by | Nov 10, 2020 | Mystery Minute | 4 comments

by ZJ Czupor


“Four little Indian boys going out to sea; 
a red herring swallowed one and then there were three.”

The above is the seventh stanza from a longer American nursery rhyme, “Ten Little Indians,” (1869). The entire rhyme is written as the epigraph to Agatha Christie’s novel, And Then There Were None (1921), which foreshadows her story where strangers arrive on an isolated island off the Devon coast of England and die—one by one—as justice for their past crimes. 

If you follow the original poem, Christie gives away all the clues you need to predict the crimes. The “red herring” in the seventh stanza suggests trickery in the murder mystery.

Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie (1890-1976) is famous for writing eighty-three books, fourteen short story collections, poetry and plays. She said And Then There was None was the most difficult book to write for it concerns characters who die either from choking, poisoning, bludgeoning, chopping, more poisoning, shooting, a bee sting, drowning, hit in the head by a bear statue, another shooting, and finally a hanging. 

According to the story line, the guests never knew their murderer and that has become the basis of many Hollywood films, although it is now somewhat of a cliché for modern audiences. But Christie was the first to do it. The New York Times called it “the most baffling mystery Agatha Christie has ever written.”

Red Herrings are a popular literary device in mysteries often used to throw off readers with a misleading clue and false conclusions. It also prolongs the mystery and suspense of the story’s heart. 

Amy’s diary in the novel, Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (Crown Publishing Group, 2012), is a recent example of a successful red herring in which every single step of the story leads us down a wrong path, but also helps the reader to understand Amy’s character. 

Mystery writer Tana French is also a modern master of the red herring. She says as she writes she thinks about what clues would cause the most interesting series of reactions in her detective, rather than how various clues would fit into the solution of the crime. 

Lila Shapiro, writing about French’s red herrings says, “They are not just shiny lures but windows into her protagonists’ deepest fears and flaws.” (Vulture, 10/3/2018).

French explained, “If you’re going to have a red herring in there, it had better be good enough that the audience can either be fooled by it or can see why your narrator will be fooled by it. You have to respect the audience’s intelligence.”

Other novelists who have successfully used red herrings include Charles Dickens (Great Expectations); Sir Arthur Conon Doyle (The Final Problem and Hound of the Baskervilles); Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code); Tana French (The Witch Elm); Attica Locke (The Cutting Season); C.J. Tudor (The Chalk Man); and Adrian McKinty (The Chain), among many others.

How the term, “red herring” first appeared is open to debate. The first-known usage was in a 13th century poem in a line which reads, “He etep no ffyssh but heryng red.” Here the poet was referring to a heavily smoked kipper fish. Another idea is that the term referred to hunters who used a pickled herring (a very pungent fish with reddish meat) to distract their hounds during fox hunts. The herring was used to train the dogs to ignore the powerful scent and to follow the original scent of the fox. 

Christie’s novel first appeared in the UK in 1939 (Collins Crime Club) under a different title, which I won’t repeat here. For in today’s sensitive climate the title would be considered a racially loaded ethnic slur. But I will say her title was based on a minstrel song. 

Even in 1939, the original title was considered too offensive for American publication. The U.S. edition appeared in 1940 with the title changed to And Then There Were None. And in further capitulation to modern culture, a website page, devoted to And Then There Were None, has changed the nursery rhyme from “Indian” to “soldier boy.” 

Christie’s novel is considered one of the world’s best-selling mysteries, with more than 100 million copies sold in more than fifty languages. It’s also one of the “best-selling crime novels of all time,” and following a global vote to mark Christie’s 125th anniversary, was named the “World’s Favorite Christie.” (September 2015).

The novel spawned ten film adaptations, three stage versions, and several variations on the theme for television. The story also has inspired several video games, a graphic novel, and a board game—and even an episode on the animated TV series, Family Guy, titled, “And Then There Were Fewer” (2010).

Christie included red herrings in most of her mysteries. She said she wrote her books up to the last chapter, then decided who the most unlikely suspect was, after which she would go back and make the necessary changes to “frame” that person. (Desert Island Discs, 2007).

Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, (The Bodley Head, 1920) was created after her sister Madge bet her she couldn’t write a good detective story. The story introduces detective Hercule Poirot, who would appear in thirty-three of her novels and more than fifty short stories. Her manuscript was rejected six times before UK’s The Bodley Head (also known as John Lane) published it. Incidentally, Poirot is the first fictional detective to have his obituary printed on the front page of The New York Times (Aug. 6, 1975). The obit ran after Christie killed the character in her 1975 novel, Curtain (Collins Crime Club).

What’s curious is that Christie wrote Curtain thirty years earlier and locked it in a bank vault. She later approved its publication. The novel thus became her last to be published in her lifetime.

In addition to her mysteries, Christie enjoyed writing stage plays. She holds the record for the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap, which was performed in London’s West End theater district (1952-2020). It only closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. She had low expectations believing it would not run more than eight months. The famous play began as a radio sketch called “Three Blind Mice” for Queen Mary’s 80th birthday celebration. 

Other plays she penned were also successful making her the first female playwright to have three plays running simultaneously in West End. The other two were: Witness for the Prosecution and Spider’s Web.

She also wrote six successful romance novels under the pen name, Mary Westmacott. 

Christie was a prolific writer and the recipient of numerous prestigious awards. In 1955, she was named the first Grand Master from Mystery Writers of America. Guinness World Records claims Christie is the best-selling fiction writer of all time, having sold more than two billion copies, bettered only by Shakespeare and the Bible.

Thank you, ZJ Czupor! Readers, do you have a favorite tale written by Agatha Christie?
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  1. Lisa Black

    I think my favorite was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but not because, but because I liked the character of the doctor so much.
    However, I read somewhere that ‘red herring’ came because ANTI hunting activists would drag herrings around the fox hunt grounds to throw the dogs off. Is that not true?

  2. Lisa Black

    ‘Not because of the twist’ that first sentence is supposed to read.

  3. Rogue Women Writers

    Christie was such a fabulous author — few could – or will — ever replicate her success with, as CZ points out here, over 2 BILLION copies of her stories sold! I appreciate learning the origin of the term "Red Herring" — and thanks for this great history lesson!….Karna Small Bodman

  4. ZJ Czupor

    I've not come across the anti-hunting version, but would enjoy knowing more about that.– ZJ