by A.A. Milne
202 pages, JourneyForth
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Before stumbling across this book, I had no idea that A.A. Milne had written a detective novel. Indeed, my knowledge of the creator of “Winnie-the-Pooh” stretched no further than the boundaries of the Hundred Acre Wood. A quick search on the mighty Wikipedia informed me that Milne was, in fact, quite a prolific scribbler before finding success as a children’s author.
“The Red House Mystery” is a detective novel that is very much a product of its time. Published four years before “Winnie-the-Pooh”, it is what fans of the genre call a “locked room mystery” but imbued with the carefree spirit of the moneyed classes of 1920s England. Readers looking for the gritty, grisly realism found in modern crime books will find themselves scratching their heads. The rather jaunty tone of the book might seem more than a little incongruous, given the subject matter. Milne is less concerned with the psychology behind murder than the investigative process itself and the jolly good time his characters have whilst solving the mystery.
The plot is straightforward enough, Mark Ablett, owner of the titular Red House has shot and killed his estranged brother before going missing. Jack-of-all-trades Antony Gillingham and his chum Bill Beverly play Holmes and Watson, taking it upon themselves to discover exactly what happened to their host. Along the way they discover secret passages, cunning disguises and even a ghost.
Tony Gillingham is a fun and immediately likeable central character. A wealthy layabout, he relishes the role of detective and approaches it with an infectiously cheerful attitude. Bill Beverly follows the utterly charming Tony like a devoted puppy. Well aware of his role as “Watson”, he is content to play second fiddle and watches his companion with admiration bordering on hero-worship as he goes about his business. The light-hearted banter between the two leads is the novel’s strongest point and the sharp dialogue shows Milne’s experience as a playwright.
The story ambles along at a leisurely pace, reflecting perhaps the laidback nature of the main protagonists. For much of the story, Bill and Tony seem to treat the investigation as a game. Whilst some readers will find this a refreshing change to the world-weary detectives and solemn, cynical policemen who so often feature in such books, an equal number of readers will find Milne’s heroes irritatingly chirpy.
“The Red House Mystery” does not aim for realism. Milne’s intention was clearly not to horrify or thrill his audience with scenes of bloody dismemberment. Rather, the story merely aims to entertain the reader and to keep them guessing right up to the big reveal in the final chapter.
Readers in search of a light-hearted diversion could do worse than pick up a copy of this book. Though its simple pleasures are short-lived, the novel is witty and the central mystery is intriguing enough to sustain your interest. However, the incessantly upbeat tone means that the story is more “Famous Five” than “Inspector Rebus”.
Hereward L.M. Proops