco. On another thread just now, I mentioned what it is.

The red herring is
[+] spoiler
the mystery surrounding the 3 deaths which had taken place in the blue room 20 years earlier. When I first saw this film, I thought that there would be a connection between those deaths and the current murder. There wasn't. I was surprised that the old mystery wasn't even solved. I don't know of any other mystery from that era in which they left deaths unsolved like that. Still, they did play fair with the audience. When the secret passage was discovered, my first thought was: didn't the man of the house know what he's buying? Didn't he know that the house has a secret passage? Geez...
Regarding The Hound of the Baskervilles: we had to read that novel in grade nine. I wasn't into mysteries at all back then and I found the ending to be WAY too obvious. Many years later, I thought I'd give the novel another chance. I felt the same way about it. I don't even recall a red herring in this one.
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telegonus
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August 10th, 2018, 8:09 am #7

In movies and even more so in TV shows (black and white era mostly) it's fairly easy to see the red herrings set up like,--to mix metaphors here--ducks in a row. Just about anyone who says, prior to a murder, that they hated or would loved to have been able to kill the eventual victim is a red herring since no self-respecting murderer would say things like that.

Also, ugly or deformed people, and especially those whose misfortunes are directly attributable to some aspect or another of the victim's personality or lifestyle are perfect red herrings. Bad tempers, a penchant for violence, a fondness for firearms, an odd hobby such as collecting instruments of torture, nearly always exempt a suspect from being a perp. Such is the stuff of a red herring.

People with chips on their shoulders, those who keep grudges, also make ideal red herrings. Other attributes: any overt symptom of a neurosis or "fixation" or some kind. A skill, any skill, that would have enabled a suspect to have been, say, a poisoner (a pharmacist), stabbed someone in the chest (a knife thrower in a circus), pushed someone over a cliff (a professional climber), or to have drowned someone (ex-navy frogman), are all good candidates for the ancient and honorable Society Of The Red Herring. 
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will
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August 10th, 2018, 8:44 am #8

A red herring doesn't have to be a suspect made to look suspicious. It can be any misdirection. Case in point is Ten Little Indians. The murderer is someone who was previously...
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amanaplan1
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Joined: February 9th, 2013, 2:18 am

August 10th, 2018, 9:47 am #9

will wrote: A red herring doesn't have to be a suspect made to look suspicious. It can be any misdirection. Case in point is Ten Little Indians. The murderer is someone who was previously...
GHAAACK!
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amanaplan1
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August 10th, 2018, 9:52 am #10

telegonus wrote: In movies and even more so in TV shows (black and white era mostly) it's fairly easy to see the red herrings set up like,--to mix metaphors here--ducks in a row. Just about anyone who says, prior to a murder, that they hated or would loved to have been able to kill the eventual victim is a red herring since no self-respecting murderer would say things like that.

Also, ugly or deformed people, and especially those whose misfortunes are directly attributable to some aspect or another of the victim's personality or lifestyle are perfect red herrings. Bad tempers, a penchant for violence, a fondness for firearms, an odd hobby such as collecting instruments of torture, nearly always exempt a suspect from being a perp. Such is the stuff of a red herring.

People with chips on their shoulders, those who keep grudges, also make ideal red herrings. Other attributes: any overt symptom of a neurosis or "fixation" or some kind. A skill, any skill, that would have enabled a suspect to have been, say, a poisoner (a pharmacist), stabbed someone in the chest (a knife thrower in a circus), pushed someone over a cliff (a professional climber), or to have drowned someone (ex-navy frogman), are all good candidates for the ancient and honorable Society Of The Red Herring. 
Didn’t someone make a movie or TV show episode where the lead character has to discover who the murderer is, but literally EVERYBODY he encounters is a suspect / red herring? I seem to recall an epi of Get Smart wherein the murderer walks with a clicking sound, so naturally everyone Agent 86 encounters makes that sound from a cane, etc.
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Kosmo13
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August 10th, 2018, 12:53 pm #11

amanaplan1 wrote:
telegonus wrote: In movies and even more so in TV shows (black and white era mostly) it's fairly easy to see the red herrings set up like,--to mix metaphors here--ducks in a row. Just about anyone who says, prior to a murder, that they hated or would loved to have been able to kill the eventual victim is a red herring since no self-respecting murderer would say things like that.

Also, ugly or deformed people, and especially those whose misfortunes are directly attributable to some aspect or another of the victim's personality or lifestyle are perfect red herrings. Bad tempers, a penchant for violence, a fondness for firearms, an odd hobby such as collecting instruments of torture, nearly always exempt a suspect from being a perp. Such is the stuff of a red herring.

People with chips on their shoulders, those who keep grudges, also make ideal red herrings. Other attributes: any overt symptom of a neurosis or "fixation" or some kind. A skill, any skill, that would have enabled a suspect to have been, say, a poisoner (a pharmacist), stabbed someone in the chest (a knife thrower in a circus), pushed someone over a cliff (a professional climber), or to have drowned someone (ex-navy frogman), are all good candidates for the ancient and honorable Society Of The Red Herring. 
Didn’t someone make a movie or TV show episode where the lead character has to discover who the murderer is, but literally EVERYBODY he encounters is a suspect / red herring?  I seem to recall an epi of Get Smart wherein the murderer walks with a clicking sound, so naturally everyone Agent 86 encounters makes that sound from a cane, etc.
Yes, "Ship of Spies" from Season 1.  "Chief, everyone on board makes that funny clip-clip noise."
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Blaster
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August 10th, 2018, 1:57 pm #12

will wrote: A red herring doesn't have to be a suspect made to look suspicious. It can be any misdirection. Case in point is Ten Little Indians. The murderer is someone who was previously...
Same idea in SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM.

Another famous misdirection is when an unsuccessful murder attempt is made on one of the suspects and they are only superficially hurt.  This is an indicator that they are actually the murderer trying to divert suspicion (see: Cesar Romero in CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND).  
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will
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August 10th, 2018, 6:21 pm #13

I guess the airtight alibi that turns out not to be airtight is another one.

Another one is everyone has a motive to kill the murder victim, but the killer's motive turns out to be entirely different than the apparent one.

Or the victim was killed by mistake. Someone else was intended. Or the double reverse. It looks like the murdered one was a mistake, but wasn't.
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telegonus
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August 12th, 2018, 8:42 am #14

will wrote: I guess the airtight alibi that turns out not to be airtight is another one.

Another one is everyone has a motive to kill the murder victim, but the killer's motive turns out to be entirely different than the apparent one.

Or the victim was killed by mistake. Someone else was intended. Or the double reverse. It looks like the murdered one was a mistake, but wasn't.
Yup, the not so airtight alibi is a good one, although I prefer my perps to come from way out in left field, like the town minister who seems a bit eccentric but essentially an okay guy, who regards the murdered man, or, more to the point, the man he murdered to be the worst kind of sinner, not because of anything he did,--he was clearly a much beloved member of the community with no enemies to speak of--but because he seldom went to church, was parsimonious in his contributions to the church, and clearly had mistresses on the side. This was intolerable to the man of God, and the man he killed not only needed to be punished for his sins but his death set as an example to all in the community. The final clue would come out in a sermon the minister delivers to his congregation one Sunday morning. Unfortunately for the reverend the detective on the case just happened to have stopped by and attended the service, which, as he listened to the minister's words, made him understand why someone might want to see the murder victim dead even as his name is never actually mentioned during the service. The truth begins to trickle down.
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amanaplan1
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August 12th, 2018, 10:11 am #15

“Tonight’s Episode: The Sinister Minister”
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rvoyttbots
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August 12th, 2018, 3:27 pm #16

Lionel Atwill in THE STRANGE CASE OF DR RX.
  
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telegonus
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August 12th, 2018, 5:31 pm #17

amanaplan1 wrote: “Tonight’s Episode: The Sinister Minister”







Actually, back in the day, I doubt they'd have allowed for a true clergyman to be a murderer on a TV series. A fake one, yes, and they had a number of those, but a real small town reverend or parish priest? 🤓 As I think about it, pretty damn unlikely for pre-1970 American television. They would allow, for westerns especially, for a crazy religious fanatic type,--a man of God because he says he is, not by ordination--to be a crazy killer, a con man or just plain crooked. James Whitmore and R.G. Armstrong specialized in such roles.
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ewrjk
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ewrjk
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August 13th, 2018, 4:44 am #18

telegonus came up with a good list of red herring characters. I've seen/heard/read so many mysteries that those types aren't too difficult to pick out. Agatha Christie sure specialized in those types of red herrings. I think all her novels were full of them. Maybe there's an exception or two...but she sure had a lot of suspects with issues, etc.

That's why I posted what I think is the "better" red herring in Secret of the Blue Room. I probably sounded like a "mystery snob" in my post, but the reality is that what I posted is what threw me off the track (not the mysterious stranger).

Who else has seen the 1960 thriller Midnight Lace? The culprit wasn't exactly tough to pick out (I figured it out within minutes), but I remember being very impressed by the red herring. It was an unusual one. Sadly, I can't recall the red herring  just now.

I think someone here mentioned a red herring where someone is murdered for a reason other than the obvious reason. At least, that's how I interpreted the post. I can think of two Agatha Christie novels in which the rich old "family leader" (matriarch or patriarch) gets murdered for reasons other than money. Two very clever mysteries!

Normally I don't bother with mysteries set in modern-day times, but a few years ago, I gave a lot of the episodes of Midsomer Murders a chance, and there was one among them where there were only red herrings. No actual murder. This might seem like they weren't playing fair with the audience, but considering the setting they used for the episode, I was fine with it. In fact, I thought that it was one of the better episodes. It was a creepy one.
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will
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Joined: November 17th, 2009, 2:23 am

August 13th, 2018, 5:34 am #19

Agatha Christie also liked a lot to do the staged murder. This involves two murderers working together performing for witnesses. It shows up in Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun. I was watching one of the last Miss Marples on British TV, which I think was actually from a Poirot, and by this time I could recognize the formula and figure it out.

That is easiest way to solve a mystery, catch the author repeat themselves. Many years ago I read the first two Rabbi Small novels and the trick was exactly the same in both. I read the third one and easily figured it out because it was the same thing.. Never tried to read another. Maybe later in the week he got more creative. But this is what us going on in the first three. The murder victim is a Jew. A Jew is the prime suspect. The killer is a gentile who only appears briefly before Rabbi Small exposed him. Identify the gentile who just shows up briefly and you have solved a Rabbi Small mystery.
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blufeld
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Joined: March 21st, 2017, 4:34 pm

August 13th, 2018, 1:02 pm #20

I know there are COLUMBO fans here.  I've seen 'em.  There's one episode we don't see the murders or the murderer, so we go along with the Lt. as he investigates the case.  The Red Herring (with everything pointing at him, we the audience, and the Lt. too, think it's a just measure of time before he is  exposed) and then he's killed.  To me, that was totally unexpected.  The name of the episode was "The Final Farewell to the Commander".  Maybe the only red herring in COLUMBO series.
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