I thought John's idea of reading obscure books by wellknown authors was a fantastic one, even more so when my hunt for a suitable work turned up a detective story by the writer of Winnie-the-Pooh. The introduction to my edition tells me that this is the only crime novel Milne wrote, suggesting he fancied trying out the genre and, having cracked it, turned his thoughts elsewhere.
This is a classic country house murder, with houseparty assembled, garrulous servants and a murder behind a locked door. At breakfast the owner of the house, Mark Ablett, patron of the arts, announces the arrival that day of his brother from Australia, a ne'er do well who left for the colonies many years previously. Sending his guests off to play golf, he awaits his brother's arrival; shortly afterwards, the silence of a sultry summer's afternoon is broken by a gunshot, and Mark's cousin Cayley can be heard hammering on the locked door demanding that it should be opened.
Into this scenes strolls Anthony Gillingham, "an attractive gentleman" and friend of Bill Beverley, one of the guests at the Red House. Gillingham is something of a paradox, a hardworking dilettante, rich enough to please himself, he has moved from job to job, applying his intelligence to whatever takes his fancy and gaining experience in the ways of the world. When he and Cayley discover the body of Mark's brother they also find that there is no sign of Mark himself – he has disappeared apparently without trace.
Anthony and his friend Bill – an eager young man – set to with the intention of solving the mystery, Anthony explaining that, if they are to do the job properly, Bill must fulfill the proper role:
"Are you prepared to be the complete Watson?" he asked.Now, if you don't like this sort of exchange, then The Red House Mystery is not for you. If Margery Allingham, Michael Innes or Dorothy Sayers are meat and drink to you, then you will love it for the little gem it is. As it says in the Introduction, it's as if Christopher Robin had grown up and become a detective. And Pooh has come along to help. I, of course, am desolated that Milne didn't start a series, as Tony and Bill could comfortably have taken their place alongside Lord Peter and Albert Campion.
"Watson?" [Bill] asked.
"Do-you-follow-me-Watson; that one. Are you prepared to have quite obvious things explained to you, to ask futile questions, to give me chances of scoring off you, to make brilliant discoveries of your own two or three days after I have made them myself – all that kind of thing? Because it all helps."
"My dear Tony," said Bill delightedly, "need you ask?" Antony said nothing and Bill went on happily to himself, "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."
Although The Red House Mystery is obscure it is by no means unobtainable. There is a nice edition by Dover Publications (I saw a copy in Waterstones recently so you won't have to order it from the US, as I did) and it is soon to be reissued by Vintage Classics. Do try it!
Cross-posted at Hey Jude, Don't Be So Obscure!