Winnie the Pooh and murder too?
Well, not exactly. But the author of that children's classic, Winnie the Pooh, did write a successful murder mystery called The Red House Mystery, originally published in 1922. There are many - myself included - who enjoy it; there are others who argue quite vehemently that it has outlived its useful life expectancy. Among those, I must admit, is Raymond Chandler, who devoted several pages in his essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," to explaining why he disliked it. My own audio review, originally posted nearly a full decade ago, is, I think, more charitable, as I found a lot to enjoy in the book. Here's my original review - as usual, slightly edited:
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A. A. Milne is known almost exclusively today for his series of books about Winnie the Pooh. They are well-written books, intended for children and for the adults who love them – and, I hope, read to them.
But in 1922, Milne wrote a mystery novel – let me read you the dedication, which is to his father:
"My dear father. Like all really nice people, you have a weakness for detective stories, and feel that there are not enough of them. So, after all that you have done for me, the least that I can do for you is write you one. Here it is: with more gratitude and affection than I can well put down here."
That’s a pleasant touch – and I do have to agree with him that all really nice people have a weakness for detective stories.
Anyway, it is called The Red House Mystery, and it has held up astonishingly well for the past 95 years.
The country gentleman who owns the Red House has assembled some guests for a house party – and those of us who enjoy these mysteries will recognize that setup instantly. Suddenly, he receives a visit from a brother returning from Australia – a man who, we are told, was very much the black sheep of the family. There is a shot. When people manage to get into the locked room where the shot was fired, they find the Australian brother has been murdered – and the Red House’s owner is missing.
Enter the police, of course – and also our detective, a young man named Antony Gillingham. In 1922 England, Gillingham was what we today would probably consider a woefully unemployed member of the upper class. Milne is particularly good at describing and defining his characters. Here is some of what he says about Antony Gillingham, as he introduces him to us. After describing his eyes – eyes that, we are told, seem to be absorbing every detail – Milne goes on with his description this way:
He had seen a good deal of the world with those eyes, though never as a sailor. When at the age of twenty-one he came into his mother’s money, 400 pounds a year, old Gillingham looked up from the “Stockbreeders’ Gazette” to ask him what he was going to do.
“See the world,” said Antony.
“Well, send me a line from America, or wherever you get to.”
“Right,” said Antony.
Old Gillingham returned to his paper. Antony was a younger son, and, on the whole, not so interesting to his father as the cadets of certain other families; Champion Birket’s, for instance. But, then, Champion Birket was the best Hereford bull he had ever bred.
Antony, however, had no intention of going further away than London. His idea of seeing the world was to see, not countries, but people; and to see them from as many angles as possible…
And Milne goes on, at some length. He gives us a very detailed portrait of Antony, and does so in fairly easy and straightforward prose. As anyone who has read the original Winnie-the-Pooh will surely know, Milne’s prose is very relaxed, but quite witty and to the point – and it is so in The Red House Mystery as well.
Antony becomes involved in the case because one of his friends has been staying at the Red House. Antony persuades him to act as his Watson, assisting him in his investigation. He is also useful in asking questions which permit Antony to show off his skills.
I should note that the police detective, Inspector Birch, is presented as a fairly dependable, if not overly imaginative, investigator. As with most police officers in detective stories of that era, he is very happy to have the assistance of Antony Gillingham. And, in fact, the story proves to be a good deal more complicated than it had seemed at first. Antony soon finds himself embroiled in a plot that has a great many twists and turns before it is finally resolved. All of this is done quite entertainingly. Personally, I find Antony’s sidekick to be a bit fatuous – something that seems to go along with the position for most Watsons in these stories. There’s a bit too much of the “I say, isn’t this smashing!” mindset for my taste. But if you’re willing to overlook that – and it’s a fairly minor point – then The Red House Mystery can be a lot of fun.
It’s worth noting again that Milne never wrote another mystery. He did write other novels and plays, and a fair amount of poetry. But he is remembered today primarily for Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, which were written primarily for children. I would argue that adult readers would also find The Red House Mystery very much worth reading. It is a clever puzzle, written with a very light touch, and a pleasant way to pass a few hours.
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If you would like to listen to the original audio review, click here.
Next week: Hallowe'en Party, by Agatha Christie.