Sunday, July 16, 2023

The Red House Mystery

A. A. Milne's only real mystery novel

Today I took a few hours to read a book that has been sweltering on my bookshelf for a few months, "The Red House Mystery" (Alan Alexander Milne, E.P. Dutton and Company, 1922; Dover Publications edition reviewed, 1998).

What's it about?

There's trouble at the Red House estate in the English countryside: Murder! The manor's owner ,Mark Ablett, announces that his ne'er-do-well brother, Robert Ablett, is coming to visit him from Australia. Moments after Robert enters his brother's house, there are sounds of an argument coming from the office, then a gunshot! Bystander Anthony Gillingham is coming to the Red House to visit his friend, guest Bill Beverly, when he hears the commotion, and enters to find Mr. Ablett's cousin and personal secretary, Matthew "Cay" Cayley desperately trying to force open the office doors. With Anthony's help, the two find another way in to discover Robert's body lying on the floor, with Mark apparently on the run. Sensing something about the crime is amiss, and being an unwitting witness for the coming inquest, Anthony decides to act as a detective, bringing in Bill as his "Watson." Can the two friends solve the mystery?

The bad

This book hails from the so-called "Golden Age of Detective Fiction," and easily deserves to be on the shelf next to the best Agatha Christie novels. I'm not going to sugarcoat everything, though: Looking at this book through a modern lens does ruin the effect somewhat. I found the "mystery" part of the book sort of predictable, as I figured out the twist very early on (and chances are, you will too). While some sections of text seem to be a bit wordier and redundant than they have to be, it does lend to the author's voice and the dialogue of the characters. The language itself is perfectly modern, if you ignore the weird spelling of "connexion" and the word "kedgeree" which pops up once (it's a type of food consisting of fish, hard-boiled eggs and rice).

The good

What does carry the book through this though is the writing: It's full of humor, wit, and two would-be detectives who are treating the whole affair like their own game of "let's pretend to be Sherlock Holmes." This lack of deadly seriousness makes this reasonably short read a page-turner and a fun time throughout. It's a shame that this didn't become a series, but there's a reason…

The odd

The author of this tome is Alan Alexander Milne, better known as A. A. Milne, who sharp-eyed readers may recognize as the writer of "Winnie the Pooh." This was (technically) his first published novel, and predates "Pooh" by a couple of years. While this mystery novel was quite popular and successful in its day, "Winnie the Pooh" and its sequel "The House at Pooh Corner" were cultural milestones that were his greatest successes (and also - allegedly - his greatest personal annoyance). Authors can write different books and genres, and most like to do so. Milne himself wrote poetry, fiction, and nonfiction books before, during, and after "Pooh," but apparently could never seem to escape its shadow, even costing him his relationship with his son.

Is it worth reading?

This is absolutely worth a read if you have any interest in mystery and detective novels, and is a great way to observe the writing style of Milne beyond his better known works. Check it out if you can!

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