So when I heard of Milne's book The Red House Mystery, I put it on hold right away, and gave it a try.
How would the author of Pooh handle a murder mystery?
Antony Gillingham is on a bit of a holiday, and on a whim decides to stop to see an old friend, Bill Beverley. Beverley is staying at a place called the Red House, the home of Mark Ablett, whose coveted invitations bring many visitors to enjoy the sports and jolly good times to be found under his hospitality.
But when Antony Gillingham walks up the drive to this popular place, he hears a loud banging, and someone crying "Open the door! Open the door!" And he steps straight into a locked room murder scene.
Mark Ablett, Beverley's host, has disappeared, and a man is lying dead on his study room floor. The man is Mark's disgraced brother from Australia who had come to see him that morning. Caley, Ablett's secretary, said that Mark went in and then a shot was fired, and he never came back out again.
Since Gillingham helped discover the body, he takes rather a proprietary interest in the solution, and when the inspector takes the obvious line of reasoning that Mark Ablett killed his brother, and ran away to flee the consequences of the law, Gillingham isn't so sure. He signs up his friend Beverley to be his trusty Watson, and sets off on an exploration of secret passageways, lakelets, croquet boxes, and libraries in his attempt to pin guilt on the man who he suspects is the real culprit.
As the investigation unwinds, Gillingham fears that there may not have been just one murder, but a second one that no one has any idea about.
What I find fascinating about this mystery is that Milne didn't write it just to get published. His father loved a good old-fashioned whodunnit, and Milne developed this story just to give delight to him. His beginning dedication reads:
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 to write you one. Here it is: with more gratitude and affection than I can well put down here. A.A.M.
That was a very sweet way to start off a murder mystery. :)
I've read a great many mysteries, and Milne did a fantastic job plotting-wise. I could figure it out along with the characters, but there were still a few surprises that Milne pulled which fit in perfectly and rationally--the delightful, head-smacking twists that every mystery worth its salt incorporates into the solution. Gillingham's step-by-step explanations to Beverley were interesting, funny, and logical (In spite of his jabs at Sherlock Holmes. Come on, people, why criticize the greatest detective ever?)
Milne doesn't mess around when he writes a murder mystery. It has all his charm and freshness in the form of his amateur sleuths, but there's a streak of macabre grimness winding throughout it that gives the investigation all the frightening suspense of a proper mystery novel.
In spite of its being Milne, there were a couple of things that I didn't find particularly enjoyable. Beverley was always using profanity in the good-natured, joking sort of way, and he and Gillingham had some rather peppered conversation between them, which spoiled the story just a little for me. There are books that only have a few instances, but this book has more than a few, and there's no escaping it. So be forewarned.
The other thing I found a little unsettling was Milne's creep factor. There are books with more than his, certainly, but there were a few late-night scenes that I read a little too close to bedtime. By the end of the book the murderer was too easily sympathized with. For writing a cliché amateur detective plot, and even a cliché reason for the whole murder, Milne managed to put in--whether purposefully or accidentally--a murderer who was the underdog in the whole thing. That's a bit dangerous, because we always tend to sympathize with the underdogs, and murderers as a general rule should not be sympathized with. Deal breaker? Oh, no, it wasn't that bad. But just something to keep in mind as you read.
In this story you won't find situational ethics, so that's wonderful. It's a good, clean story, barring language, and the cast of characters is well put together. From the good-natured Beverley to the pert housemaid Ella to the perspicacious Antony Gillingham, they're all well done. The characters were real and funny; just as well personalized as Tigger and Rabbit and Eeyore in Milne's other stories.
Altogether, unless I could procure my own copy and white-out some of Beverley's penchant for spicing up the moment with a profanity, I probably won't read this book again. I find it much pleasanter to read when I don't have that kind of stuff to wade through. But the mystery was well-written, and gives good credit to Milne's prowess as a writer. It was an intriguing little jaunt into one of his adult books, and had a mix of funny parts that sounded just like what I knew of him, and elements that I would not have expected from the author of well known children's literature.
He can knock up a pretty decent mystery. But Winnie the Pooh is where he really shines.