Monday, July 18, 2016

The Red House Mystery: Review

The Red House Mystery (1922) is the one and only adult mystery novel by A. A. Milne, the author of children's stories about Winnie-the-Pooh, Christopher Robin, and all the other inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood. According to the dedication page, he wrote the book for his father who had a great fondness for the mystery novel.

Like all really nice people, you have a weakness for detective stories, and feel that there are not enough of them. So, after all that you have done for me, the least I can do for you is to write you one.

Milne also wanted to write the kind of detective story that he would most like to read. And he had a few rules of his own that the perfect mystery must follow. 1. It must be written in English; that is to say--nice, plain, simple English. Nobody was to be "effecting egresses" when they could quite simply "go out." 2. No love interests for the detective. The detective should be busy detecting and not holding hands with Angela (or Jane or whoever). 3. The detective must not have more special knowledge than the average reader. 4. There must a Watson for the detective to explain things to all along the way--no great, grand summation scene where the detective reveals all the cards he's been holding to his chest or, worse yet, last-minute confession by the culprit. The detective should point out everything he's noticed (both clues and red herrings) to give Watson (and the reader) a chance to solve the crime himself.

Milne's detective is Antony Gillingham, a young man of independent means who has been something of a rolling stone--seeing the world by taking up one profession after another and succeeding at everything from a tobacconist's assistant to a valet to a waiter. He never stays at one job very long and has no trouble finding a new profession when he tires of the old one. "Instead of experience and testimonials he offered his personality and a sporting bet. He would take no wages the first month--and if he satisfied his employer--double wages the second. He always got his double wages." At the beginning of the book, he is between positions and when he finds that he has gotten off the train in Woodham, a small town near The Red House, he recalls that his friend Bill Beverley is staying there. After taking rooms at The George, he decides to drop by The Red House and look up Beverley. He arrives just in time to help discover a murder....and to discover his next profession: sleuth.

Beverley's host, Mark Ablett, had announced at breakfast that his ne'er-do-well brother Robert was arriving that very afternoon from Australia and he would meet with him at about three o'clock. His house guests left for a golf outing, leaving Mark, his cousin and right-hand man--Matthew Cayley, and his housekeeper and maid alone in the house. Robert arrives, the two brothers are overheard arguing in the office, a shot rings out, and when Cayley tries to enter the room to see what's happening he finds the door locked. 

Enter Antony Gillingham. He assists Cayley in breaking in at the window and the two men discover the body of Robert Ablett, dead from a gunshot. There is no sign of the master of the house. The crime has every appearance of being a locked room mystery. But where's the gun? And was the window really open when Cayley and Gillingham arrived? And, if not, why would Cayley open it? Gillingham is all set to don his deerstalker and take up a meerscham pipe, if Bill Beverley is prepared to play Watson to his Sherlock.

Antony smoked thoughtfully for a little. Then he took his pipe out of his mouth and turned to his friend.
"Are you prepared to be the complete Watson?" he asked.
"Do-you-follow-me-Watson; that one. Are you prepared to have quite obvious things explained to you, to ask futile questions, to give me chances of scoring off you, to make brilliant discoveries of your own two or three days after I have made them myself? Because it all helps."
"My dear Tony," said Bill delightedly, "need you ask?"

Gillingham and Beverley have their work cut out for them--looking for clues, discovering secret passages, and observing someone depositing evidence in the estate's pond. There are motives to be examined and people to question. There are various explanations given for some of the evidence--but only one explanation will cover them all. Antony proves himself a proper Sherlock by getting to the bottom of it.

I first read this about 20 years ago or so and have since bought the featured edition to add to my pocket-size edition collection and to reread. Milne's solo foray into the mystery field is delightful--full of humor and fun banter between his "Holmes & Watson." Given that Milne sends nearly all the possible suspects on a golfing expedition, it's not terribly difficult to narrow down the field. I do remember my younger self being fairly surprised at the exact solution, but I was in the ballpark. This story is more enjoyable as a period piece and as an examination of the mystery field itself and makes for a fun, light-hearted read rather than a serious mystery to unravel. Great fun.  ★★★★

The weird orange window panes on the front cover of this particular edition give me the "Other Color" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card. 


Debbie Rodgers said...

I LOVE this book and think that Milne should have written a dozen mysteries!

Did you notice that Anthony Gillingham is the name of one of Mary's suitors on Downton Abbey. I doubt that that is a coincidence. ;-)

Bev Hankins said...

Yes, it is a great shame that he didn't give us more. This is a pretty wonderful mystery for a first effort.

fredamans said...

This looks like a fantastic read!!

Anonymous said...

I have never actually read it and have had a copy on the shelf for decades - so glad to hear it reads well after all this time. Must give it a go - thanks Bev.