A. A. Milne

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A. A. Milne Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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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...

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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 opensThe 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 causes no one undue anguish. The true victim, however, is not Robert Ablett but his brother Mark, disguised as Robert to play a vindictive prank on one of his houseguests. At first, Mark, the owner of the Red House, is seen as a model gentleman, but later he is revealed to have been a pompous, priggish cad who ordered and regulated the lives of his guests according to his whims—a vain man who had to be pampered and praised and who always sought glory for himself. Worst of all, he was a closet alcoholic, gradually showing the signs of dissipation. As a gentleman, he broke the social code for acceptable behavior. Like the blocking character of British comedy, he arranged a marriage with an innocent, but reluctant, young socialite. It was at this point that he was killed.

True to Milne’s code, the murderer is no professional, and even though he murders for what he believes to be a good reason, he is a man with a flaw. Cayley is Mark’s younger cousin; he was groomed by Mark, yet he appears worn and not as attractive as his cousin. When Mark refused to bail Cayley’s brother out of jail and Cayley’s mother died, Cayley never forgave him and plotted to destroy him. Cayley is a clever amateur who masterminds both an elaborate charade and a carefully worked-out cover-up by disguising Mark as Robert and then shooting him.

Nevertheless, Cayley is no match for Anthony Gillingham, Milne’s amateur sleuth. Anthony is an amiable gentleman, comfortable in the world of high society. Although thirty, he has no family ties and no romantic interests. A polite, genial man, he has none of the morose characteristics of Sherlock Holmes. His comments are always urbane, witty, and free from ironic overtones. He is a perfect detective for the English comic mystery. Like other detectives who would follow him, he is a jack-of-all-trades. A tobacconist, a writer, a valet, he moves freely from one profession to another, always accomplished at what he does and always seeking a new venture. Such a cosmopolitan with eclectic talents becomes the perfect English sleuth, personable, witty, and clever. Because Anthony simply drops in to see his friend William Beverly and is not a regular guest at the Red House, Milne sees him as the perfect detective. Anthony is able to maintain the cool detachment of an outsider, one who has no emotional ties to anyone in the house and who gets all of his information from carefully observed details. Because of his detachment, he is free of personal bias and can entertain any hypothesis regardless of how odious it might seem to the inhabitants of the Red House. Even though he is detained in the Red House until the coroner’s inquest, he makes sure that he keeps his room in the inn because he does not want to be an obligated guest in the house. Also, since he works solely on his own first impressions, he can take a clear, rational approach in weighing his facts.

Following the tradition of earlier detective stories and expanding on it, Milne realized the advantage of the amateur detective who could move freely, examining all aspects of the crime. The inept Inspector Birch, as a representative of the official police, becomes an almost farcical character. He always has an eye on the sensational solution, but he inevitably follows the obvious path, wasting his time charting railway schedules, documenting unreliable sightings of the murder suspect, and dragging the pond as a perfunctory part of routine procedure. He arrives at the most obvious solution: Mark murdered his brother Robert and fled.

Anthony, however, is not sure of anything. He always carefully weighs details, a skill that he practices almost unconsciously. Milne describes him as having “grey eyes which seem to be absorbing every detail.” Anthony notices on what side of the door keys are placed, which windows are left open, and how long it takes to run a certain distance. He is able to remember instantly that Mark rearranged his library or to recall Cayley’s shadow on the wall when Cayley left the scene of the crime. Like Poe’s Dupin, Anthony has a photographic memory that can unconsciously record details and store them away for later use. This uncanny ability is compared to the ability of Sherlock Holmes, who supposedly knew the number of steps to his club. Anthony, however, does not count the steps to his club. He simply conjures up a mental picture of himself walking to his club and automatically remembers the number of steps. Milne supplements his detective’s reasoning abilities with a highly active subconscious.

As for the Watson character that Milne finds essential to a good mystery, Bill Beverly serves the role perfectly. Following the Holmes tradition almost to the point of parody, Anthony tells Bill, “You’re the perfect Watson. . . . You take to it quite naturally. Properly speaking I oughtn’t to explain to the last chapter, but I always think that’s so unfair.” Bill is a model of the spry young man of English drawing-room comedy, always eager for a romp or some new adventure. Like an overzealous young boy waiting to hear a delicious secret, Bill carefully listens to Anthony’s deductions, yet he is no fool. As an accomplice, he is able to ad-lib a conversation with Anthony as Anthony walks away to locate a spy. Also, he is quick-witted enough to transmit a Morse code signal to Anthony when Anthony is in danger of being discovered in a secret passage. For Bill Beverly, just as for Milne, playing detective is an exciting game. At every new discovery he exclaims, “What fun” or “How exciting.”

True to his philosophy, Milne’s style is simple and terse, filled with tongue-in-cheek witticisms. Composed primarily of dialogue, his novel flows smoothly, combining light banter with clever, levelheaded prose. The conversation is glib and the retorts are facile. Anthony tells Bill: “One should modulate the voice, my dear William, while breathing gently from the hips. Thus one avoids the chest-notes which have betrayed many a secret. In other words, pass the toast.”

In The Red House Mystery, Milne combines some of the techniques of the Doyle/Poe detective story with the essential ingredients of the British comedy of manners to create a genteel aesthetics for the murder mystery. Milne’s novel, along with the English school of mystery writers, would come under fire from Raymond Chandler and the American school of mystery writers, who called for greater realism in detective fiction. Chandler criticized Milne for omitting exactly those details of criminology that Milne deliberately chose to overlook. Chandler found it implausible that Milne’s coroner did not attempt to identify the body or that no one tried to investigate the background of the deceased. As for Milne’s charming detective, Chandler states, “The English police seem to endure him with their customary stoicism; but I shudder to think of what the boys down at the Homicide Bureau in my city would do to him.”

Yet Milne was writing a different detective story for a different age. His novel stands in the vanguard of the English murder mystery of the Golden Age. According to George Grella, such novels demonstrate “the last identifiable place where traditional, genteel British fashions, assumptions, and methods triumph in the twentieth century novel.” In explaining the social phenomena behind this kind of novel John Patterson states:In an age of the Boom, the Great Depression, flappers, gangsterism, and the Fascist solution, it recalls the sober gentility and crude optimism of an earlier and more complacent generation; it asserts the triumph of a social order and decorum that have all but passed away.

The age of gentility never passed away for Milne, who saw the murder mystery as a delightful way to celebrate triviality in the midst of social stability.

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