Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Cozy Mystery Week ~ Marilyn Leach on Cooking Up Delicious Red Herrings

 I've brought in some of the best cozy authors out there to share their secrets and their insights about the booming genre of Cozy Mysteries.

Cooking Up Delicious Red Herrings
By Marilyn Leach

Have you ever read a cozy mystery where you were certain who the perpetrator was before reading the last two chapters?  That book probably didn’t end up on your ‘keeper’ shelf.  How do you entice the reader to continue guessing and create an entertaining read all throughout?  You must cook up a few, (usually never more than five), delicious red herrings.

The term red herring, as we know it, means to set a false trail, disguise the scent of the real antagonist, with rather smelly fish.  How is that done in a cozy mystery?  Here are some possibilities.

THE FRAME UP: This is quite popular in cozies.  The perpetrator skillfully, and in an underhanded manner, sets up a false trail that leads to a not-guilty-of-the-crime person.  I’ll refer to them as the NGP, not guilty person.
The perpetrator plants false crime scene evidence that points to the NGP.
  • “There were several Mars Bars wrappers found at the scene of the crime.”  He looked at the policeman.  “And we all know who can’t survive more than two hours without one of those sweet treats in her mouth.”
The perpetrator becomes aware of and, in a stealth manner, divulges secrets that point to the NGP.
  •  “Miss Tibbles,” the constable commented, “we’ve discovered that you actually were aware of your aunt’s habit of squirreling away her life savings in the large box of doggie biscuits in her kitchen pantry. And by the way, you’ve got chocolate on your lips.”
The perpetrator, and most the village, family, or community, know that the NGP had a stormy relationship with the deceased.
  •    “Why yes, Constable.  I overheard them just recently.”  She straightened her back.  “Miss Tibbles said she’d strangle her aunt if she called her Nibbles Tibbles one more time.”
The perpetrator considers who stands to inherit, hopefully the NGP or someone related to the NGP.
  •   “And now, the heir named in her will.”  The lawyer paused and ran a finger around his collar.  “Since dear auntie has passed on, it’s Miss Tibbles.”
The perpetrator sets up the situation so the NGP is near or at the scene of the crime around the time the crime happened.
  •   “But, I come to Auntie’s every Thursday afternoon to take little Scamper for his walk, Constable.  He wasn’t in the back garden, so I went inside and called him from the door.  But the little beast didn’t come.  So, I left.”  Miss Tibbles took another bite of her Mars Bar and lifted her chin.  “I had no idea a crime was committed.” 
The perpetrator makes a current event in the NGP’s life appear to be a suspicious activity.
  •    “We know you’ve said you worked a great deal of overtime, Miss Tibbles, but we understand you purchased one thousand shares of the Mars Bars’ enterprise the very afternoon of your aunt’s demise.”
Of course, all this misguiding “evidence” can be used outside of the frame-up structure as well.  It simply sets up a fishy scent.  Remember, all the while a red herring is being developed, clues are also given to allude to the real perpetrator, a fine kettle of fish. And here, putting Miss Tibbles aside, are a few more opportune ways to send someone off the trail following a delicious red herring.

LAST ONE TO SEE THE VICTIM ALIVE: This always makes someone appear suspect.
  • “But officer, when I invited him to my home for dinner, how was I to know the gentleman would die of poisoning an hour later?”
FAKE ALIBIS:  A lie has been uncovered as to the whereabouts of a suspicious person and it makes them appear that much more unreliable.
  • “Ok, Detective.  So you’ve discovered I wasn’t at my swim club the night of her murder.  But if it became known where I really was, my wife would make me your next murder investigation.”
ACT ONE ARGUMENT:  The first chapter in a cozy usually has some dramatic argument or altercation between the victim and another person or persons.  This is a perfect spot to place a red herring, perhaps alongside the perpetrator.
  • “How dare you make such a vile insinuation about my wife, you crazy-mad woman.  You’ll regret you ever opened your mouth.”  He clenched his fists.  “You’ll pay for this.”
GUILTY OF ANOTHER RELATED CRIME:  Someone is caught or fingered for committing a crime related to the crime being investigated.
  • “Oh, alright then.”  She wiped a tear from her eye.  “I did send him a poison pen letter.  I disdained the man and he deserved it.  But I would never kill him.”
FLEE THE SCENE:  A person always appears guilty if they flee the scene.
  • “But detective, I knew you’d never believe I had nothing to do with it, especially since the poison- tipped spear belonged to me.  As soon as I realized it was stolen from my home and had been declared the murder weapon, I flew to Spain.”
So there we are. The old adage, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” never holds true for the red herring. “Where there’s smoke, there’s lots of it,” would be more appropriate.  Add a little hot sauce, a slight zip of acidic lemon, and a slightly singed flavor.  You’ve just cooked up a, or several, red herrings to make the taste of your mystery linger into the night.

Enigma of Fire: A Berdie Elliott Pentecost Mystery
When English village, Aidan Kirkwood, experiences an explosive fire, the entire parish is aflame with rumor and innuendo until Berdie Elliott, the scorching sleuth and vicar’s wife, can douse the flames with cold, hard facts that expose the perpetrator.  A heroic dog, elusive book, and military champions come together to reveal the enigma of fire.

“Cedric. Don’t chance it. Please.” Doug’s voice trembled as he shot out the command.

“Don’t what?” Berdie asked herself as much as Doug.

“Down, Mrs. Elliott.”  Doug’s eyes wide, his breathing was short and rapid for the toil of making his wheels go toward them as fast as he could manage.

“Down?  What are you talking about?”

Berdie suddenly experienced a jolt to her body that propelled her to the ground with such force it left her breathless.  A stab of pain coursed through her while the reverberation of full-on colliding trains penetrated her ears.  The horrific ache that shot through her knees focused her senses as she tried to gather her thoughts.  Grass etched itself into her cheek, making it itch.  Then the smell of acrid smoke assaulted her nose.  She worked to catch a breath of air.  What’s happened? 


Are you an Agatha Christie fan?  Does the thought of an English village make you long to grab your passport and head across the pond?  Are cozy mysteries your cup of tea?  If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you won’t want to miss Marilyn Leach’s newest release, Enigma of Fire

Intrepid heroine Berdie Elliott, a vicar’s wife whose sleuthing skills were honed as an investigative reporter, faces her most challenging mystery yet when her husband’s former military comrades come to the sleepy village of Aiden Kirkwood for a sculling regatta.  From its riveting prologue to the final resolution, this story showcases Leach at her best. 
Amanda Cabot, CBA and ECPA bestselling author

Marilyn Leach is a dyed-in-the-wool British enthusiast who lives lakeside near the Colorado foothills.  She enjoys viewing and reading mysteries that originate across the pond.  From the Scottish Borders to Devon, city buzz to rural church bells, she enjoys excursions throughout the beautiful isle that inspire her writing.  Her dear friends, who have become like family, live in Reading, England. 

Find Marilyn:
Website | Amazon Author Page



  1. Hi Marilyn...Red Herrings eh? This is the one part of writing a mystery that has me most worried, but you lay out the process so well. And you're a master at cooking them up in your books!

    Glad you're with us this week.

  2. Marilyn, what a fantastic summary of red herrings and how they work in a cozy mystery! Your post is a keeper, and your book is on my to-buy list!


    1. I'm glad to see my post was helpful for you. Thanks for saying so. And I hope you have a fun read. I appreciate you dropping in. Cheers

  3. Here's a question that popped into my head a second ago. Where on earth did the term RED HERRING come from? I would assume England, but why Red and why Herring?


    1. Leslie, there's all kinds of stories as to the origination of the term red herring for false leads in cozies. In all of them, because red herrings are noted for their strong odor, they were used to draw wild animals off course (away from the heard). Or they used them to train dogs in following scents and tempting them off course. You get the general idea. Anyway, red herrings in cozies are fun to create.

    2. Ah, thus your reference to smelly red herrings. I thought they were a made up term.

  4. Leslie, thanks so much for having me here today. A nice hot cuppa in hand, I'm excited to chat with you and today's guests. Cheers

    1. Hey Congrats on your new release, Enigma of Fire. This is #4 in the Berdie Elliott Pentecost Mysteries, right?

    2. It is number four, yes. And it contains all kinds of fun elements like heroic dogs, military chums, a mysterious book, and lots of laughter along the way. Berdie number five is ready for submission, so the train's still chugging along.

  5. Marilyn, your stories always entertain and delight. I love English mysteries. Thanks for teaching us about red herrings. I'm not a mystery writer, but I have used this technique a little bit for my suspense stories. This post was very helpful for me as a suspense writer.

    1. Dena, thanks so much for dropping in. And I'm encouraged that even suspense writers could mine something from the information. Congratulations on your new book release, too.

  6. Marilyn, Excellent information on red herrings. I set up the red herrings as I plot my stories. This is a great post for writers starting out in this genre.

    1. Thanks for visiting the blog today, Paty. It seems a very natural way to write a cozy, creating your "smelly fish" as you plot. May good things come to you and your readers. Cheers

  7. What a fascinating post, Marilyn! Although I don't write mysteries, I love reading them and found your description of the various types of red herrings helpful. And for anyone who hasn't already read it, let me recommend Enigma of Fire. It's Marilyn at her best, which is saying a lot.

    1. Amanda, thank you for stopping by and reading the blog. You know, being able to "sniff out" red herrings can make them easier to discover. It's such a fun game to guess and uncover "who did it." Thank you for the glowing recommendation as well. Cheers

  8. Excellent post, revered aunt, with techniques utilized by the Great Christie herself.

    1. Thanks for all your encouragement and excellent plotting help. I appreciate your stop in to the blog today. Get out that cuppa and keep writing, oh brilliant nephew. Cheers

  9. Oh my goodness, Marilyn, I love all the techniques you've shared! Your examples made me laugh. Thank you so much for the wonderful information that I will tuck away in my special notebook--the place I keep all ideas I just know I'll use someday.

    1. Audra, I'm thrilled that you found the information useful. It's always fun to know that something you do can be good for others. I appreciate you taking the time to drop in today. Plus, it seldom hurts to laugh. The more the better I say. Cheers

  10. Excellent blog on red herrings. This one is a print-and-keep it. Thanks, Marilyn!

    1. Kathleen, I'm excited that you found the blog useful. Anything we can do to let our readers have a brain-tickle with lots of fun is good to have in our bag of tools, hey? Thanks for dropping by. Looking forward to your blog. Cheers

  11. Replies
    1. Thanks, Lois. And thanks for dropping by. Cheers