By A. A. Milne, Vintage Books, London 2009, first published by Methuen 1922
Reviewed by Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
‘Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.
Ask me a riddle and I reply:
Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.’
Our eight-year old daughter, who has appropriated my copy of The Complete Winnie the Pooh, likes chanting this. Especially at the breakfast table.
This is the kind of writing I associate with A. A. Milne; so I was completely surprised when on a more than usually hot day this June, Snehanshu flourished The Red House Mystery by Alan Alexander Milne; which he had discovered after a visit to one of our favourite book-shops. I opened the book in anticipation, since crime fiction is a favourite with us, particularly the more atmospheric and layered crime fiction that distinguishes good writing of the last century. The Red House Mystery (A Rediscovered Classic, as its cover proclaimed) was first published in 1922, ten years short of a century.
The opening page of the book marked Alan out as a kindred spirit. This is what he writes in the second paragraph of his Introduction to the 1926 edition of The Red House Mystery:
‘I have a passion for detective stories. Of beer an enthusiast has said that it could never be bad, but that some brands might be better than others; in the same spirit (if I may use the word), I approach every new detective story.’
Who would have suspected this of the creator of Eeyore and Kanga and Roo?
Indeed, the more I read of the preface, the more I looked forward to reading the story. As a reader of detective fiction, Milne (and this is where he strikes a common chord) candidly confesses that he is ‘not uncritical’. Does he live up to his own standards of what constitutes a good detective story? These are, in order of importance: the condition that the text must consist of commonly understood words of the English language; lack of unnecessary diversion from detection into romance; a preference for amateur rather than professional detectives or villains; honesty with the reader over the matter of clues; restraint in the strewing of red herrings; and the presence of a ‘friendly, human, likeable’ Watson to enunciate the questions that come to the reader’s mind, and give the detective an opportunity to share what comes to his.
The Red House does all this. Women and romance are not banished from the House, but do not intrude unnecessarily. The amateur detective has some good lines, and a keen mind. His Watson is energetic and well-meaning. Dialogue forms a fair part of the plot, which is therefore, easy to follow. In keeping with the presence of sufficient dialogue (reminiscent, in parts, of a play), there is detailed description of the setting. For architects, who constantly configure building-plans in their minds, this is particularly useful. The spatial arrangement of The Red House becomes fairly clear, as you read on.
Though detailed, the descriptions are not excessive. The style is a mix of ‘P. G. Wodehouse meets Arthur Conan Doyle’. There is neither too much levity nor too great a dose of atmosphere. The pace is fairly riveting. The murder happens practically at the beginning of the book, and the identity of the murderer manages to combine expectation with surprise, leaving readers with the pleasant feeling that their wits are almost as good as the detective’s. The number of characters introduced in the story is, thankfully, few. There is little chance of getting confused about the various inhabitants of The Red House, and the mystery is wrapped up in a neat 211 pages. On the con side, the author succeeds so well in making the murder – and the immediate actions and thoughts of the persons more nearly concerned with it – so inexplicable, that you wonder where this is leading to. But fairly soon, this gets resolved into a definite air of menace and mystery that makes one apprehensive of what will happen next, and therefore reluctant to shut the book. The setting of the murder, as much reveals the predictable lives of the early 20th century suburban and urban English with their rounds of golf, masquerades, tennis and drinks (all a bequest from the coffers of their colonies, as one cannot escape thinking) as well as the thwarted ambitions and excessive vanity that often lurked behind the tranquil surface of their bowling greens and schooled mannerisms.
The Red House is the only mystery Milne ever wrote, despite what appears to have been a well-received foray into the world of detective-fiction. The reason for this was the even more successful publication of a book of nursery rhymes that he wrote soon after, and the consequent ‘steady terrestrial demand for children’s books’ which, as he wrote, occupied him thereafter. All of this makes The Red House Mystery a rather unique addition to the library of anyone who likes a good detective story. And for those of you who are reading this review, and would not mind reading the entire book on screen, this is the link to it: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1872