Book Group Report: ‘Red’

The Red House Mystery by A A Milne

It’s thanks to my friend Simon that I’m aware that A A Milne was a author and playwright of wide reknown before he wrote Winnie the Pooh; I’m not sure if the rest of our book group knew this before I introduced this book as a possible for our ‘Red’ book month. Everyone agreed to give it a go – and it’s fair to say it wasn’t really a hit with most, although no-one hated it. You win some, you lose some.  But let me tell you a bit about the book…

The Red House Mystery was published in 1922, Milne had already written several novels and loads of plays by then, and he’d cut his teeth as an assistant editor at Punch magazine (where he worked with staff illustrator E H Shepard).  The mystery is a ‘locked room’ murder set in a country house.

A chap called Tony Gillingham has arrived in the country to call on his friend Bill Beverley who is part of an extended house-party at the Red House, a guest of Mark Ablett.  It’s a warm ‘drowsy’ afternoon, the guests are out, and the servants are having a moment to themselves, talking about the anticipated arrival of Mr Robert Ablett, newly returned from Australia. Mrs Stevens is making her point:

“And if he’s been in Australia, as you say, well, I daresay he’s had his reasons.”
“What reasons?” said Audrey lightly.
“Never mind what reasons. Being in the place of a mother to you, since your poor mother died, I say this, Audrey – when a gentleman goes to Australia, he has his reasons. And when he stays in Austalia fifteen years as Mr. Mark says, and as I know for myself for five years, he has his reasons. And a respectably brought-up girl doesn’t ask what reasons.”
“Got into trouble, I suppose,” said Audrey carelessly. “They were saying at breakfast he’d been a wild one.”

A man arrives and is shown into the study. There is a shot. It just so happens that Gillingham is not far behind, and hears the noise. He arrives at the house to find Mr. Cayley, Mr. Mark’s cousin, banging on the locked door. Gillingham is determined to help, and ere long they get in and discover the body in the study, presumed to be Robert. Mr. Mark has disappeared. Thus begins an extremely convoluted investigation for Gillingham, aided by Bill.

For me, the most interesting part of the novel was A A Milne’s introduction, in which he describes how he has set himself the task of writing it as a tribute to Sherlock Holmes. We must remember that in 1922, Agatha Christie was only just getting started, so Conan Doyle is the touchstone against which all detective fiction of the age is measured. Milne describes the detective’s art, then turns to the sidekick:

And now, what about a Watson? Are we to have a Watson? We are. Death to the author who keeps his unravelling for the last chapter making all the other chapters but prologue to a five-minute drama. This is no way to write a story. Let us know from chapter to chapter what the detective is thinking. For this he must watsonize or soliloquize; the one is merely a dialogue form of the other, and, by that, more readable. A Watson, then, but not of necessity a fool of a Watson. A little slow, let him be, as so many of us are, but friendly, human, likeable. . . .

Indeed, Milne takes his Holmesian tribute so far as to have Gillingham reference the great detective frequently in the text.  So in an anachronistic way, I was constantly saying to myself, “What would Sherlock do?” (sic). The most likeable character turns out to be Watson Bill, but he is not really permitted any character development beyond his Tiggerish enthusiasm for the task in hand. (Indeed one of our book group characterised Gillingham and Bill as Pooh and Piglet).

Despite Milne’s descriptions, I found it hard to visualise the layout of the Red House and its estate – a lot of the action revolves around a hidden bowling green somewhere in the grounds, which I otherwise couldn’t picture at all. The dialogue was by turns, servanty in a Downton-Daisyish mode, or jolly hockey sticks in an am-dram way – indeed, I could see this book on stage, produced by the LIttle Dribbling Players or some such group.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the story, it was fun and an undemanding read, while lacking the gravitas of Holmes and the genius plotting of Christie.  Who would have guessed at the turn Milne’s career would take a couple of years later!  (6.75/10)

P.S. Simon was more enthusiastic – read his review here.

Source: Own copy

A A Milne, The Red House Mystery (Methuen, 1922), Vintage paperback, 224 pages.

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11 thoughts on “Book Group Report: ‘Red’

  1. helen says:

    It’s really useful that you set it in context like that. I read it quite a while ago, and found it pleasant but disappointing. I hadn’t taken into account that it was so early. Still, I have to say I’ve just read The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie and it is from the same year, also light and predictable but funnier and pacier. She was right to continue writing thrillers and detective fiction, and Milne was right to turn to children’s books. Supposing he hadn’t! :O

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thanks Helen. The intro was so all about him having a go at being Holmesian, and I thought surely Christie was well underway by then? It was worth checking and made perfect sense, but he was used to writing witty plays and the extended dialogue of the novel wasn’t really up to it, I thought.

      • helen says:

        According to Wikipedia, Christie had only published one novel before 1922, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and Sayers, Allingham and Marsh for instance hadn’t got started yet, so the introduction was correct. (Ha ha, bet the introduction writer is breathing a massive sigh of relief on reading that!)

        In terms of the development of detective fiction, maybe this is quite an important book? And it is fun. Perhaps I had set my expectations too high with it being by Milne. I might try to read some of his plays, have you read any?

        • AnnaBookBel says:

          Milne himself write the intro Helen! I’m not sure whether it’s an important book as a kind of Holmes pastiche or not? Simon’s the Milne play fan by the way- I’ve never read or seen any.

  2. Simon T says:

    Sorry it wasn’t a huge hit, thought 6.75 is a respectable score 🙂 It was definitely written at a time when you could still *just* about get away with sub-par plotting – but I love it for his tone. (I’m a bit horrified about Helen saying The Secret Adversary is funnier!! Horses for courses, as they say.)

    But well done for spreading the Milne word!

  3. AnnaBookBel says:

    Meant to add why the 6.75. I have a definitive picture in my mind of a 6.5 book although I couldn’t possibly describe what that is, but felt it wasn’t quite a 7 in my review snapshot.

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