Jun 24, 2010

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

A.A. Milne’s 1922 The Red House Mystery is, as you’ll no doubt be unsurprised to hear, a country house mystery. It all begins when Mark Ablett, the owner of the Red House, receives a letter one morning saying that his wayward brother Robert is coming from Australia to see him. Robert arrives after lunch and is taken to the library, where Mark is to join him. Shortly thereafter, the servants hear loud voices followed by a shot; and when Mark’s cousin Cayley, a guest at the Red House named Bill, and a stranger named Antony Gillingham who had just wandered by break into the locked room, they find Robert’s murdered body and Mark gone. The immediate explanation, offered by Cayley, is that Mark must have accidentally shot Robert during an argument and then ran away in a panic. But there are several details that don’t quite fit into this story – which is why Antony and Bill decide to become Holmes and Watson and investigate the murder.

The first thing you need to know about The Red House Mystery is that it’s hilarious – it’s as much a comedy of manners as it is a mystery. The tone of the book reminded me quite a bit of The Moonstone, actually. Milne’s book is not long enough to be quite as immersive a reading experience, but I loved them both immensely for very similar reasons. And though it’s Conan Doyle that the characters explicitly reference, Wilkie Collins’ influence is really just as noticeable.

One of the interesting things about The Moonstone, and about Victorian sensation in general, is the fact that it’s based on the idea that the very existence of genteel criminals was shocking and difficult to believe. In 1922, A.A. Milne could play with that notion in a way that Collins couldn’t yet have done in 1868, because as much as he worked to subvert this, it was still too sensational to blatantly defy upper-class respectability. But the social changes that took place in those decades allowed Milne to write a novel that directly pokes fun at the notion of inherent genteel respectability. Take, for example, the reason why Antony Gillingham decides to investigate the murder:
The inspector had arrived in it to find a man dead and a man missing. It was extremely probable, no doubt, that the missing man had shot the dead man. But it was more than extremely probable, it was almost certain that the Inspector would start with the idea that this extremely probable solution was the one true solution, and that, in consequence, he would be less disposed to consider without prejudice any other solution. (…) But Antony could. He knew nothing about Mark; he knew nothing about Robert. He had seen the dead man before he was told who the dead man was. He knew that a tragedy had happened before he knew that anybody was missing. Those first impressions, which are so vitally important, had been received solely on the merits of the case; they were founded on the evidence of his senses, not on the evidence of his emotions or of other people's senses. He was in a much better position for getting at the truth than was the Inspector.
This is, of course, an admission that there is a bias, and the bias is partially a social one. Antony is not only a stranger to the Red House, but a man cynical enough to see beyond social appearances. And later on, when Antony and Bill begin to have their suspicious about what might have happened, Bill thinks:
Bill had helped him to sausages, played tennis with him, borrowed his tobacco, lent him a putter.... and here was Antony saying that he was what? Well, not an ordinary man, anyway. A man with a secret. Perhaps a murderer. No, not a murderer; […] That was rot, anyway. Why, they had played tennis together.
People one plays tennis with cannot of course be murderers – expect when it turns out they are. It’s interesting to think that the reason why I so enjoyed the subversive humour of The Red House Mystery and The Moonstone is the same reason why I struggled with The Franchise Affair recently: while Collins and Milne examine (or relentlessly mock) this immediate presumption of innocence based on someone’s social standing, Tey seems to take it at face value. This is also the reason why I’ve become such a reader of mysteries, especially older and historical ones, over the past few months. They give me such an opportunity to examine the social fabric of a particular time period, and the exercise is so endlessly fun.

If you’re thinking that the tone of The Red House Mystery sounds a bit too light and flippant for a novel in which someone gets shot in cold blood in a locked library, worry not. 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.

The Red House Mystery is an immensely satisfying read. The ending, while not completely surprising, does allow a complex enough story to emerge (and interestingly, another parallel with The Moonstone is the fact that the crime is only made viable by the absence of knowledge and technology that we have today). What a pity that Milne didn’t write more mysteries.

Interesting bits:
“Are you prepared to be the complete Watson?” he asked.
“Do-you-follow-me-Watson; that one. Are you prepared to have quite obvious things explained to you, to ask futile questions, to give me chances of scoring off you, to make brilliant discoveries of your own two or three days after I have made them myself all that kind of thing? Because it all helps.”
“My dear Tony,” said Bill delightedly, “need you ask?” Antony said nothing, and Bill went on happily to himself, “I perceive from the strawberry-mark on your shirt-front that you had strawberries for dessert. Holmes, you astonish me. Tut, tut, you know my methods. Where is the tobacco? The tobacco is in the Persian slipper. Can I leave my practice for a week? I can.”

The library was worth going into, passages or no passages. Antony could never resist another person's bookshelves. As soon as he went into the room, he found himself wandering round it to see what books the owner read, or (more likely) did not read, but kept for the air which they lent to the house. Mark had prided himself on his library. It was a mixed collection of books. Books which he had inherited both from his father and from his patron; books which he had bought because he was interested in them or, if not in them, in the authors to whom he wished to lend his patronage; books which he had ordered in beautifully bound editions, partly because they looked well on his shelves, lending a noble colour to his rooms, partly because no man of culture should ever be without them; old editions, new editions, expensive books, cheap books, a library in which everybody, whatever his taste, could be sure of finding something to suit him.

Mrs. Norbury was delighted to see them, as she always was to see any man in her house who came up to the necessary standard of eligibility. When her life-work was completed, and summed up in those beautiful words: “A marriage has been arranged, and will shortly take place, between Angela, daughter of the late John Norbury....” then she would utter a grateful Nunc dimittis and depart in peace to a better world, if Heaven insisted, but preferably to her new son-in-law's more dignified establishment. For there was no doubt that eligibility meant not only eligibility as a husband.
Other Reviews:
Books and Other Thoughts
Fleur Fish Reads
Novel Insights
GeraniumCat’s Bookshelf
A Fondness for Reading

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. I din't know Milne had written anything other than his children's books. I shall have to look out for this. Thank you.

  2. I do love a country house mystery - and of course I see no problem with humor in murder mysteries. It's funny how murder mysteries can be so detached from the fact of the deaths - a few characters might cry "It's horrible!" but the general tone of many mysteries is pretty blase about it.

    (I liked it when Harriet found the body in Have His Carcase, and she thought about how casual she had made her detective about such things, but she was quite alarmed her own self.)

  3. We are talking about the same A.A. Milne that brought us Winnie the Pooh? I never realised he had written anything else. Oh the shame of not knowing. I love the sound of this and the fact that you mentioned it was hilarious. We actually live near the original 100 Acre Wood, where the Pooh books were set. I have yet to visit it though.

  4. I'm intrigued by your Wilkie Collins comparisons. I loved The Moonstone so I think I'm going to have to try this one too!

  5. A.A. Milne wrote mysteries??? I love the sound of this, and I loved The Moonstone... you've got me adding to my list, yet again!

  6. Although I don't love mysteries, I love Milne's winnie-the-pooh stories! This doesn't sound anything like Pooh, but who knows, maybe I'll like his humor in this too.

  7. Reading your review made me smile all over again at how much I enjoyed this book - thanks!

  8. I had no idea A.A. Milne had written anything other than Winnie the Pooh stories! But you're saying this is a country house mystery that is rife with British humor? Sold! I need to find a copy of this tout suite!

  9. I keep looking for the perfect mystery, which is why I love reading your reviews as of late. You have a way of cutting through the chaff and giving me just the pertinent information on which to base my decisions about these books. As far as this book goes, I think it does sound rather interesting, and like something that has a lot more going for it than just the mystery. Thanks for another great review. I think this is a book I am going to look closer at.

  10. I've always wondered what kind of writer Milne was outside of the marvelous Pooh stories. This sounds like lots of fun even for someone like me who isn't a particular fan of mysteries. Onto my TBr list it goes!

  11. I was going to ask if this was the same person who wrote the Pooh stories but I see from the comments he must be. Crazy...

  12. I guess I have to repeat what everyone else is saying - had no idea A.A. Milne had other work. Thanks for bringing this knowledge to our attention!

  13. The Moonstone is one of my favorite books of all-time! Even before you mentioned it's parallel I read your first paragraph and thought hey, this sounds kind of like The Moonstone! I love the intrigue coupled with comedy. Classic.

  14. I'm echoing everyone else- this is the same author of the Pooh books? I dind't know he wrote adult fiction! (should have guessed, though).

  15. I'm going to chime in as well - I had no idea A. A. Milne had written anything other than Winnie-the-Pooh. I must investigate this!

  16. Adding this to the mental TBR pile right now. I can imagine it would be delightful in a victorian-mystery sort of way...

  17. This one´s been on my list for a while, your review reminds me to push it to the top of the tbr. Sounds like a must-read for mystery fans :)

  18. I just picked this up today in the library. Can't wait to read it now.

  19. Mystery and comedy? Perfect! I've got to take this out from the library. Thanks for a wonderful review!

  20. Actually, I was surprised by this, because I didn't know Milne had written something like that! As for the Victorians, although I'm a Texas writer, I have an insatiable appetite for them.

  21. Any book that channels The Moonstone is okay by me. I adore Wilkie Collins.

  22. Imagine what Wilkie Collins might have done if he had stood on Doyle's shoulders, like Milne, and not the other way 'round. Once again, you've proven deadly to my reading list: A.A. Milne, mystery writer, has now been added (but I love Pooh, too). Thanks!

  23. Oh, a classical locked-room mystery! Great. I have The Moonstone on the shelf, unread (lucky me!), so I will get to that soon, and maybe also read Milne's book.

    More about crimes and detectives in old-day England can be found in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale (http://leeswammes.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/the-suspicions-of-mr-whicher-by-kate-summerscale/), which I think you also reviewed, Nymeth. It's non-fiction.

  24. I only recently became aware of the fact that Milne wrote more than just children's books. I didn't know he had written a mystery as well.

  25. Study Window: He has quite a few novels for adults, actually! I'm curious about them now.

    Jenny: I never mind the humour either, but then I have these am-I-a-horrible-person moments :P I liked that bit with Harriet too.

    Vivienne: Yes, same one! That's so cool that you live near the Hundred Acre Wood. I have a book review coming next week I think you'll LOVE. *whistles mysteriously* :P Anyway, I'm glad you found this one at the library and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Helen: I hope you enjoy it!

    JoaAnn: Sadly, one one mystery - what a pity there aren't more!

    Rebecca: Story-wise it's not like Pooh, but there's something a wee bit familiar about the sort of humour he uses :)

    GeraniumCat: You're most welcome :D

    Steph: Gutenberg actually has it if you can't find it elsewhere!

    Zibilee: Yes, same here. The mystery itself is only a small part of what keeps me interested. I hope you enjoy this one, and thank you for the kind words!

    Stefanie: Judging by this, he had a lot more to offer! I'm not curious about the rest of his books for adults.

    Amanda: It's actually not as dissimilar as one might think!

    Jill: He was also a prolific playwright, and even wrote memoir!

    Brenna: I think you're going to enjoy this one :) I read The Moonstone for the first time last year and absolutely adored it. I need to read more Collins.

  26. Jeane: He did! And a considerable amount of it too.

    Kathy: I can't remember how I first found out this existed, but I was surprised too.

    Daphne: I think you'd enjoy it :)

    Bina: I think it is! It's especially interesting to think it actually predates the "golden age".

    Emidy: Hard to go wrong with that combination, right?

    Shelley: Those Victorians are hard to resist, aren't they?

    Trisha: Me too <3 Well, the two books of his I've read, anyway :P

    ds: That's interesting to think about, isn't it? I wonder how much of an influence this book had on the Golden Age that was soon to follow.

    Leeswammes: I did review that! I thought it was excellent :)

    Iris: Capuchin have reissued a book of his that sounds really, really tempting...

  27. Like many others, I didn't know that AA Milne wrote anything beyond his childrens' books! Although I'm not sure I'd want to get to this one soon, it still is fascinating to learn this tidbit about him!

  28. So this is Winnie-the-Pooh A.A. Milne? Did not know that ... it always surprises me when authors you know mostly for children's book write big people books too ... but I guess it shouldn't.

  29. I discovered this book by Milne last year and it was a big surprise! When I read it, I loved it! Glad to know that you liked the book too. I actually really liked the way the mystery got resolved. Maybe I will read it again. I liked Anthony Gillingham's character and his deductive skills very much.

  30. I came across this one when I was in library school years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it.
    It has a similar feel to some of the Agatha Christie country house mysteries.

  31. Valerie: He was also a very prolific playwright. I'm curious about his other stuff :)

    Jenners: It does tend to surprise us, but thinking about it more I agree that it shouldn't!

    Vishy: Anthony was great! This is one I'd also love to revisit some day in the future :)

    Shonna: It sounds like I really need to read Christie! Which I never have, shamefully enough.

  32. I've never read Milne, but I have a feeling if I do much reading over the next two years at all, it will be lighter, quicker reads like this one, so thanks for the suggestion!


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