Book 51: THE RED HOUSE MYSTERY by A.A. Milne, isbn 9780099521273, 211 pages, Vintage UK (Random House), $7.95
The Premise: (from the back cover) Far from the gentle slopes of the Hundred Acre Wood lies The Red House, the setting for A.A. Milne's only detective story, where secret passages, uninvited guests, a sinister valet and a puzzling murder lay the foundations for a classic crime caper. When the local police prove baffled, it is up to a gueset at a local inn to appoint himself "Sherlock Holmes" and together with his friend and loyal "Watson," delve deeper into the mysteries of the dead man. The Red House Mystery is a lost gem from a time before Tigger and a perfectly crafted whodunnit with witty dialogue, deft plotting and a most curious cast of characters.
My Rating: 3 stars
My Thoughts: I wanted to enjoy this a lot more than I did. Sadly, I don't think it quite delivers on the promises of the back-cover copy. Which doesn't make it a bad story. There is a clever set-up, and a clever method of getting "Holmes," aka Anthony Gillingham, knee-deep in the action while remaining an outsider with an impartial eye to the murder. Milne lays out the hints all along the way, so this really is a fair-play mystery, more Agatha Christie than Conan Doyle. And there is a lot of oh-so-clever banter that makes me wonder why this story has never been adapted by the BBC/PBS (and a quick scan of IMDB tells me it hasn't), being a classic "drawing room cozy mystery."
I liked the characters of Anthony Gillingham and Bill Beverley ("Holmes" and "Watson," as they style themselves) enough that part of me wishes Milne had written further books with them. But part of me is also glad he didn't, as I think he'd have to have gone to more and more ridiculous lengths to get them involved in mysteries where they would remain the impartial outsiders unless he went the length of having them set themselves up as rivals to Holmes and Watson. They don't quite have the feel of a Hercule Poirot or Jessica Fletcher where adventures would just fall into their laps.
The downside to the book is that Milne dispenses with "curious cast of characters" pretty quickly. Within the first few chapters the cast is pared down to Gillingham, Beverley, the "sinister valet," the cop, and the missing man at the center of the murder. The other house-guests and the house-staff are shuttled off-stage quickly, part of Milne's wish to not have too many red herrings to distract the reader. That cuts down on the mystery as well. For me, the book quickly became a case not of "whodunnit" so much as "how-and-why-dunnit."