A. A. Milne: The Red House Mystery

TheRedHouseMysteryLittle Boy kneels at the foot of the bed.
Droops on the little hands little gold head.
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

It would take some going to make up for that. I honestly don’t know what he can have been thinking. Let’s find out if A. A. Milne’s only crime novel, The Red House Mystery can obliterate the memory of his poetry.

The scene is the Red House, the beautiful country estate belonging to wealthy patron of the arts Mr Mark Ablett. A select few guests are staying for a house party and all is peaceful.

There was a lazy murmur of bees in the flower-borders, a gentle cooing of pigeons in the top of the elms…

In fact, Mark Ablett insists on things being peaceful (and to disturb the order of things means you may never be invited back). However, the peace of the party is rudely shattered by the arrival of his ne’er-do-well brother Robert from the colonies, who arrives in ‘a red handkerchief around his neck and great big dusty boots’, much to the chagrin of the staff.

Robert joins Mark in the library, a shot is heard, and the body of Robert is discovered. Mark is nowhere to be seen and is suspected of fleeing the scene.

A solid Golden Age set-up, completed in true Golden Age fashion by a talented amateur.

Antony Gillingham is properly quirky, a dilettante distinguished by his chequered career path and uniquely acute memory. He appoints a Watson, in the form of his young friend and admirer Bill Beverley. Together they tackle the mystery.

The official police are a mere afterthought, barely on the scene at all, and kept in the dark by our heroes, who also think the law is a bit of a matter for personal choice.

Antony walked over to the fireplace, knocked out the ashes of his pipe, and turned back to Bill. He looked at him gravely without speaking.
“What are you going to say to him?” he said at last.
“How do you mean?”
“Are you going to arrest him, or help him to escape?”
“I—I—well, of course, I—” began Bill, stammering, and then ended lamely, “Well, I don’t know.”
“Exactly. We’ve got to make up our minds, haven’t we?”

Given the initial set-up and the inclusion of both a major and a glamorous young stage actress, it’s surprising that the circle of suspects is so small. The puzzle is one of those which could have been unmasked by a proper police investigation of Mark Ablett’s past and/or some thorough interrogations (and/or an early guess, in my case).

The Red House Mystery has had something of a bad press, having been singled out for a thorough-going kicking by Raymond Chandler in The Simple Art of Murder. Warning: he gives away all the plot, and also demolishes it. This is the least of his criticisms:

The detective in the case is an insouciant gent named Antony Gillingham, a nice lad with a cheery eye, a cozy little flat in London, and that airy manner. He is not making any money on the assignment, but is always available when the local gendarmerie loses its notebook. The English police seem to endure him with their customary stoicism; but I shudder to think of what the boys down at the Homicide Bureau in my city would do to him.

However, I would say it’s a 100% solid piece of work. Nobody really looks for realism in these books, do they? Fluently written, evenly paced and a joy to read.

It almost makes up for the little golden head of Christopher Robin.


The Red House Mystery
A. A. Milne
First published 1922, Methuen
This edition: Project Gutenberg
114 pages in print

This was my third entry for #1922book.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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12 Responses to A. A. Milne: The Red House Mystery

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I liked this very much when I read it. Not the most taxing of mysteries, but it’s Golden Age and great fun and very engaging, so what more could you ask? 🙂

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  2. tracybham says:

    I agree with your summation, Rich. You put it very nicely. When I read what Chandler had to say, I could agree with his points about this book being unrealistic, but did not agree that everything should be realistic in a detective story. I enjoyed this one and I loved The Big Sleep. I am happy with both approaches.

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  3. I think it stands up well as a Golden Age crime novel and, thankfully, is not so twee as Milne’s childrens’ books. Sadly I had guessed the perpetrator right from the beginning so not much mystery for me. More of a Howdunit than a Who.

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  4. Going to have to get this one down from the shelf – I know I read it years ago but don’t remember a thing about it. I always class it with Trent’s Last Case.
    What a lovely top image! I do admire it. (tee hee. I just made Col change around his r-h sidebar – I am power mad!)

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  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    The similarities between The Red House Mystery and Trent’s Last Case are discussed in the book Jolly Good Detecting: Humor in English Crime Fiction of the Golden Age by Bruce Shaw.
    I list the similarities:
    1. Both books are of almost equal length.
    2. In both, there is lightheartedness, a sense of ease and playfulness (which Raymond Chandler detested).
    3. Good wit and humour in both novels rests often on jokes and wordplay that include intertextual references.
    4. In both, minor characters are introduced in the first chapter.
    5. Both the amateur detectives Philip Trent and Antony Gillingham lead somewhat bohemian lives moving from one occupation to another. Both are men of action. Their ages are similar. While Trent has artist’s eyes, Gillingham has photographic memory.
    6. In both, the victim is killed by pistol shots and there is presumed struggle over the gun.
    7. In both, the murder victim is a wholly unworthy person (though in RHM, this is known only later).
    8. There is a love interest in both novels.
    9. In both, there is a conflict between the victim and the secretary.
    10. The secretary is the major suspect in both novels (according to the amateur detectives).
    11. Both the amateur detectives are fallible. Wrong conclusions are reached initially before the truth is revealed.
    12. Both stories are set in large houses in the English countryside.
    13. In RHM, a golf course is near the house. In TLC, a bowling green is near the house.
    14. Water is an important motif—-the sea in TLC and a pond in RHM.
    15. In RHM, the town of Middleston is nearby, while in TLC, thev town of Marlstone is nearby.
    16. We have Inspector Birch in RHM and Inspector Murch in TLC (rhyming names !)
    17. There is an emphasis on the layout of rooms in both—— office, library and adjoining room in RHM and adjoining bedrooms in TLC.
    18. In both we have ill-fitting shoes in which a larger man attempts to squeeze his feet.
    19. In both, there is mimicry of the victim’s characteristic voices.
    20. In both, there are references to the teeth of the victim—-false teeth in TLC and dental records in RHM.

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  6. Bev Hankins says:

    This is one that I would love to read again–if there were time and world enough. I read it early in my return to mysteries and have only fond memories associated with it and little real memory of the details. May have to sneak it into the reading line-up anyway.

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