The Red House Mystery (1922) – A.A. Milne

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Anthony Gillingham is the ultimate dilettante. He uses his considerable allowance as a safety net while exploring all aspects of life in London, taking on many jobs in the quest for new experiences. When he decides to drop in on a friend staying at The Red House, he arrives just in time to find the corpse of the owner’s wastrel brother from Australia, Robert. The owner, Mark Ablett, has also vanished from the scene, with his cousin Matthew Cayley left to manage the house – which he usually did anyway. Is it possible that Mark killed his brother and then fled? Anthony decides to pick up a new profession – amateur detection – and bring his friend Bill along as his Watson.

A.A. Milne, famous for writing the Winnie the Pooh stories, wrote one detective novel, and this is it. So the introduction is required to go…
…anyway, I have no exposure to Winnie the Pooh and plenty of exposure to detective fiction, so let’s get to the book. This novel was actually quoted and called out by name in Seishi Yokomizo’s The Honjin Murders, so I was interested to get to it. It’s an early example of a classic Golden Age mystery. The dedication – to Milne’s father – shows that this was written out of love for the mystery genre. I’m reminded of Trent’s Last Case, which was written as a response to other works of detective fiction. Both these books helped kickstart the Golden Age, yet both are reactions. There are lots of Sherlock Holmes references here, but I wonder what Milne’s other inspirations were. For example, where are the other examples of the “relative from Australia”? I’ve mostly seen them in parodies, but they must have come from somewhere.

Looking forward in time, apparently this book was one of the inspirations for James Scott Byrnside to write the book I reviewed last time, Goodnight Irene. That’s really visible in the emphasis on the relationship – and the banter – between the detective and the Watson.

Here Milne focuses in on the theorising and discussion aspect of detection, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. The setup sounds like a classic country house whodunnit – house full of guests, someone unexpected shows up, they get murdered. Except all the guests were far away at the time, playing golf. Only the “silly-ass” type, Bill Beverly, actually stays in the narrative, as Anthony’s devoted and very enthusiastic Watson. This leaves Anthony and the reader with a single situation: a dead man, a missing brother, and a cousin who Anthony quickly discovers to be lying about something. From this, Milne has to spin all the intrigue of the plot, and most of the time, he manages it.

With so few options, the truth does become fairly obvious soon enough. Like in Goodnight Irene from the previous review, there is an aspect of the solution which stood out to me almost immediately, but was the last piece of the puzzle for the detective. But here also, the pleasure is not in being fooled, but being along for the ride. In this book, the most fun aspect is the banter between Anthony and Bill. It’s a very self-aware book and they are self-aware characters. They quote from Sherlock Holmes at the drop of a hat, and since their only experience of crime-solving is in stories, that’s what they use as reference.

Anthony does pull off some fairly impressive deductions – they’re creative and well-worked out; the reader may be able to guess the plot but they certainly won’t work it out the way he does. Both Anthony and Bill also partake in some thriller-ish quick thinking in order to trail or evade their suspect – though I never felt they were in danger. But it gives an aura of adventure to the book.
The titular Red House is well-evoked, being explored thoroughly and seen in brilliant sunshine and on moonlit nights. Milne does a good job of linking aspects of the surroundings to the missing owner, and using that to build his character when he isn’t present on the page.

Unfortunately, as the book draws towards its conclusion, the pace slows. The tightly-constructed puzzle can no longer provide enough material, and the theories become repetitive. It also displays a flaw which I’ve seen in several other puzzle-centric mysteries – saving the backstory for last. The neglected characters suddenly reveal unhinted-at depths in order to confirm their guilt, which the detective figured out via logic. This closing backstory dump always feels unnatural, with the method used here being a particular cop-out.

This was a very fun read despite the weak character and transparent solution – an enjoyable construction that is memorable because of its wit and approach to detection as a game. I doubt it will stick in my mind, but I’m sure a reread would always be an entertaining time while it’s happening.

Other opinions:

Bitter Tea and Mystery
The Case Files of Ho-Ling
Fiction Fan Blog
My Reader’s Block
Mystery File
Past Offences

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. jamesscottbyrnside

    Still one of my favorite reading expreiences, falws adn all. The dedication at the beginning is touching. It sets the mood.

    My Dear Father,

    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 that I can do for you is to write you one. Here it is: with more gratitude and affection than I can well put down here.

    A. A. M.

    1. Velleic

      Thanks for posting the dedication! You’re right, it really does feel heartfelt, and it shows the affectionate place that Milne was writing from.

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