I admit it: Recent events have driven me back to reading A.A. Milne. (After all, he was the one who coined the term (Sustaining Books.) But I'm not clear back to reading "Winnie-the-Pooh," yet, anyway. Since I love detective stories, I've turned to the one Milne wrote, "The Red House Mystery." (My copy is a Dover Publications reprint from 1998, listed as "an unabridged republication of the work first published in 1922 by E.P. Dutton & Company.")
The book is a mere 156 pages long -- a good evening at home or a bad bus ride or two will get you the whole story. Unlike so many other problems in this world, it will even get you a tidy solution -- which may be what keeps bringing me back to detective stories in general. (Watch this space for further analysis.)
For those who may never have read Milne, but only heard him, I should let you know that the Initial Capitals in my headline here are not a style change, just a quick tip of my editing cap to Pooh Bear, whose stories Milne filled with Capitals for Important Words. You won't need to keep up that style at "The Red House," but the voice is still recognizably, humorously Milne's.
For example, in Chapter II, "Mr. Gillingham Gets Out at the Wrong Station," we meet Antony Gillingham, a prominent character. Here's how he is introduced to us, after a slight reference to what else we know is happening:
"An attractive gentleman by the name of Antony Gillingham was handing up his ticket at Woodham station and asking the way to the village. Having received directions, he left his bag with the station-master and walked off leisurely. He is an important person to this story, so that it is as well we should know something about him before letting him loose in it. Let us stop him at the top of the hill on some excuse, and have a good look at him.
"The first thing we realize is that he is doing more of the looking than we are. Above a clean-cut, clean-shaven face, of the type usually associated with the Navy, he carries a pair of grey eyes which seem to be absorbing every detail of our person."
Gillingham does turn out to be important, but the main detective is his friend Bill Beverly. A comment in Douglas G. Greene's introduction to my copy notes that Milne biographer Thomas Burnett Swann "has suggested -- seriously, I think -- in 'A.A. Milne' (1971) that Bill Beverly resembles Pooh himself."
Seriously? That got my attention, of course. (Wink.)
But for 1922 readers, there were more famous and popular human characters to imitate -- so Beverly and Gillingham set about solving the story's case by imitating Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, respectively:
"Antony smoked thoughtfully for a little. Then he took his pipe out of his mouth and turned to his friend.
" 'Are you prepared to be the complete Watson?' he 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? Because it all helps.'
" 'My dear Tony,' said Bill delightedly, 'need you ask?' "
So Bill becomes Watson to Tony's Holmes, and the game's afoot. The problem is not a gory one; the story is the game (as it's referred to) of solving the case. If you're looking for something to sustain you amid the world's present condition, and to assure you that language and logic can help, you need look no further than "The Red House Mystery."
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Filed under: Sustaining Books