When someone is extremely famous for a particular thing, the rest of their work tends to be a little overlooked.
I mean everyone has heard of A A Milne right? Creator of Winnie the Pooh and writer of some beautiful poems in When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six.
But what did he do with the rest of his life? Well, I can tell you he was pretty damn busy.
In addition to those two Winnie the Pooh books and the two books of children’s poems for which he is so famous, Milne produced seven adult novels, five non-fiction books, some book length articles for the magazine Punch, two other story collections for kids, three adult story collections, three other poetry collections and no less than 38 plays and screenplays… and I hadn’t heard of any of them.
Until, that is, I read The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo last year. Yokomizo is one of Japan’s greatest crime writers and in this book his narrator talks about his admiration for fictional amateur detective Antony Gillingham from The Red House Mystery by A A Milne, which piqued my interest so I searched for it, found it on Amazon, bought it and it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it.
This is one of Milne’s only mystery novels, a genre he is reported to have enjoyed. When it was published in 1922 it was a great success, although Raymond Chandler writing 20-odd years later didn’t rate it very highly.
But who cares what Raymond Chandler thinks? Not I. I loved this book and it’s gentle and amusing charm.
We are in a country house owned by Mark Ablett who has guests staying including a widow, her daughter, an actress, a retired major and a young man called Bill Beverley. Also present is Mark’s cousin Matthew Cayley, who works as his secretary, and some domestic and gardening staff.
Mark’s black sheep brother Robert arrives from Australia and is shot dead within minutes of his arrival. Mark disappears off the face of the earth. Tony Gillingham instantly enters stage left, a stranger to the whole household except his friend Bill Beverley whom he is visiting unannounced because he happens to be staying in the neighbouring village.
Under the circumstances, Tony decides to stay and play amateur sleuth. More specifically he decides to play Sherlock Holmes and makes Beverley pretend to be his Dr Watson for the duration of the case.
Now let me warn you, you will not be able to rip this book apart and deduce it is the best murder mystery ever written. It isn’t. But it has that quintessential 1920s English charm, a light touch and it’s funny. I love the way Gillingham pretends to be Sherlock Holmes and insists Beverley pretends to be Watson.
It’s not remotely hard-hitting nor a great page turner. This is nostalgia murder mystery and I think it’s charming.
There’s a ghost, a hidden passage, bumbling police officers and some thwarted love affairs in a setting which boasts a large country house complete with lake, bowling green and tennis courts set in parkland.
It is delicious and I loved it.