A. A. MILNE – The Red House Mystery. Methuen, UK, hardcover, 1922. E. P. Dutton, US, hardcover, 1922. Reprinted many times, including: Pocket #81, US, 1940; Dell, US, paperback, Murder Ink #7, 1980; Dover, US, trade paperback, 2000.

   Winnie the Pooh.

   There. Got that out of the way!

   This was A. A. Milne’s only detective novel, and it’s a good one. I don’t know how rich and famous he might have become as a mystery writer if he’d decided to continue on in that fashion, but at the end of this one, the detective of record, a fellow by the name of Antony Gillingham, sure sounds ready to tackle another one. Alas, he seems to have never gotten the chance.

   From the title, you might guess that The Red House Mystery is one of those oh so many country manor murder mysteries that took place in England between the wars. And you’d be correct, kind of. All of the guests, who were out golfing at the time of the murder, are hustled out of the house and back to London as soon as they get back.

   All but one, that is, a chap named Bill Beverley, the friend that Antony is stopping by to see and who is needed to testify at the inquest. And at a more propitious time Antony could not have chosen, right as Matthew Cayley, the live-in cousin of Mark Abbett, owner of the manor, is pounding at the door of the room where the latter has just received his scoundrel brother Robert from Australia.

   Together, after running around the house and coming in through a window, they find Robert dead, and Mark nowhere to be found. Having pleasantly already worked his way through several occupations, but now at loose ends, Antony decides to add amateur detective to his overflowing resume. Luckily he has a very willing Watson at hand, in the person of Bill, who thinks solving the mystery will be great fun, as indeed it is.

   The reference to the tales of Sherlock Holmes is a recurring one. Along the way they also come across lots of keys, locked cupboards and of all things, a secret passage, watch the police drag a pond, then spy on Cayley as he drops something into it that same night, something the two of them must later retrieve without being seen doing so, and more.

   What’s interesting is that until the very end, Antony is very willing to share his thoughts on the mystery with Bill as they are working on it, rather than being inscrutable and mysterious about it, as so many other fictional detectives do. Until, that is, just before the end. As the author, you can’t let the reader in on everything all too soon — can you? — nor Bill, either, for that matter.

   He’s a good sport about it, though, and so was I.

   Milne’s witty and essentially informal writing style helps this one go down awfully easily. The scheme behind the murder plot is a complicated one, but Gillingham makes good sense of it all in the end, and his explanation of how he worked the solution out holds all the water it needs to, which is always the icing on the cake for me.

   Which makes is all the more sad to read, when he says in the very last line, about the chances of doing it again, “I’m just getting the swing of it,” and know that there will never be another.