|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.