The Red Herring As Improvisational Plotting Device

J.P. Hansen lives in Minneapolis with his two daughters, Molly and Cecilia.  The Vanilla Lawyer in the Mayhem Blues is his first mystery. In 2009, he published a literary novel, And Beefheart Saved Craig and his selected poems, Jazz Forms. He makes every effort to age his way gracefully to 50.

When writing a mystery, red herrings become an inevitable part of developing a plot. I can imagine three different approaches to working them into the mix: after plotting out the novel using only the main suspect, adding in the red herrings; improvise the red herrings as you develop that main plot; or write the book from the beginning with all the red herrings in hand and without knowing which one you will transform into the main plot.

I do the latter. Why? Well, it’s just how I write: improvisationally. Also, weaving the herrings into the book in such an organic way makes them seem more in place and believable.

In my first (and so far only) mystery, The Vanilla Lawyer in the Mayhem Blues, I developed a number of Red Herrings in the course of improvising the characters and the plot. Each one, as it emerged, could have potentially been the culprit. In the book, things are complicated by the fact that a body isn’t found until much later—a rather unconventional move—but nonetheless I had a sense of where the book was going and how to develop the herrings.

First, the situation: The Vanilla Lawyer, a boring probate attorney from Minneapolis, encounters a middle-aged woman and her grandfather in a bar—Dot and Curtis Fuller. They get to talking blues, and the attorney finds out the grandfather was a noted, if obscure, R&B shouter from the late 40’s who scored a few hits. The singer then tells him how rock and roll artists and their record companies ripped him off.

So this probate lawyer, who knows nothing about copyright, decides to go on a crusade to get Curtis Fuller his due.

Red Herring one, or possibly the actual culprit: Frank McGhee. Frank McGhee is a towering, dark-complexioned man of Scotch-Irish descent. He wears a trenchcoat even in the summer and can’t help but look intimidating. The Vanilla Lawyer takes this to heart when the old acquaintance visits him to warn him off the case.

Red Herring two, or possibly the actual culprit: Sterling Kellogg. Kellogg, the manager of Kent records, which recorded Curtis Fuller, is a surly old white man who lives in a small cottage-like house in St. Louis Park—a suburb due west of Minneapolis. He snarls at the Vanilla Lawyer when he comes to interview him, and only gives a small handshake. He answers the questions perfunctorily.

Red Herring three, or possibly the actual culprit: Michael White. This African-American businessman, who owned a record company that recorded Fuller in the 40’s, proves wiley and multi-dimensional. The most salient and telling series of actions in the life of this pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps guy occurred when he and his now deceased partner, Johnny Sommers, started a construction company that focused on fellow African-Americans as their client base. However, due to some informal, yet stringent, racial coding when it came to housing, they found they could inflate the prices at which they sold their housing stock. It was simple tight supply and fairly high demand. Sommers and White capitalized on this. According to White, white businessmen have benefited from racism for  centuries; why is it so bad for an African-American man to do so.

To complicate things further, White is a philanthropist, in keeping with the example set by his hero, Andrew Carnegie. White feels that a businessman needs to be ruthless at work, and beneficent once a fortune is made. White’s philanthropy: He started and is still involved with a foundation that helps defray college expenses for deserving African American youth, one that helped Dot Fuller go to college. White even keeps in contact with a few beneficiaries years after they left college.

The culprit may very well be one of the above characters, but there are a few other Red Herrings to consider. To discuss them would be to give too much of the book away.

At any rate, it wasn’t until I was about halfway through with the first draft that I began to focus in and eliminate these herrings. Where I was ultimately going to end up, I had no idea. But I was going, with my characters, in a setting, and letting the plot speak for itself.

Not everyone can write this way. The advantages, from my vantage point, are a more organic, flexible, and textured plot. The disadvantages—it may be hard to pull all the disparate strings together in the end. For any writer, I recommend trying it as an experiment. Who knows? Maybe the next novel might start this way.