|THE RED HOUSE MYSTERY
A. A. Milne
Vintage Classics (www.randomhouse.co.uk/vintage/vintageclassics/)
Anyone who has perused Reader Dad at any point during its so-far short life could not help but notice that I like my fiction dark and, if at all possible, violent. So, it will probably come as something of a surprise (as it does to most people) that one of my favourite pieces of fiction is A. A. Milne’s classic, Winnie-the-Pooh. It’s one of those strange facts of life that just can’t be explained. I was unaware, until very recently, that Milne had also dabbled in the mystery genre, having published The Red House Mystery in 1922.
The Red House of the title is a country cottage owned by Mark Ablett. As the novel opens, we find Ablett entertaining a handful of guests, among them the young Bill Beverley. At breakfast one morning, Ablett announces to his guests – as well as his cousing Cayley, who plays the roles of secretary, confidante and business advisor – that his brother, the wastrel Robert, has returned from his 15-year exile in Australia and will be visiting the Red House that very afternoon. When Robert arrives, the guests are off playing golf, and only Mark, Cayley and the servants are present in the house. A shot rings out just as Anthony Gillingham arrives to visit his friend, Beverley, and along with Cayley, he finds Robert dead, lying on the floor of the office, and Mark nowhere to be seen.
In some ways, The Red House Mystery is an homage to the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with Gillingham taking on the role of Sherlock Holmes to Beverley’s ever-eager Watson. As the plot unfolds and we gain more information, Gillingham walks us through a number of equally plausible theories, and we learn the secrets that the Red House holds at the same time as our amateur sleuths. In other ways, the book is a playful satire of the entire mystery genre – Bill’s boyish keenness about the matter at hand, Gillingham – a man with a photographic memory – falling accidentally into the role of sleuth, and still managing to outthink not only the murderer but the police as well – but Milne manages to avoid cliche, despite the hidden passage and an abundance, of Christie proportions, of suspects.
When the final reveal comes, it’s not entirely unexpected, and sharp-eyed readers will have picked up on the clues Milne scatters throughout the story, but it’s no less satisfying a book for that – the joy of this novel comes more from the journey than the destination, and Milne provides us with a cast of likeable characters and an interesting enough mystery to keep us entertained throughout this light and entertaining whodunit.
The only thing that disappoints about The Red House Mystery is that it was Milne’s only foray into the genre. The book earns its “classic” status, and deserves a much wider readership that it presumably enjoys (I say presumably because it’s not a book I’d heard of until recently, but maybe I’m underselling it). If you’re a fan of a good mystery novel – cosy or otherwise – that exercises, in the words of one of Gillingham’s contemporaries, “the little grey cells”, then this should be top of your list.
Once you’ve finished, give Winnie-the-Pooh a(nother) read. You’ll thank me for it.
|COMEDY IN A MINOR KEY
Translated by Damion Searls (www.damionsearls.com)
Hesperus Press (www.hesperuspress.com)
Hesperus Press are new to me. For a while now, it seems, they have been publishing long overlooked foreign fiction that has never before been translated to English, or hasn’t been available for a long time. Hans Keilson, still alive according to what I can find out about him online, at the goodly age of 101, was forced to flee from Germany to the Netherlands during WWII. He’s Jewish, which shows this short novel in a somewhat different light. Comedy in a Minor Key was originally written in 1947.
As the story opens, we find ourselves in the home of young Dutch couple Wim and Marie as a doctor examines the man who is lying dead in their guest room bed. Outside, the sounds of planes and distant explosions as allied forces make their way across the English Channel and Holland, striking out for Berlin. It is some undefined point during the Second World War. The dead man is Nico, a Jew who the couple has been hiding for the past year. As the story progresses, we get to meet Nico as he arrives, and at various points throughout his year-long stay with the couple, intertwined with the story of how Wim, Marie and the doctor plan to resolve the predicament in which they now find themselves.
By modern standards, this is quite a short novel – around 100 pages, all in, which is the perfect length for Keilson to tell the story he wishes to tell without any unnecessary padding. The characters come immediately to life (although, admittedly, it took me several chapters to come to terms with the fact that the couple at the centre of the story are in their late thirties, rather than their mid-fifties, which may be more a sign of the times than anything else), and we find ourselves immediately thrust into the centre of things. The tone of the novel, surprisingly given its subject matter, is almost light-hearted, and flashbacks give us a picture of three people who are making the best of a bad situation. Nico has his dark moments, his periods of hating Wim and Marie for their relative freedom, but he’s a realist, and knows that they are the only reason he is still alive. Meanwhile, the young couple are coming to terms with the fact that they have a stranger living upstairs, a man who, if he were found out, could be the nail in their own coffins.
It is surprising, then, that the circle of confidence grows, and more people become aware of their situation. It’s a clear indication that this is a simple tale of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances: Wim and Marie aren’t part of any underground resistance movement, secret warriors out to subvert the tyrannical regime under which they’re forced to live; they are an ordinary couple, doing their best to help out a fellow human in dire straits because they have the means to do so.
Towards the end, the story takes a darker turn and we follow Wim and Marie, however briefly, into hell. But overall, it’s an upbeat story and everyone, the reader included, comes away feeling a little better about the world. Imagine the Diary of Anne Frank as told to Joseph Heller – there are moments of pure farce here, but also moments that remind us exactly what’s going on, and exactly what’s at stake.
A surprisingly uplifting read. Keilson gives us a real testament to man’s humanity to man in the face of so much inhumanity: this is not a true story, but it’s probably not far from the truth for many people throughout Europe in those dark days. It’s a novel that is likely to remain with me for some time to come, and one I will revisit in the future. Well done to Hesperus Press for making it available to an English-speaking audience.
The Day of the Triffids
Penguin Modern Classics (www.penguinclassics.co.uk)
John Wyndham’s classic, post-apocalyptic novel turns 60 this year. I first read it maybe 20 years ago, because it seemed to fit in the same category as books like Robert C. O’Brien’s Z FOR ZACHARIAH and William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES, both of which were on my GCSE English Literature curriculum at the time. I’ve read it a couple of times since; it’s one of those books that bears repeated visits, and I suspect I’ll visit it again in a decade or so.
The novel is told from the point of view of William Masen, a biologist who specialised in Triffids, which are used as a cost-effective and more sustainable alternative to other edible oils. When the Earth passes through the tail of a comet, Masen is laid up in hospital, temporarily blinded by a Triffid sting and as a result is unaffected by the strange blindness that strikes the vast majority of the world’s population. Emerging into an eerily quiet London, Masen begins the difficult task of finding other people, and picking up the pieces.
TRIFFIDS, despite the title, is a story about human endurance and the stupidity that oft-times overcomes us. We follow Masen and his new-found lover Josella Playton, as they move through this strange new world, becoming affiliated with groups large and small, forcibly parted and eventually reunited, and we encounter the all-too-real horrors that Wyndham has placed in their path: the plague, the violent gangs who shoot first and ask questions later, the crazy Christian fundamentalists – surely Miss Durrant is a fore-runner for Mrs Carmody in Stephen King’s novella, THE MIST – and behind it all the insidious menace of the strange plants for which the book is named.
Strangely, the Triffids seem nothing more than a mere nuisance for the vast majority of the book: 8 foot tall plants with a 10-foot long sting that can kill instantly if it strikes correctly, or often enough. Plants that can be disabled with a single well-placed shot. Masen and company have more trouble with their fellow man than with the man-eating plants whose origin no-one seems to know. But as the novel approaches its climax, the threat that the Triffids pose becomes more apparent. Here we begin to see the first traces of an intelligence that no-one, least of all our narrator, has suspected. As the remaining population begin to form small communities, and move away from the plague-ridden cities, the Triffids begin to make their move, surrounding compounds and waiting for the inevitable moment when they will overcome the man-made defences.
Sure, the language is somewhat archaic – what else should one expect from a piece written in the early 1950s – but THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS holds up well. It could have been written as recently as last year – I imagine the outcome would have been much the same: without electricity, mobile phones, the Internet, where would we be? And if none of us could see, would we fare any better against a strange and deadly life-form over whom our only advantage is sight than our 1950s counterparts?
Wyndham had a flair for these post-apocalyptic visions, and the one thing he always managed to get spot-on was the human reaction to whatever threat he put in their way. TRIFFIDS stands the test of time: 60 years old and remains one of the finest pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction ever written. Expect it to stay with you: there is no neatly-wrapped bow on top of this package. In the best tradition of speculative fiction, Wyndham shows you the horror, takes you to a point of seeming safety, the eye of the storm, and leaves you there, with the Triffids lurking just outside the safe zone, to draw your own conclusions.