Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Red House Mystery: A. A. Milne


The Red House Mystery, published in 1922, is my choice for the Crimes of the Century Challenge at Past Offences.  I have picked up several copies at book sales over the years and finally I had the impetus to read it. I always stall when reading books of this vintage, for some reason. It isn't that I don't like "dated" books; that is why I read older books... to get some insight into the time. It may be that I think the writing style will be too stilted. I needn't have worried. This story was a great read.

This book was the only mystery novel written by A. A. Milne, famous for his books about Winnie the Pooh. He had me at the dedication of this book:
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.
As the title implies, this is a country house murder. The Red House is owned by Mark Ablett, a bachelor who often entertains friends there. The story begins with the servants in the house discussing the impending arrival of their employer's brother, who has been in Australia for 15 years. Mark has announced his brother's visit just that morning at breakfast. In the afternoon, the guests have gone off to play a game of golf; the house is empty except for Mark, his cousin, Matthew Cayley, and the servants. The brother arrives, is shown into the office, and the next thing we know a shot is heard and a dead body is found in the office. At the same time, Antony  Gillingham arrives to visit with one of the guests.

This is how Milne introduces our hero, Antony, to the reader:
At about the time when the Major (for whatever reasons) was fluffing his tee-shot at the sixteenth, and Mark and his cousin were at their business at the Red House, an attractive gentleman of the name of Antony Gillingham was handing up his ticket at Woodham station and asking the way to the village. Having received directions, he left his bag with the station-master and walked off leisurely. He is an important person to this story, so that it is as well we should know something about him before letting him loose in it. Let us stop him at the top of the hill on some excuse, and have a good look at him.
The first thing we realize is that he is doing more of the looking than we are. Above a clean-cut, clean-shaven face, of the type usually associated with the Navy, he carries a pair of grey eyes which seem to be absorbing every detail of our person.
Antony has come to The Red House to visit his friend, Bill Beverley. Matthew, the cousin, who functions as estate manager and secretary, has bundled off all the other guests to London, but invites Antony and Bill to stay. Mark has disappeared, and the police have quickly decided that he must be the one who fired the shot, whether in self-defense or not. Very shortly, Antony decides that all may not be as it seems and appoints himself as an amateur sleuth, taking on Bill as his Watson. They are quite a pair.

I enjoyed the puzzle although, strangely, at no time was I trying to follow the clues. I enjoyed Antony's journey in finding the truth, and I did not suspect the final results at any time, although I am sure many readers would. I was immersed in the story. The tone of the book is light, yet murder is not treated lightly.
Yes, humour abounds, as does witty dialogue and social satire, but the novel still acknowledges the dark side of human nature and the horror of the crime that has been committed. And if our Watson, Bill, is having a little too much fun with the investigation, the older and warier Antony acknowledges the tragedy of the situation.
That quote is from a review at Things Mean a Lot, which also has links to several other reviews.

Santosh Iyer's excellent review is at Goodreads.

I must note that Raymond Chandler thoroughly lambasted this book in The Simple Art of Murder. He makes some good points, if you want to quibble with the plot, but I think he misses the point that mystery novels can be different things to each reader. One book can be read for the enjoyment and another can be read to learn more about the world and both can be worthy examples of the mystery genre. He also starts out his tirade with huge spoilers, so only read that piece if you don't mind the spoilers. (You can find it here.)

I only regret that I read the paperback edition of this book and did not discover the introduction by Milne in my hardback edition as I was writing this post. An excerpt:
I have a passion for detective stories. Of beer (if I may mention it) an enthusiast has said that it could never be bad, but that some brands might be better than others; in the same spirit (if I may use the word) I approach every new detective story. This is not to say that I am uncritical. On the contrary, I have all sorts of curious preferences...




 -----------------------------

Publisher:  E. P. Dutton, 1922 (22nd printing, 1965). 
Length:     211 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2013.

30 comments:

  1. When I saw you'd read this on Goodreads, I was wondering if it was the Winnie the Pooh author. Glad you enjoyed it, but while it's sounds interesting and I like the style of the extract, I won't be seeking it out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is very clever, Col, but you have plenty (of books) to deal with anyway.

      Delete
  2. TracyK: I had never known Milne wrote crime fiction. It sounds like a good book. I will not think of Winnie the Pooh in the same way again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I did enjoy the book, Bill, more than I expected to.

      Delete
  3. Didn't he write arch dialogues in Punch? Yes - Goodreads calls them "whimsical".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't know much about Milne, but I would not mind reading more by him, if I had more time. As it is, I may never finish the books I own.

      Delete
  4. One of my favourite murder mystery books. I too had it languishing on my bookshelf for *yonks* and wish I'd read it sooner. I also wish he'd written more about the two main characters solving crimes. Very nice review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Cath. I am sorry I waited too, and it was fun to read.

      Delete
  5. I read this about two years ago and liked it. I was interested to read that you sometimes hesitate to read older books and that you wondered if you expected the language to be stilted. I do the same thing and, I think, for the same reason. It sometimes does take a minor adjustment to get used to the rhythm and style of older language, and sometimes I'm not in the mood to bother. I'll pick up a fast-paced contemporary book instead to get my reading speed back.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have less trouble with books after 1940 (roughly), Joan. But you are right, pacing does have something to do with it too.

      Delete
  6. This sounds like a really interesting read, Tracy. I didn't know Milne wrote crime fiction! It certainly sheds a different light on him as an author, that's for sure. Thanks for sharing this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Margot, I never thought I would find something about crime fiction that you did not already know about. This was just a one off, a shame he did not write more.

      Delete
  7. I've had an old and battered copy of this on my shelves for decades - I really do want to dust it down now - thansk Tracy. I suspect it was Chandler's view of it that may have made me hesitate quite so long ...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you remember much of what was said in The Simple Art of Murder about this book, Sergio, he has spoiled the entire story... I don't know if that would matter to you. I do not think the greatest appeal is the plot, it is the way in which the story is told, but still... if you know the end, it would ruin it for me.

      Delete
  8. Tracy, I had no idea A.A. Milne had written a detective novel. Although he authored few novels, he seems to have been prolific, writing both nonfiction, plays, and poetry.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, Prashant, it seems he was a very versatile writer and did not want to be pigeon-holed in one area.

      Delete
  9. I've been meaning to read this for years, but you know how that can go. I don't even have a copy. Oh, I had one, but lent it, and you also may know how that goes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Richard, I definitely know about having books I have been mean to read for years. I wish I had more friends who liked to read mystery fiction and I would loan out a lot of my books.

      Delete
  10. I completely agree with you on the different approaches to enjoying a novel, especially a mystery. I'm always more interested in voice and characters than in the mechanics of plot. And it was also good to learn that I am among the "really nice people." Thanks for this, Tracy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am glad you enjoyed it, Mathew. There is a huge variety within the mystery genre, and I am glad of it.

      Delete
  11. I love vintage reading, Tracy. In fact just today two books arrived in the mail: one Philip MacDonald and one Cyril Hare. I can hardly wait. My only problem with vintage is that I usually zoom through them in one night. :)

    I read THE RED HOUSE (I think it was a free download from Project Guttenberg) recently and had planned to write about it, but now maybe I won't. I enjoyed it very much. I wonder why Milne didn't write any more mysteries - he had the knack.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have read almost all of Cyril Hare's mysteries, but don't think I have read anything by Philip MacDonald. I have to remedy that.

      I wish you would do a post on this book, Yvette. I am sure you would point out things about it that I missed.

      Delete
  12. Great review Tracy and thanks for the links to the other reviews. I liked what I read (of this book) as well but set it aside for now. I don't plan to review it. It's a great find, however. I did have to refund my copy twice in order to find one that was formatted correctly and it was at Project Gutenberg I think. In that case, paperback would have been the preferred way to read it. In fact, I'm finding that I prefer the original vs. the ebooks because the formatting isn't all that great.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Keishon. I have had that problem with e-books also. Sometimes the formatting really bothers me. Of course, some of the older paperbacks I have such tiny print or very pale print that I can't read them either.

      Delete
  13. Thanks for referring to my review.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I loved this book! I thought it was a clever mystery told in an elegant and witty style. I wish Milne had written dozens of mysteries instead of this only one :-(

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree, Debbie, I would love to have more this this to read.

      Delete
  15. I have a copy of this book and may have read it years ago, but now I really want to read it again. Great review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Moira. I think you would like it. Some very interesting characters.

      Delete