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.
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
Source: Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2013.