Nowadays, The Red House Mystery is likely to provoke the words "I didn't know A.A. Milne wrote a detective novel"; back in the day, you'd have been more likely to hear astonishment that the author of The Red House Mystery had turned his hand to children's books. For, although Milne arguably only ever wrote one detective novel (Four Days' Wonder just about counts as one as well, I'd suggest, but that's another story), for a while it was the thing for which he was most famous. Having earned his name as a Punch humorist, he turned his hand to The Red House Mystery in 1922 and it was an enormous success. Two years later would come When We Were Very Young, and another two years later arrived a certain Bear of Very Little Brain - but, between 1922 and 1924, A.A. Milne and crime went hand-in-hand. And a few years ago The Red House Mystery was reprinted: hurrah.
I first read it sometime before that, in around 2002, when copies were traceable but the novel was certainly not in print. I enjoyed it, but that was about all I remembered when I decided, recently, to give it a re-read.
Everything kicks off 'in the drowsy heat of the summer afternoon'; The Red House is occupied with various guests, but it is the servants who take centre stage at the beginning. Mrs Stevens (the cook-housekeeper) is talking to her parlourmaid niece Audrey about the colour of a blouse the latter will wear. That isn't a detail that has any bearing on the later plot; it's just an indication of the sort of domestic triviality that Milne so loves describing, whatever sort of fiction he is writing. And, indeed, whatever sort of fiction he is writing, he can't avoid giving his prose an air of comedy. Both Stevenses are rather given to inconsequential conversation, and Milne throws in some fun verbal tics. Audrey relays the news that Mr Mark's brother has returned from Australia (Mr Mark being the owner of The Red House); Mrs Stevens replies:
"Well, he may have been in Australia," said Mrs Stevens, judicially; "I can't say for that, not knowing the country; but what I do say is he's never been here. Not while I've been here, and that's five years."Upon being assured by Audrey that the brother has been absent for fifteen years, she says:
"I'm not saying anything about fifteenth years, Audrey. I can only speak for what I know, and that's five years Whitsuntide. I can take my oath he's not set foot in the house since five years Whitsuntide."You either like that sort of thing or you don't. If you don't, there is still the mystery to hang around for; if you do, you'll find that Milne could write just about anything and you'd lap it up.
What he has written is a murder mystery that is pretty decent. My refusal to reveal any details at all about a detective novel has rather stymied this review, but suffice to say that it doesn't revolutionise the genre particularly. That is to say, this was before the Golden Age had really taken hold, so the genre hadn't come close to being clichéd. For context, The Red House Mystery came out the same year as Agatha Christie's second novel. So, we have clues strewn willy-nilly, secret passages, midnight assignations, costumes, and all sorts of things that would be considered too hackneyed now. How nice to have been able to use them with impunity!
Milne lays out some ground rules for detective fiction (or, at least, his favourite detective fiction) in an introduction. Plain writing (no 'effecting egresses'), no predominant love story, and 'for the detective himself I demand first that he be an amateur'. He can be a extremely shrewd man, but not a specialist - or, at least, his specialism ought not to help him solve the murder. As Milne writes:
What satisfaction is it to you or me when the famous Professor examines the small particle of dust which the murderer has left behind him, and infers that he lives between a brewery and a flour-mill? What thrill do we get when the blood-spot on the missing man's handkerchief proves that he was recently bitten by a camel? Speaking for myself, none. The thing is so much too easy for the author, so much too difficult for his readers.The detective Milne creates is, indeed, an amateur; a guest at The Red House. He is Anthony Gillingham, and is intelligent, charming, quietly witty, and essentially an incarnation of Milne himself, so far as I can tell. It is difficult to get much of a sense of him here, besides his likeability, but I would have loved to see him feature in more detective novels. Sadly, that was not to be.
I have glossed over the surface of the plot, but that is to be expected. Importantly, The Red House Mystery is cosy crime at its finest. Milne does not have the genius for plotting that Christie had - but who does? This novel can certainly hold its own with the second tier of detective novelists and, I would controversially argue, is rather better than the Dorothy L Sayers' books I've read. If you've somehow missed it, go and treat yourself.