This week we've go the spotlight on A. A. Milne's The Red House Mystery (1922). Milne, best known for his children's stories about Winnie-the-Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood, was a self-proclaimed devotee of the detective novel. He particularly admired the stories that featured an amateur detective up against the amateur villain. No master criminals or investigative experts for him. So, when he decided to try his hand at crime fiction, it was perfectly natural that his mystery would be solved by someone with no detecting background.
The Red House Mystery is, naturally, a country house mystery--with the added bonus of being a locked room mystery as well. Mark Ablett, owner of the country house in question, is hosting a variety of guests: a widow and her marriageable daughter, a retired major, a willful actress, and Bill Beverley, young man about town. At this time, Mark receives a message that is his long-lost brother (and black sheep of the family) Robert will be arriving soon. Robert shows up and is taken to the library to wait for his brother. Not long afterward, voices raised in argument are heard as well as a shot. The door to library is locked from within and no one answers when the house party members try to enter.
In the meantime, Tony Gillingham, friend to Bill Beverley, arrives at the house. He is on hand to help break in the door and takes on the investigation from the beginning. Entry to the library reveals Robert dead, shot through the head...and Mark is nowhere to be found. It is suggested that in the heat of the argument Mark accidentally shot his brother and then ran away in a panic. Several circumstances do not match this solution, most of all how did Mark get out of the locked room?
Milne does his best to stick to the Golden Age rule of presenting his readers with all the clues necessary to solve the mystery. And he does well with that--the reader can certainly look back and agree that everything was there if it had just been considered correctly. Sticklers for vintage mystery "rules" may quibble with the use of long-lost relatives and secret passages--which were frowned upon by Golden Age novelists. But the air of the mystery is that of light-hearted fun and not take-me-seriously crime fiction. In fact Tony and Bill are having such a grand time playing at Holmes and Watson, that they even feel a bit guilty.
I remember being pleasantly surprised and delighted at this mystery from one of my favorite childhood authors. And being disappointed that, like Tigger, this is the only one. It's a shame that we didn't get to see Milne's skill as a detective novelist develop. All in all, this was a fun romp on the lighter side of vintage fiction that I remember quite fondly.