Most readers know A. A. Milne as the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, and Tigger, but four years before these characters appeared Milne published his one true detective novel, The Red House Mystery (1922).
By 1922 the forty-year old had become best known as a playwright and writer of screenplays for the cinema, as well as being a prolific contributor to Punch, where his gently humorous style gained him many fans. Thus the appearance of The Red House Mystery must have been welcomed by a growing number of his admirers as something of a novelty. Here was a comic writer trying his hand at a genre that was becoming increasingly popular in what later became known as ‘The Golden Age’ of crime fiction.
Milne’s debut proved immediately popular. The well known critic Alexander Woollcott even went so far as to call The Red House Mystery ‘one of the best mystery stories of all time.’ The action was set (where else?) in a country house party hosted by Mark Ablett and attended by a handful of minor characters. At some point Robert, Ablett’s black sheep of a brother, who was living in Australia, turns up and before long is found shot dead in the head. Another guest, Tony Gillingham, appoints himself a latter day Sherlock Holmes and with the help of his friend as Dr Watson, this pair of amateur sleuths get to work on what appears to be a very puzzling crime indeed.
Milne was a graduate in mathematics from Cambridge and so it comes as no great surprise that at the centre of the book is a logic puzzle, but Raymond Chandler, who twenty-two years later was to demolish the raison d’etre of the Red House Mystery in The Simple Art of Murder, had serious reservations regarding the credibility of the plot. To him the novel was:
‘ an agreeable book, light amusing in the Punch style, written with a deceptive smoothness that is not as easy as it looks . Yet however light in texture the story may be, it is offered as a problem of logic and deduction. If it is not that, it is nothing at all. There is nothing else for it to be …’
Chandler rejected the idea of the two amateur detectives beating the police at their own game. Referring to Tony Gillingham, he remarks; ‘The English police seem to endure him with their customary stoicism, but I shudder to think what the boys down at the Homicide Bureau in my city would do to him…’
The poet and crime fiction expert Julian Symons, writing in his history of the genre, Bloody Murder (1972), took on board Chandler’s reservations, but was more generous in his appraisal: ‘ I was able to re-read the story without much loss of pleasure, and even with some admiration of Milne’s skill in skating over thin ice.’ He even endorsed the opinion of fellow crime writer Rex Stout ( see a previous Jot) who called the book ‘ charming’. Altogether, declared Symons, he enjoyed the book’s ‘light, easy way with murder, its dextrous shifts of suspicion and emphasis. There are improbabilities that have to be ignored as Milne ignores them, but the charm remains potent’.
Despite Chandler’s devastating critique, The Red House Mystery continued to sell well. By 1948 twenty-three editions had been published in the U.K .alone. As a first edition of a book written by A. A. Milne, it is only outdone in value today by pristine copies of the first Winnie-the-Pooh book. Recently, a first edition of The Red House Mystery in its striking dust jacket was being offered in abebooks at more than £6,000.
- M. Healey