Monday, 4 August 2014

Golden Age of Mystery Writers: AA Milne (1882-1956)

When AA Milne is mentioned most people think of Winnie the Pooh, a few may think of his humorous writings for Punch, but like so many great writers of the time, Milne also had a hankering towards detective fiction. His country house, murder mystery, The Red House is a Golden Age classic and it is interesting to speculate what work might have been produced if he had continued in a fictional life of crime.
Also relevant in the year that marks the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War is Milne's War Poetry. He was a serving officer throughout the War, although invalided out of the trenches, and it is clear the horrors of war left its mark on him as it did in so many men who survived.

Alan Alexander Milne was born in Hampstead in 1882. He attended a small public school run by his father and, for a short while, was taught there by HG Wells who was a master at the school from 1889-1890. Later Milne attended Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics. While at Cambridge he edited and wrote for Granta, a student magazine. Many of the articles were a collaboration with his brother, Kenneth, and were published under their combined initials AKM. It was at this time that Milne's work was noticed by staff at the leading humorous magazine of the time, Punch, who offered Milne the opportunity to write for them.
As soon as he left Cambridge in 1903, Milne was employed to write humorous verse and whimsical essays for Punch. In 1906, still only aged twenty-four, he became an assistant editor. During the ten years after leaving university, Milne's literary output was impressive and diverse. He wrote plays, articles, poetry and short stories and his input helped to transform the somewhat ponderous humour that had become an intrinsic part of Punch. His career as a playwright was especially close to his heart, as he wished to emulate his hero JM Barrie.
In 1913 Milne married Dorothy “Daphne” de Sellincourt and they remained married until his death. In 1914 Milne's employment with Punch (although not his literary output) was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. Milne served as an officer in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment until trench fever caused him to be transferred to the Royal Corps of Signals. In the later years of the War he was recruited into Military Intelligence to write propaganda articles. Milne hated this job and felt deep shame at being employed to spread lies about German atrocities and to conceal corruption in Government, Industrialists profiting from the War and senior Military incompetence. He wrote several War Poems, all of them light in tone but which, in Milne's own whimsical manner, spoke out against the futility and exhaustion of War and the serving officers' longing for peace.

...'When the War is over and the Kaiser's out of print,
I'm going to buy some tortoises and watch the beggars sprint;
When the War is over and the sword at last we sheathe,
I'm going to keep a jelly-fish and listen to it breathe.

Oh, I'm tired of the noise and the turmoil of battle,
And I'm even upset by the lowing of cattle,
And the clang of the bluebells is death to my liver,
And the roar of the dandelion gives me a shiver,
And a glacier, in movement, is much too exciting,
And I'm nervous, when standing on one, of alighting--
Give me Peace; that is all, that is all that I seek ...
Say, starting on Saturday week.'
From A Full Heart first published in Punch and then part of the collection of poems, columns and short stories published as The Sunny Side (1921.)

Perhaps the most telling of Milne's war poems is OBE (Wartime), also published in The Sunny Side (1921), written just after the War, in which the Captain of Industry, the Lady of Pedigree who gives tea to soldiers, and the well-born young man who avoids the trenches and becomes secretary to an MP, all receive the OBE (Order of the British Empire); but:
'I had a friend; a friend, and he
Just held the line for you and me,
And kept the Germans from the sea,
And died--without the O.B.E._
It is clear that, in Milne's mind, receiving the OBE had become a mark of shame not honour.
It is interesting to note that in 1917 Milne was also writing an witty, wonderfully funny and remarkably silly, 'adult fairytale' titled Once on A Time. In his original introduction to the book, Milne wrote that he had written Once on a Time 'for grown-ups. More particularly for two grown-ups. My wife and myself.' This follows Milne's deeply held belief that the only reason for writing something is because the author wants to and that he/she will write the sort of book he/she wishes to read. Once on a Time remained one of Milne's personal favourites and a book he was always proud of.
The First World War had a profound effect on Milne. Although not an overtly religious man, he became a Pacifist and in 1934 published a denunciation of war, Peace With Honour.
In 1920 Milne wrote four screenplays for the newly-born British film industry. He worked for Minerva Films, which had been founded in 1920 by the actor Leslie Howard, whom Milne had met when Howard starred in one of his plays.
Another life changing event for Milne occurred in 1920: the birth of his son, Christopher Robin Milne. However, before the arrival in the world of Winne-the-Pooh, Milne wrote his first and only detective story, The Red House Mystery (1922.) The book follows the adventures of Antony Gillingham, a young man who has inherited enough money to see the world in his own idiosyncratic manner by taking numerous jobs, often of a menial nature, and working at them until he grows bored. When Antony drops in unannounced at the Red House, to visit a friend who is staying there, and walks straight into a 'locked room' murder mystery, it is natural that he decides his next career will be as a private detective.
Although it was published four years after the First World War, neither the War or its aftermath are mentioned in The Red House Mystery. However, Antony Gillingham seems to be very much a product of the War. He is intelligent and charming but rootless and disinclined to accept long-term commitment. He has an air of detachment about him and deals with even the most appalling situations by adopting a fa├žade of flippancy. 'It was not a pleasant sight, and with his horror Antony felt a sudden pity for the man beside him, and a sudden remorse for the careless, easy way in which he had treated the affair.' His friend, Bill Beverley, is a much simpler, warmer character than Antony and, although Antony will give Bill the physically undesirable work of diving into a cold, dirty pond, he will also protect him from discovering a second body, when Antony fears they have found its hiding place.
In the 1926 edition of The Red House Mystery, Milne wrote an entertaining and informative Introduction in which he explains his decision to write a detective story, 'I have a passion for detective stories.' He also describes the ingredients he plans to use. A fundamental requirement is that it should be written in plain English: 'It is, to me, a distressing thought that in nine-tenths of the detective stories of the world murderers are continually effecting egresses when they might just as easily go out.'
When it comes to mixing Love and Murder, Milne is determined to keep them both in their place. So much so that he dispatches Bill's love interest back to London, along with all the other female guests, before the body in the locked room is cold. It is part of Milne's brilliance that he weaves this into the plot and does not leave the reader with a vast cast of suspects. In his Introduction, Milne explains the banishing of the love interest in this way: 'A reader, all agog to know whether the white substance on the muffins was arsenic or face-powder, cannot be held up while Roland clasps Angela's hand 'a moment longer than the customary usages of society dictate.' Much might have happened in that moment, properly spent; footprints made or discovered; cigarette-ends picked up and put in envelopes. By all means let Roland have a book to himself in which to clasp anything he likes, but in the detective story he must attend strictly to business.'
Milne's third requirement is that his detective should be an amateur and that 'the detective should have no more special knowledge than the average reader.'
And last of all, the necessity for a detective's companion or foil. As so many Golden Age writers who followed him also felt, Milne required his Watson. 'Death to the author who keeps his unravelling for the last chapter, making all the other chapters but a prologue to a five-minute drama. This is no way to write a story. Let us know from chapter to chapter what the detective is thinking. For this he must watsonize or soliloquize; the one is merely a dialogue form of the other and, by that, more readable. A Watson then but not of necessity a fool of a Watson. A little slow let him be, as so many of us are, but friendly, human, likeable.'
The American critic, Alexander Woolcott described The Red House Mystery as 'one of the three best mystery stories of all time.' However, in The Simple Art of Murder (1944) Raymond Chandler dismissed that claim, criticising Milne's book for having an unlikely plot. Certainly Chandler's 'hard-boiled' style of crime fiction was very different from the English country house mysteries, which may have prejudiced him, but the conclusion of The Red House Mystery is no more implausible than many other books in its genre. In the context of Golden Age Mysteries, Milne supplies a fair number of clues and the final resolution makes sense.
It is indisputable that Milne was in the vanguard of Golden Age Fiction. Following in the footsteps of Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle, The Red House Mystery was published only two years after the first Agatha Christie 'country house' murder, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and, in tone, greatly resembles Christie's The Secret of Chimneys (1925),although in Milne's case,without the love interest. The Red House Mystery has the same stylish mix of murder and comedy of manners that Christie and Heyer both excelled in.
Towards the end of his Introduction, Milne states his reason for writing The Red House Mystery: 'The only excuse which I have yet discovered for writing anything is that I want to write it.' This seems to be the guiding light for all of Milne's literary career. When his agent and publisher heard that he wished to write a detective story they were appalled: he was a humorous writer and should stick to that. After the success of The Red House Mystery they were equally appalled when he said he was writing a book of nursery rhymes. Unfortunately for those of us who love detective fiction, Milne followed his determination to write what he wanted. Of course, that is fortunate for all of us who love Winnie-the-Pooh.
In 1924 Milne produced When We Were Very Young, a collection of children's poems. In 1925 Milne published a collection of children's short stories, Gallery of Children, and other short stories that later became incorporated into the Winnie-the-Pooh books. The adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh (originally Edward Bear) and his companions in the Hundred Acre Wood were inspired by the toys owned by Milne's son, Christopher Robin. (The name Winnie-the-Pooh came from a Canadian black bear which was used as a military mascot in the War and left to London Zoo.) The collection of short stories Winnie-the-Pooh was published in 1926 and The House at Pooh Corner in 1928. A second collection of children's poems, Now We Are Six, was published in 1927. The four books that made up The World of Pooh won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1958. They were all illustrated by E. H. Shepard.
In 1929 Milne adapted Kenneth Grahame's novel, The Wind In the Willows, for the stage. The title Toad of Toad Hall makes it clear that he found the more spiritual aspects of the novel impossible to dramatise for a young audience. Milne also published four plays during this time. In the light of later developments, it is ironic that he used his new prosperity to contribute a quarter of the costs of dramatising P. G. Wodehouse's A Damsel in Distress.
Milne became trapped by his success as a children's writer. The source of his inspiration, his son, was growing up and he had no desire to rework his children's stories and poems. Although America remained keener on Milne's adult work than Britain, by the late 1930s he was no longer a successful writer; even his first literary home, Punch, rejected him, although Methuen continued to publish his work.
During the Second World War, Milne served as a Captain of the Home Guard, although he insisted his troops called him 'Mr Milne', not 'Captain.' In 1940 he retracted some of the stance he had taken in Peace With Honour and wrote War With Honour. Although still a confirmed pacifist, Milne felt that Hitler was the embodiment of Evil and had to be stopped. With his knowledge of propaganda and the harm it could do, Milne was one of the foremost critics of his old friend, P. G. Wodehouse, who had been captured by the Nazis and, during the year of his internment, made radio broadcasts which were broadcast from Berlin. Wodehouse claimed that he had been making fun of the Germans but his claims were not well received by post-war Britain and Milne accused Wodehouse of committing an act of near treason by co-operating with Britain's enemies. Wodehouse retreated to live in America, where he had also been living during the First World War, while Milne was serving his country. He got his revenge on his old friend by writing spiteful, foolish parodies of the Christopher Robin poems and claiming that Milne was jealous of other writers.
In 1952 Milne had a stroke and was an invalid until his death in 1956, aged seventy-four. His literary legacy is incredibly diverse: poems, articles, plays and novels, four iconic children's books, featuring one of the best loved bears in the world, and a remarkable Golden Age detective novel, The Red House Mystery.

Tomorrow I will publish my review of The Red House Mystery.

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