Little 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.