One of the greatest joys of being a writer is reading what others have written – it’s a great way to improve your own style, by exploring the style of others…
One of the most interesting books I’ve read recently is a little known murder mystery by A. A. Milne (that’s right, the author of Winnie the Pooh!) The Red House Mystery was first published in 1922, to the surprise of Milne’s fans, who knew him better as a humorist for the magazine Punch. It was his only murder mystery, as four years later he would become world famous for his books about the ‘Bear of Very Little Brain’.
The story begins typically enough: rich eccentric and patron of the arts Mark Ablett has been hosting a weekend house party in the English countryside. We open on the servants discussing the sudden appearance of Mr Ablett’s ‘black sheep’ brother, Robert, when they are disturbed by a gunshot inside the house. Robert’s dead body is discovered in a ‘sealed room’, with doors and windows both locked from the inside. There is no sign of Mark.
This is where the story takes an unexpected turn. It turns out that three quarters of the characters have an unimpeachable alibi, as the guests all spent the day playing golf together at a nearby course. They are quickly eliminated from suspicion, and dispatched back to London. With the exception of the servants (who were together in the housekeeper’s room) and Mark’s cousin/secretary Matthew Cayley, the only people to remain at the red house are Antony Gillingham (who arrived at the house minutes after the murder to visit his friend Bill Beverly) and the aforementioned Bill. Antony and Bill jokingly take on the roles of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘Doctor Watson’ as they are determined to solve the crime.
In his introduction to the 1926 edition, Milne explained that he was passionate about detective stories, but had very firm ideas about the elements of a good detective story. To paraphrase, he preferred stories that.
- were written in plain English
- were not tangled up with romantic sub-plots
- have an ‘amateur’ criminal, who is captured by an ‘amateur’ detective
- the detective should have no more specialised knowledge of crime or forensics than the average reader
- the detective should share all his thoughts about the case as he goes along, not save all his theories for a dramatic ‘unravelling’ in the last chapter.
The Red House Mystery ticks all these boxes, and combined with the limited field of suspects the result was that I was able to solve the crime long before Antony and Bill did – something that almost never happens when I read mysteries by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie. Nevertheless it was an entertaining read, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes a classic whodunnit.