Even in childhood, my feelings toward Winnie-the-Pooh weren’t far from Dorothy Parker’s (“Tonstant Weader fwowed up”). When I discovered the existence of The Red House Mystery, A. A. Milne’s one detective novel, my head swam with visions of Death at Pooh Corner. I felt I would someday have to read it. I was certain when I realized that it was the novel that drove Raymond Chandler to write “The Simple Art of Murder”.
As Chandler pointed out in great detail, the plot doesn’t make much sense. Of course, the plots of most old mystery novels hinge on farfetched plans, weird coincidences, and generally extraordinarily unlikely events. Not being Raymond Chandler, I don’t usually notice. I couldn’t help noticing with The Red House Mystery. A Dorothy Sayers novel or an Agatha Christie novel is like a magic trick: the audience doesn’t see the magician pulling the card from his sleeve because he has something more interesting for everybody to look at. The audience doesn’t particularly want to see the card; it would spoil the show. A. A. Milne is like a stage magician who refuses to do the sleight of hand, perfunctorily walking through the trick as though he’s wondering what to have for lunch.
Take the cast. The stereotypical country house murder always happens amidst a houseful of stereotypical guests. The Red House Murder does not disappoint. Then they’re bundled back to London as soon as the body—the brother of the owner of the house, who is now missing—is discovered. For most of the book the only people around are the detective, his Watson, and the missing man’s secretary. The reader catches on pretty quickly that Milne isn’t going to do anything as clever as reveal the detective or the sidekick to be the killer, so the identity of the murderer is less than mysterious; the only questions are the motive, and how he pulled it off.
The motive is taken care of in a chapter. The inquest is in the book only to show the police being dense. Finding the method takes up most of the book and involves whole chapters of obsessing over a secret passage. The country house could be any country house in any novel, and the detective could be Psmith’s duller cousin. The Red House Mystery is a skeleton of a mystery, a mystery boiled down to the barest essentials, and clearing the meat from the bones reveals the core weirdness of the kind of traditional mysteries I love.
These mysteries take place in an alternate world where the police have trouble with complex murders and are happy to have an eccentric upper-class murder hobbyist around to solve them. Usually I accept this in the same way that I accept that the Discworld books take place on the back of a giant turtle. Usually these detectives are entertainingly eccentric, fundamentally decent if occasionally hard to get along with, and above all experts in their field. I can accept that the police turn to Lord Peter Wimsey in times of crisis, because Dorothy Sayers makes it clear from the start that he’s just that good. (Also, his brother-in-law is with Scotland Yard. Never underestimate the power of nepotism.)
I could not accept Antony Gillingham.
There are all sorts in London if you know how to look at them. So Antony looked at them—from various strange corners; from the view-point of the valet, the newspaper-reporter, the waiter, the shop-assistant. With the independence of 400 pounds a year behind him, he enjoyed it immensely. He never stayed long in one job, and generally closed his connection with it by telling his employer (contrary to all etiquette as understood between master and servant) exactly what he thought of him. He had no difficulty in finding a new profession. Instead of experience and testimonials he offered his personality and a sporting bet. He would take no wages the first month, and—if he satisfied his employer—double wages the second. He always got his double wages.
This is the point at which most readers will wish Antony Gillingham would get hit by a brick.
With all these professions under his belt, Antony doesn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be a detective as well. Nothing to it, right? He has enough sense of self-preservation to stay away from the police and not let on he’s investigating, so we don’t hear much of the authorities’ opinion on the matter… although, to Milne’s credit, the police don’t take this random, unproven upper-class twit for granted. There’s an interesting suggestion that Antony’s injecting himself into the investigation might backfire:
It would have interested Antony to know that, just at the time when he was feeling rather superior to the prejudiced inspector, the Inspector himself was letting his mind dwell lovingly upon the possibilities in connection with Mr. Gillingham. Was it only a coincidence that Mr. Gillingham had turned up just when he did? And Mr. Beverley’s curious answers when asked for some account of his friend. An assistant in a tobacconist’s, a waiter! An odd man, Mr. Gillingham, evidently. It might be as well to keep an eye on him.
But the rest of the novel keeps the police off in the distance, and it never comes to anything.
A lot of these detectives seem to have way too much fun with their murders. Writers have ways to take the sting out of this. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t notice how he comes off half the time, so we cut him some slack. Peter Wimsey is dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, so we know death affects him even if he doesn’t show it. The Gervase Fen novels cheerfully admit their hero’s a bit of a ghoul, and run with it. I don’t know what to think about Antony Gillingham and his faithful sidekick:
Bill brightened up suddenly.
“To-night,” he said. “I say, to-night’s going to be rather fun. How do we work it?”
Antony was silent for a little.
“Of course,” he said at last, “we ought to inform the police, so that they can come here and watch the pond to-night.”
“Of course,” grinned Bill.
“But I think that perhaps it is a little early to put our theories before them.”
“I think perhaps it is,” said Bill solemnly.
Antony looked up at him with a sudden smile.
“Bill, you old bounder.”
“Well, dash it, it’s our show. I don’t see why we shouldn’t get our little bit of fun out of it.”
This is two people getting ready to watch a man dump a dead body into a lake.
The book ends with the ever-popular “letting the killer do away with himself honorably” scene. Which is okay. it’s usually used when we’re supposed to have some sympathy for the culprit, and I guess we do in this case, inasmuch as he’s the only major character who doesn’t talk like he belongs in the Drones Club. But Antony and the police don’t have a working relationship. What on earth are they going to say when he hands over the killer’s confession? Or is he content to leave the world blissfully ignorant of what really happened?
I never think about this when I’m reading a good mystery. I never worry about any of these things when I’m reading a good mystery. I hope having watched The Red House Mystery strip the paint off the genre won’t make me look at Lord Peter funny the next time I pick up a Sayers.