Did You Know? How “Red Herring” Originated

Dashiell Hammett’s seminal detective novel, “The Maltese Falcon,” opens with the mysterious Miss Wonderly hiring private eye Sam Spade and his partner, Miles Archer, to follow a man who eloped with her sister. It’s a classic red herring. Readers of mysteries, crime fiction, and suspense novels love red herrings, but where did the term originate?

Jane K. Cleland, mystery author and writing teacher, traced the term to an 18th century technique of dog trainers. After the formal training period of tracking hounds, the dogs were given a final test. A red herring—a smoked fish—was dragged across a path to distract the hounds. “If the hound was able to follow the underlying scent, he was good to go. If however, he followed the scent of the red herring, he needed more training,” said Cleland, author of the award-winning Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery series.

She also cited the Oxford Dictionary, which attributed the term to William Corbett, a journalist, who used it in an 1807 article for “Weekly Political Register” published in England. (“Mastering Suspense Structure & Plot” by Jane K. Cleland, Writer’s Digest Books, 2016)

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