A. A. Milne Essay - Critical Essays

A. A. Milne Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

With the exception of a few short stories, The Red House Mystery is A. A. Milne’s only true venture into the detective and mystery genre, yet it had a great impact on the development of the English mystery novel between World War I and World War II, and it helped to shape the pattern of the tales of the Golden Age of the detective story. Alexander Woolcott called it the third-best mystery ever written. It also enjoyed immense popularity, going through twenty-two printings between 1922 and 1965. On the strength of this one novel, Milne was offered two thousand pounds for the serial rights to his next mystery novel; instead, he chose to write children’s literature.

Although Milne was influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, he established some rules of his own for the detective story. First, Milne believed that a detective story should be written in a plain, unadorned style, terse, witty, and readable. He did not want to force the reader to wade through Latinate words, technical jargon, and bombastic prose. In his opinion, there was no need for murderers to be “continually effecting egresses when they might just as easily go out.”

Second, Milne did not believe that romance should be mixed with detective fiction, because love scenes would distract the reader from focusing on the true business of the mystery novel, the finding of the clues. The romance should be a separate genre from the mystery. Third, Milne believed that in a murder mystery both the murderer and the detective should be amateurs. The murderer should not be a shrewd, professional killer, but a man who has the same abilities as the reader. Also, because he has no criminal record, “no dossier nor code index nor finger-print,” he can easily evade the police inspector but is fit prey for the amateur detective, who must not be a criminologist. Having no more of the complicated technology of scientific analysis at his disposal than does the ordinary reader, the amateur detective does not use blood analyses or ballistics tests but bases his investigation on “the light of cool inductive reasoning and the logic of stern remorseless facts.”

This is Milne’s own view of the “fairness doctrine.” The reader, like the detective, is in possession of all the essential facts of the case, but these are mixed in with a number of irrelevant facts. For example, “a scar on the nose of one of the guests might suggest nothing to a detective, but the explicit mention of it by the author gives it at once an importance out of all proportion to its face-value.” The joy of reading a mystery story is watching the detective carefully sort out the relevant from the irrelevant. To ensure this pleasure, the reader must see the detective at work; thus, the detective needs a foil, someone to whom he can reveal his deductions. A good mystery does not hide the detective’s thoughts from the reader until the end of the novel but shows the detective’s deductions piecemeal throughout the narrative. Finally, the Watson character should not be a complete fool, for he would lose the reader’s sympathy. He should be a little slower than the detective but an integral part of the story, “friendly, human, likable.”

The Red House Mystery

Using his own guidelines, Milne helped to amalgamate the English comedy of manners with the detective genre to create the comic mystery. Milne sets his story in the English country house, isolated from the bustle of the city. This setting would become the stock setting for the English murder mystery. The Red House provides a narrowly defined world with few characters, all from the upper echelons of society. This world that Milne creates is what W. H. Auden calls “The Great Good Place.” In analyzing the archetypal setting for the Golden Age detective story, Auden holds that “the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder.” Milne opens The Red House Mystery as though he were writing a pastoral idyll. On a warm summer day, the murmur of bees intermixes with the gentle cooing of pigeons. To emphasize the Edenic qualities of this environment, Milne writes, “From distant lawns came the whir of a mowing-machine, that most restful of all country sounds.” Life at the Red House is a paradise of ease and pleasure, filled with golf games and garden parties—a fairy-tale world where a ditch is called a moat; a shed, a summer house; and a pond, a lake. It is a “delightful house” with “opportunities for every game or sport that has been invented.” It is a perfect world for high comedy, populated by upper-class comic characters who will reappear time and time again in the classic English mystery story. There is a gruff old major nursing his war wounds, a professional actress given to histrionics, a would-be writer who never writes, and a snoopy maid who overhears private conversations. This ideal world, however, is jolted by a gunshot and a corpse.

At this point, the victim takes center stage. Like most mystery writers, Milne creates a victim who is worthy of his fate. Yet Milne complicates the role of the victim. First, the false victim is Robert Ablett, the black sheep of the family who has always caused trouble and who was shipped off to Australia. He is depicted as a gruff, intimidating man, constantly pressuring his brother Mark for money. Portrayed as a callous and brutal man, he is seen as an outsider whose apparent intrusion into the tranquil world of the Red House is viewed as an invasion. Thus, his alleged murder...

(The entire section is 2266 words.)