FORGOTTEN GEM: A. A. Milne “The Red House Mystery”

I was walking through Sainsbury’s when I noticed that The Times had a free book with the newspaper. For me, this is always a sign that it is going to be a good day. Ripping the plastic open on the bus and discovering what I was about to read was almost as exciting as discovering the book itself. It was a collection of long lost mystery stories. Then I realised that I recognised the author.

A.A. Milne writing a crime novel? But he wrote Winnie-the-Pooh! I was a little sceptical at first. I often find that an author acclaimed in one genre fails when they attempt a different genre. On the positive side, “The Red House Mystery” was written in 1922, four years before Winnie-the-Pooh.

This novel very helpfully comes with an introduction, written by A.A.Milne, on how and what he believes a detective story should be. He sets out a formula detailing how, in his mind, a detective novel should run its course. This formula was acquired over the years from his reading of crime novels. His novel, “The Red House Mystery”, then proceeds to follow this formula faithfully. The book becomes part of his argument. After reading his introduction and then his book, one, as a reader will formulate an opinion as to whether his formula works. For me it does. As a reader I was continually guessing what was coming up, sometimes accurately but occasionally not. A.A. Milne provides the reader with just enough information to keep them guessing throughout the novel.

Mark Ablett’s long lost brother from Australia, Robert, is murdered in a locked room. Anthony Gillingham arrives to discover the body at the same time as the Ablett’s cousin Charles. Anthony perceives that the investigation is not as straight forward as the police seem to assume and sets out on his own investigation of the murder, involving his friend Bill in the investigation as his faithful Watson. Through a serious of escapades, dodging Charles, the police and anyone else who happens to be present they engage in finding hidden tunnels, rowing in a lake in the middle of the night and a succession of other adventures.

It’s a light read, engaging and witty. It reflects A.A.Milne’s years as a writer and assistant editor at Punch. It also reflects his deep love of the genre. He’s obviously a keep detective enthusiast, a lover of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his famous detective Sherlock Holmes. Well, if you’re a detective enthusiast then that’s mandatory. But there is such a thing as taking your obsession a little too far. His characters not only assume the guise of a Sherlock Holmes who can not work without his faithful Doctor Watson but they continually refer to themselves as holding these respective roles. They even occasionally directly quote lines from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous text. Characters referencing other literary characters is engaging but it can become a little over indulgent at times to hear two characters who are not Holmes and Watson, refer to themselves in this way in the guise of nicknames.

A.A. Milne is most famous for his Winnie-the-Pooh children’s books but this was not his only accomplishment. He was a writer. He dabbled in all forms of written text from fiction to non-fiction, children’s stories, poems and plays. It was due to his world-wide acclaim for his Winnie-the-Pooh books that certain of his other accomplishments have been lost or forgotten. At the time it appears the novel was marginally successful but four years later this work was eclipsed by the Winnie-the-Pooh success and since then has been virtually forgotten. Hence the reason for Vintage Classics republishing the novel and using The Times as one method of reminding England of A.A. Milne’s other literary accomplishments.

Should this have happened? Well, its not in the same league as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and it doesn’t have the same gritty realism of Raymond Chandler, but he has a distinctive style of prose and his narrative flows seamlessly in all of his books. In particular “The Red House Mystery” has a beauty and charm all of its own. It’s a little naïve but if you love the genre it will make you smile and keep you engaged. It is not long and therefore it is definitely worth a read.

Published by Vintage Classics

Words: Rachel Jacobs


1 Comment

  1. The original Disney classic inspired by the books of A.A. Mystery Fiction Books

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