A large part of the fun in reading The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is in Joel Dicker's use of red herrings. A "red herring" is a literary device that is used to keep one from reaching the correct conclusion, or to divert the reader's attention from the more important details. Quebert's plot is full of them, crafted to make each character suspect and to send the reader in a different direction at every turn. Incidentally, a MacGuffin is a particular type of red herring.
What is an actual red herring? The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines red herring as a noun that is 1: a herring cured by salting and slow smoking to a dark brown color, and 2: [from the practice of drawing a red herring across a trail to confuse hunting dogs]; something that distracts from the real issue
Herring, a small, pungent, oily fish, is often consumed after being heavily smoked; it turns a reddish color when cured. A kipper is a whole herring that has been sliced in half from head to tail, eviscerated, then salted and smoked. This process is known as "kippering." Technically a kipper is any fish that has been through the kippering process.
As for the etymology of the literary term, sources seem to agree that the use of "red herring" dates back to the 1800s. The origin is unknown, but theories agree that red herrings were used to throw hounds in pursuit off a given trail. Hence the metaphor when used to distract readers off the trail of clues.
Some sources suggest an alternate theory rooted in a trick a wealthy English clergyman, Jasper Mayne, played on one of his servants. When Mayne died in the late seventeenth century, he had already willed large sums for the rebuilding of London's St. Paul's Cathedral, and to the poor in his parishes. To a servant, he also bequeathed something "that would make him Drink after his Death," an item that was left in a large trunk. Much to his disappointment, all that the servant discovered was a red herring. It was a perfect example of "false representation."
This article is from the June 18, 2014 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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