Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Review - A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne
Published by: Vintage Books
Publication Date: April 6th, 1922
Format: Paperback, 211 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Antony Gillingham has a propensity to change jobs as it suits him. He is financially secure enough to take on any job that pleases him from tobacconist to waiter to experience more of the world; and then, when he's done, he tells his boss precisely what he thinks of him and goes onto his next adventure. The first time he met Bill Beverley he was working as a tobacconist, after their next encounter at a restaurant where each was there in a very different capacity, a friendship was formed, wherein Bill realized that the moniker madman perfectly suits Antony. Antony was following one of his whims when, seeing a train station he liked, he disembarked and decided to stay in the small town. He quickly finds out that he is not a mile away from the Red House, where his good friend Bill is currently staying.

Up at the Red House, it's owner Mark Ablett, with the help of his cousin come secretary, Cayley, is hosting a riotous house party. Bill is one of the number of guests, who range from quite fetching young ladies to a rather famous actress. Mark loves to have his life filled with the bright young things at his Red House. On the same day that Antony decided he liked the look of a train station, Mark informs his guests that his disreputable brother is about to make an appearance at the Red House. When Antony unexpectedly shows up he finds all the guests out and Cayley banging on the office door. What they find behind that door is the dead body of Mark's brother, Robert. Antony was planning on this being his vacation, but he feels a sudden change of occupation presenting itself... he's never been a detective. With a dead body and Mark missing, now might be the best opportunity he will ever get, with Bill being the Watson to his Holmes.   

After the last few books I read for this summer's reading spectacular, I was feeling a little burnt out. The detectives were a little too quirky or a little too self involved. Originally I had not planned on reading The Red House Mystery, but I was feeling this desperate need for something different. A mystery written by the man known more for Winnie-the-Pooh then locked room mysteries seemed like it would fit the bill. And indeed it was the perfect antidote to bring me around. The introduction alone wherein Milne deftly skewers the plot contrivances of his fellow mystery writers and promises to avoid all their pit falls was well worth the price of this book. Thankfully this tone carried throughout the book and made it a fast and fun read.

A.A. Milne goes about avoiding the faults of other writers by clearing the decks. Instead of extraneous characters out the wazoo, we get a sparse mystery about two guys humorously trying to find out how their suspect committed the crime. There are no lovestruck ninnies or plethora of suspicious servants. There are no last minute surprises that come out of nowhere. While other writers have done a quick nod and wink to Holmes and Watson, Milne goes all out and embraces this trope and has Antony and Bill openly referring to each other by their designated roles. Milne believes in the fact that a detective must Watsonize (I'm totally going to use this word all the time now), because without that, how are we, the reader, to be brought along and given the evidence to solve the crime? Therefore Bill becomes Watson, though a rather clever one, and Antony dons the famous mantle of Holmes... or at least he smokes a pipe a lot.

Yet, the question becomes, how does this book sustain itself? You have the obvious good guys and the obvious bad guy and lots of time spent trying to one up each other. Also, to be frank, the mystery, well, it's not overly obvious, but it is not that taxing on the little grey cells. So why does this book work then? Because of the characters. Antony and Bill's camaraderie and witty banter belongs to the works of Wodehouse. The two of them sitting on a bowling green thinking out all the facts before them is more interesting then all of Inspector Grant's internal monologues combined. This humor just gives the book such a freshness that it should be considered one of the staples of the Golden Age of Detection... it has a lot more going for it then some of those other books!


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