17.2.10

A. A. Milne's The Red House Mystery

When you hear the name “A. A. Milne,” do you immediately think of Winnie-the-Pooh? Certainly Milne is most famous for the four children’s books featuring the lovable bear and his friend, Christopher Robin. During his lifetime, he was also known as a distinguished dramatist, writing 34 plays. Most readers are surprised to learn that Milne also composed a noteworthy detective novel. The Red House Mystery has remained in print for 87 years, and continues to attract new readers.

The novel begins in typical golden-age fashion in a quaint country house. The sound of a gunshot pierces the air, surprising everyone on a drowsy summer afternoon. When Antony Gillingham arrives at the red house, he hears loud banging on a door and a voice yelling, “Open the door, I say; open the door!” (19). The library is locked from within; it contains the dead body of the host’s brother. Antony and his friend Bill are intrigued with the case, and adopt the role of the amateur detective. The plot is cleverly worked out, keeping us guessing right until the end.

In the introduction to the novel, Milne describes his favourite mystery stories:
It is the amateur detective who alone can expose the guilty man by the light of cool inductive reasoning and the logic of stern remorseless facts. Indeed, this light and this logic are all which I will allow him. Away with the scientific detective, the man with the microscope! (x)
Antony is the ideal detective, relying on his powers of acute observation and logical deduction. “I notice things, you know. I was born noticing,” he tells Cayley (28). This young Sherlock Holmes asks Bill if he will adopt the role of Watson: “Are you prepared to have quite obvious things explained to you, to ask futile questions, to give me chances of scoring off you, to make brilliant discoveries of your own two or three days after I have made them myself?” (69). Milne knows the value of a Watson-type character. In his introduction to the novel, he writes, “Let us know from chapter to chapter what the detective is thinking. For this he must watsonize or soliloquize” (xi).

The narrative tone of the novel is comic, witty, almost tongue-in-cheek. Milne, as we know from his children’s works, excels in humorous writing. He began his career as the assistant editor of Punch, the English magazine known for satirical cartoons and anti-establishment pieces.

The country house setting includes mysterious Gothic elements such as a secret passage and a resident house ghost. Indeed The Red House Mystery incorporates a number of classic cozy elements such as these, features typical of Golden Age mysteries. The conventions are both delightful and unrealistic. As Symons points out, “There are improbabilities that have to be ignored as Milne ignores them, but the charm remains potent” (1992, 120).

The amateur detectives in this novel have enormous fun in their roles. Bill admits, “How could he help feeling that this was not real tragedy, but merely a jolly kind of detective game that he and Antony were playing?” (83). If you prefer mysteries that involve you emotionally, this one is not for you. Milne distances us from the reality of the crime by treating it like a puzzle or game to be solved. The narrator continually calls attention to the fictional nature of the text. But if you like a novel with an intellectual challenge, you will find it difficult to put down The Red House Mystery.

Milne, A. A. The Red House Mystery. London: Vintage Books, 1922.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.