Sunday, 3 January 2010

Book Review #2 ; A A Milne - The Red House Mystery

A A Milne`s The Red House Mystery was first published in 1922, by Methuen in the UK and Dutton in the US. In 1926 the author added an introduction, which normally appears in editions produced after that date. My copy (pictured) was published by a company called The Library Press Ltd in their Minerva Editions series. It is undated but contains the 1926 introduction and I would guess that it dates from the `20s/`30s.

The book was ( is ?) hugely popular and is held by many to be a classic of `Golden Age`  detective fiction. At the time Milne was a successful novelist, playwright and occasional writer of non-fiction who had been both  a columnist and assistant editor for Punch magazine and was credited with having rescued that periodical from a period of decline. His career as a poet and writer of children`s stories had not yet begun.

Although I`ve owned a copy for many years, I  read it  for the first time only recently. The reason is that in those pre-internet days I ordered the book from a booksellers` mail order catalogue, paying by cheque. Knowing that it would probably take two-three weeks to arrive, I started reading some Raymend Chandler, a volume including his essay The Simple Art of Murder. I like Chandler, but I`ve never quite forgiven the bugger for giving away the plot of The Red House Mystery in that essay, so that I knew the solution to the case before my copy even arrived !

The story itself is a variation on the `locked room mystery` very popular at the time. A shot rings out in an English country house. A man is found dead in a locked  room used by the householder as an office and is identified by a member of staff as Robert Ablett, brother of the householder, Mark Ablett. Mark Ablett
himself is nowhere to be found and is presumed to have absconded. As the Police begin their investigation two chance acquaintances, visitors to the house,decide to mount their own separate inquiry.

The book will appear to some to be very dated. The style of writing is deceptively light and our two unlikely heroes, the naive and boyishly enthusiastic Bill and the more worldly and astute Antony, converse in the witty banter often encountered in the literature of the period. Generally, the effect is quite agreeable, though now and again the dialogue can set your teeth on edge. The author avoids the lack of tension that could result from an excess of frothiness by having Antony troubled by a sense of foreboding as the case draws towards its` conclusion.

What is very noticeable to the modern reader is that after the initial murder, not much actually happens. The murderer is completely unaware of the efforts of our amateur sleuths for most of the book, so the author relies entirely on Bill and Antony`s attempts to unravel the puzzle to keep the readers` interest. A dangerous strategy, but for me it works.

A purist might argue that the author does not obey the `Fair Play` rule. Lovers of the Golden Age whodunnit sometimes argue that the eventual solution to the case should rest on facts available to the reader before the case is solved. In this case, the eventual solution rests on facts not known to the reader, the two amateur detectives or the Police. Generally, this introduction of new facts after the event can be annoying, but in this particular instance I don`t feel it harms the story too much.

Overall, if you like an intelligently written, well plotted English country house mystery written in an engaging stlye by a writer noted for his wit and versatility and can overlook the implausibility inherent in the genre, you should find this book contains enough red herrings to make a satisfying literary meal !

Footnote - at time of writing we don`t have a copy of this book to sell, I`m just reviewing it for recreational purposes and in case anyone`s interested. You should easily find an affordable copy online. I`d suggest checking out and to give yourself the widest choice of editions and compare prices.

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