Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Message in Red

"I perceive from the strawberry-mark on your shirt-front that you had strawberries for dessert. Holmes, you astonish me. Tut, tut, you know my methods. Where is the tobacco? The tobacco is in the Persian slipper. Can I leave my practice for a week? I can."
"The Red House Mystery"

Oh, poor review, I usually line up my reviews chronologically, but sometimes I have to shuffle, and sometimes things get pushed back, so I think this review was written nearly a year before its publication...

Antony Gillingham spends his time wandering the world to admire all the layers of society, helped by the fact that he is in fact quite well provided for. One day, he finds himself in the English countryside when he learns that nearby lies the Red House. House owner Mark Ablett is having a house party, and one of the guest being entertained there is Bill, an old friend of Athony's. Hoping to find Bill there, Antony makes his way to the Red House, but what he finds there is more than just a friend. A murder has just occured in Mark's office, and the victim is identified as Robert Ablett, brother of Mark and the black sheep of the family, who had only arrived at the Red House moments ago after spending fifteen years in Australia. Mark however has disappeared, and suspicions are soon aimed at the master of the Red House. Antony, assisted by his Watson Bill, however suspect that there might be more than meets the eye, and the duo decide to find out for themselves what happened in Mark's office in A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery (1922).

A.A. Milne is of course best known as the author behind beloved children's book series Winnie-the-Pooh. To be honest, I've never read the books, and I am more familiar with Disney's take on it. The Red House Mystery is Milne's only foray into the mystery genre, and dedicated to his father. I had heard good things about it, though I knew basically nothing about this novel when I first started on it besides the educated guess that it was unlikely we'd see Winnie here.

What made an impression at once was the overall pleasant writing style of Milne. The Red House Mystery is on the whole a pretty funny novel to read. Antony and Bill fulfill their respective roles as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson quite admirably and the chats they have as they try to figure out what's going in the Red House form a very strong backbone to the novel, that spur the reader to continue on. I had only planned to read a chapter or two before going to sleep, but by the time I noticed it, I had already finished the book in one go. Their dialogues and adventures are definitely the star of the novel.

As a straight mystery novel, The Red House Mystery is actually quite different from what I had expected. At the start of the novel, we're presented with the stereotypical English country house that is stately Ablett Manor: the Red House. We're also told about a house party with diverse guests who like to play golf and have tea and whatever people do at fancy English house parties. So what'd you expect to see is the Stereotypical English Countryhouse Murder Mystery right? What you think of whenever you think of Christie even though she didn't really write that many of those novels? In truth however, The Red House Mystery reads more like a novel released ten, twenty years earlier, as it is much closer in form to the Gothic novel than anything else. For example, the titular Red House plays a large role in the story, and Antony and Bill spend a lot of time figuring out the dark secrets it holds. The biggest secret they uncover is straight out of the Gothic novel, and while some people (Van Dine) wouldn't be too accepting of it, I'd say that the trope works well for The Red House Mystery, especially as it isn't the one-and-only-answer to every question.

There's also the matter of the incredibly small cast. The members of the house party are dangled in front of us at the start of the novel, but they are all sent away within a chapter of two, leaving us with the two detectives Antony and Bill, and one (1) suspect. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out whodunit. Most of the novel is more about Antony and Bill poking around and looking for clues without giving the game away to their one suspect, and again, this device to create tension, combined with the country house setting, makes the novel feel more like a Gothic thriller than post-1920s mystery fiction. Not that that's a bad thing (My first review of last year was about Edogawa's Yuureitou for example, and I loved that!), but it's perhaps not what some readers might be expecting. Note that despite the Gothic thriller mode, it's still a reasonably lighthearted story to read thanks to Antony and Bill's talks, as mentioned earlier.

As a mystery novel, The Red House Mystery is not particularly exciting. Perhaps the plot just aged badly, but most of the nefarious scheme of the culprit can already be guessed by the time the corpse is discovered, which is in the third chapter of twenty-two. The questions of who- and howdunit are thus not extremely exciting forces of propulsion for the plot. The hinting on the other hand is adequate, though early on, Milne uses a fairly cheap device: Antony apparently has a photographic memory, which allows him to remember insane details, but only when the plot wants him to. Tantei Gakuen Q showed how to use a character with photographic memory in a detective story in a much more natural way, without reducing it to a handy plot device that is only used when the writer doesn't know how to further the plot in a different manner.

The Wikipedia entry for The Red House Mystery refers to it as a "locked room whodunnit mystery" by the way, which it definitely is not. And no, I'm not saying it's not a whodunit because it is fairly obvious who is it. The murder in The Red House Mystery is simply not a locked room mystery and never once presented as such in the narrative itself. For some reason, collective memory seem to refer to it as one though. Ellery Queen's The Chinese Orange Mystery has the same problem by the way: it really isn't one, and if you do refer to it as one, you're actually creating a lot of problems for future readers, by creating certain expectations.

Soooo, A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery. All-time classic of mystery fiction? Nosirree. Looked purely at the mystery plot, it's simply too simple, too obvious. It does fit well with the Gothic thriller mode the story has adapted. But The Red House Mystery does provide an entertaining narrative though, not the least thanks to the duo of Athony and Bill, who play a splendid Holmes and Watson.

1 comment :

  1. But obviously the book has to have something special going for it. It has been in print for almost 100 years, and I am willing to bet, between hardcover and paperback editions, it has never been out of print in that entire time. There are at least 6 new editions of the book, probably because it now seems to be in the public domain. This can be said of very few books indeed.