When reviewing a book by AA Milne I was incredibly tempted to write a review of Winnie-the-Pooh Gets a Clue, a compilation featuring the sleuth bear's greatest moments, like solving The Mysterious Disappearance of Eeyore's Tail and following the forensic clues to track down the ferocious Heffalump, not to mention infiltrating the Poohsticks Gambling Circle. Of course, in his life as a Great Detective, Pooh was accompanied by his faithful Watson, Piglet. At least Piglet would have been Pooh's faithful biographer if either of them had known how to write.
On a more serious note, I recently read an article that made me consider the use of flippancy in post World War One literature. Detective heroes of this time frequently use facetiousness to camouflage feelings too dark and painful to be shared. The most striking example of this is Lord Peter Wimsey, but there are others whose war service is less frequently mentioned but, by the timing of their books, must have been affected by the War. I think that Anthony Gillingham may well fall into this category; certainly he has the requisite flippancy.
The Red House Mystery.
Mark Ablett was fond of entertaining guests at The Red House and was always very controlling of their behaviour and entertainment. It was a surprise when he announced one day at breakfast that his long-lost, n'er-do-well brother, Robert, was arriving unexpectedly from Australia. None of the guests or servants, apart from Mark's cousin, Matthew Cayley, had known that Mark had a brother. Cayley knew a great deal about Mark because when Cayley was thirteen he had been singled out from his impoverished family and selected by Mark, who paid for his education. Ten years later it had occurred to Mark that 'a suitably educated Matthew Cayley of twenty-three was felt by him to be a useful property for a man in his position; a man, that it to say, whose vanities left him so little time for his affairs.' For the last five years Cayley had been 'not quite secretary, not quite land agent, not quite business-adviser, not quite companion, but something of all four.'
Mark is concerned and unusually communicative about his brother's return after fifteen years, but he insists this guests carry out the planned programme for the day and visit the local golf links.
The main protagonist, Antony Gillingham, is introduced in A.A. Milne's wonderful style, as if the narrator is having a friendly conversation with the reader. '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.” Although many people's 'eyes betray them. Antony's never did. He had seen a good deal of the world with those eyes, though never a sailor.'
The comedy of manners when describing Antony's interaction with his father is reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse's Blandings comedies. When Antony, aged twenty-one, inherits his late mother's money: 'old Gillingham looked up from the “Stockbreeders Gazette” to ask him what he was going to do.
“See the world,” said Antony.
“Well send me a line from America, or wherever you get to.”
“Right,” said Antony.
Old Gillingham returned to his paper. Antony was a younger son, and, on the whole, not so interesting to his father as the cadets of certain other families; Champion Birket's, for instance. But then Champion Birket was the best Hereford bull he had ever bred.'
However Antony's interpretation of seeing the world was 'to see, not countries, but people; and to see them from as many angles as possible. There are all sorts in London if you know how to look for them.' And so Antony, cushioned by his £400 a year inheritance, worked at any job that took his fancy, however menial. 'He had no difficulty finding a new profession. Instead of experience and testimonials he offered his personality and a sporting bet. He would take no wages the first month, and- if he satisfied his employer- double wages the second. He always got his double wages.'
Antony met Bill Beverley when Antony was serving in a tobacconist's shop and they became friends. 'Beverley and he met again a little later at a restaurant. Both of them were in evening dress, but they did different things with their napkins, and Antony was the more polite of the two. However he still liked Bill.' When Antony finds himself in the vicinity of The Red House, where Bill is staying, it is natural for him to drop by to visit him.
Enter Antony Gillingham to The Red House, just after a shot rings out, to find Cayley banging on the locked door of the study and imploring his cousin Mark to open the door. When Antony and Cayley gain access to the study, they discover Robert Ablett lying on the floor, shot dead, while Mark has vanished.
The police, when they arrive, are not incompetent, but quite naturally they believe the simplest explanation, that Mark killed Robert and has fled to avoid punishment. Apart from some suspicion of the eccentric Mr Antony Gillingham, who turned up so conveniently, the police are sure that all they have to do is locate Mark Ablett and the case will be solved.
Antony thinks otherwise. He is happy to take up detection as his new profession and there are aspects of the case that he does not consider covered by the obvious explanation. Most of the other guests return to London but Bill stays on and Antony enlists him to help investigate:
'”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 – all that kind of thing? Because it all helps.”
“My dear Tony,” said Bill delightedly, “need you ask?”
Through a wonderful medley of stolid police detectives, false clues, ghost stories and secret tunnels, Antony and Bill investigate until they reach the truth behind the crime.
The Red House Mystery is a brilliant, early Golden Age mystery; alight with wit, comedy and shrewd characterisation, and yet with a sadness at the core of the crime. Antony Gillingham is an intriguing protagonist and his relationship with the younger, more naïve Bill Beverley works very well. The end of the book is set up for Antony to potentially investigate other crimes and it is interesting to speculate that if this had been the first in a series, Antony Gillingham could have been as iconic a Golden Age detective as Albert Campion, Peter Wimsey or Roderick Alleyn.
Publisher: Vintage Classics (6 Aug 2009)