Red herrings, I’ve learned, are a required element in a cozy mystery (see previous posts for more information about “cozies”). The author has to keep the reader guessing, and hopefully guessing wrong, as to whodunit. Where would the fun be if readers figured out the culprit(s) from the first chapter?
In rewriting Ms. Dee Ann—now titled Murder in Narrow Creek—I’m having a really good time planting my red herrings mixed in with actual clues. Right away in Chapter 3, after telling Dee Ann of the murder of ? (I can’t give away too many secrets here), Miss Josie, Dee Ann’s landlady, speculates about the murderer(s):
“Clarabelle Joyner said she heard he [the victim] was involved in drugs although I never saw any sign of that when he was working for me. Clarabelle said drug people will kill each other over their marijuana deals.
June Hill thinks it was probably just a robbery gone bad. …Someone might have thought [the victim] wouldn’t be home on a Saturday night, broke in to steal his television set and whatnot, and found him there. Then the robber had to kill [the victim] so [the victim] couldn’t identify him.”
Sorry about all [the victim] stuff, but one day you’ll just have to read the book to find out who got killed.
The red herrings (or are they?) continue. A woman in the Narrow Creek Ladies’ Society thinks the murderer might have been a former jilted girlfriend since the victim was a reputed skirt chaser who loved ‘em and left ‘em. Dee Ann’s hairdresser reiterates the drug theory, relating a story involving her husband. What’s solid evidence and what’s not? I hope to keep the reader guessing.
I’m only about a third of the way in my revision, so more red herrings or actual clues are to come. Once I’m finished, I’ll test Murder in Narrow Creek on an alert reader to see whether I’ve succeeded in keeping the identity of the guilty party (or parties) a secret until the very end.