Milne, A. A. The Red House Mystery.

NY: Dutton, 1922.

Everybody knows Milne as the creator of Winnie the Pooh, but few people these days know he also wrote short stories for Punch, essays on ethics and politics, theatrical plays (his idol was James M. Barrie), and screenplays for Leslie Howard’s early films. In fact, he was annoyed at being typecast as a children’s author and wanted to experiment in various genres

— which is how he came to write this detective novel in the amateur sleuth tradition, and which features a literal locked room. And though it was an immediate success, he never wrote another one.

The setting is the classic English country house where the owner, Mark Ablett, has been playing host to a number of weekend guests. His advisor, business manager, and general right hand is his cousin, Matthew Cayley, who shares the house. And then there’s his ne’er-do-well brother, Robert, whom the family had hustled off to Australia fifteen years before, and who has now returned to call on Mark. The servants hear a shot and Robert’s body is found on the floor of Mark’s office — discovered by Antony Gillingham, who happened to be in the neighborhood and stopped by to visit with Bill, one of the guests. And Mark himself has completely disappeared.

Antony is an odd bird who received a proper education but has no interest in the usual sort of career. Rather, he loves to watch people and to this end has worked quite successfully at a number of occupations (he met Bill while working behind a tobacconist’s counter). This seems the opportunity to try his hand at detecting, just for the fun of it, and so he takes on the case, cultivating Cayley (whom he’s sure is hiding something) and stepping carefully around the inspector from homicide. He figures he’s the ideal investigator, since everyone else is naturally biased in the matter, while “he knew nothing about Mark; he knew nothing about Robert. He had seen the dead man before he knew who the dead man was.”

Milne’s style is lighthearted and humorous and while Antony tackles the case in earnest, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Enlisting Bill as Watson to his Holmes, he asks, “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, all that kind of thing? Because it all helps.” Antony is very good at logical analysis and proposes theory after theory, picking each one apart and discarding it. It doesn’t hurt that he also possesses a semi-eidetic memory.

Raymond Chandler famously excoriated Milne’s novel and “cozies” in general, and he made some telling points, but the situation isn’t really as bad as all that — even though Milne seems not to have omitted a single trope. It’s an enjoyable and well-written story with interesting characters who behave consistently (if you’re paying attention), a reasonably ingenious plot, and absolutely no deus ex machinas. There’s a reason it has gone through dozens of editions in the past ninety years and has never been out of print.

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Published in: on 8 March 2015 at 5:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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