The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne is a rather famous mystery novel by the well-known author of Winnie The Pooh. It was first published in 1922. I got my hardback copy back in 2018 and have been sluggish about reading it. The cover design on the jacket is unremarkable and the first chapter is a wee bit difficult to read through unless you are in a patient mood. Once one gets beyond the first three chapters, though, the pages really do fly.
At first the novel really does seem precisely like some writing exercise. It seems as if it is an exercise in writing a whodunit mystery by a competent and, even, strong author. However, it does not immediately present as something engaging and exciting. The novel is very British and the setting is the not-quite-manor home of a man who is a bit of a fop and a dandy. Truthfully, until I got a ways into the story, I really was doubting what all the fuss and praise for this novel were about. I am really glad that I finally set myself to reading the whole thing and I enjoyed it quite a bit, though I am not sure it qualifies as one of the best I have ever read. It did improve as I read along and I can recommend it to any general reader who enjoys vintage British mystery stories.
The characters are a bit unbelievable – particularly the four main characters. Everything is such a setup for the story that I felt Milne might have been a bit lazy. It is not that the setting and characters do not work, it is just that it seems too easy. In other words, it feels like the author wants to write a murder mystery and wants to jump to the heart of the situation without any development or building as to why or whom or how. Just hurry up and get to the detecting parts of the thing.
In a lot of ways Antony, the main character, is too good to be true. He’s too smart, too slick, too convenient, too casual, too friendly, too forgiving, too honest. I expect every reader likes him a whole lot and wants him to be safe and succeed and win the day. However, if I am being honest, the character is a little too cool.
It is fun to follow his detecting. Antony is so smart about everything. He is good-natured and a real pal. So, as he runs through the various scenarios and investigates while he enjoys plenty of relaxation, the reader gets a good schooling on how to run a proper vintage British amateur locked-room murder mystery. An official Inspector is, of course, called in to the crime scene, however, his deductions are not really a part of the story and only become interesting at the inquest.
As if Antony’s skills and personality were not enough, he gets his own “Watson” in this story. A younger lad named William Beverley who is willing to play the Watson rôle because he loves the fun and excitement of the whole thing. He keeps Antony company, does a bit of the dirty work, and provides a little comic relief. Bill Beverley is just the sort of harmless and helpful friend you would want to help you solve your murder mystery.
The murder is not very horrifying. It takes place in the office behind closed doors. The police are notified. Houseguests are sent away and “witnesses” are left to entertain themselves. The detecting takes place amidst dinners, pipe smoking, and leisurely walks. Eventually the frustrations and/or lack of possible solutions narrows the options to the point where the story must end. There can be nothing further to investigate.
I enjoyed the novel because it is a little bit of a writing exercise. I also enjoyed the camaraderie and fun spirit of the characters. They poke fun at Sherlock and Watson, they tease detective novels, and they sport about the manor home. The story itself is grounded and reasonable. There is a lot to like in the novel and I think it is good to have read it, but it will not remain in my collection because I doubt I would read it again.