Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Gladys Mitchell (1901-1983)

Gladys Mitchell was born in Cowley, Oxford.  Her father was a market gardener of Scottish descent.  In 1909 her family moved to Middlesex, North London and she attended the Rothschild School, Brentford, and the Green School.  She continued her education at Goldsmiths' College, from which she gained a teaching qualification and, a few years later, University College, London, where she earned an extra-mural diploma in European history.
From her graduation in 1921 until 1950, Mitchell continued to work as a teacher of English, history and games in a variety of schools.  In 1950 she retired.  However, three years later, the officials of the Matthew Arnold School invited Mitchell to judge a school gymnastics competition and give a speech.  Immediately after this, the headmistress asked Mitchell to leave retirement and join her staff.  Mitchell agreed and returned to teaching until her second retirement in 1961. 
When asked in an interview why she had agreed to return to teaching, Mitchell admitted that she had missed the stimulus and discipline of 'the day job' but also indicated that she found the money acceptable, as her writing was not very lucrative.
While working as a teacher, Mitchell lived in Brentford and Ealing but, in 1961, she retired to Corfe Mullen in Dorset.  Here she pursued her interest in studying medieval architecture and pre-historic sites and continued to explore her fascination with Freudian psychology and with witchcraft.  Mitchell said that her interest in witchcraft was encouraged by her friend Helen Simpson, an Australian born detective writer who died of cancer during the Second World War. Along with her literary commendations, Mitchell also received membership in the British Olympic Association, a tribute to her lifelong interest in athletics.
Throughout her adult life, even while teaching full-time, Mitchell was a prolific writer.  She published 77 adult novels; 66 featuring Mrs Bradley; 5 under the pseudonym Stephen Hockaby and 6 under the pseudonym Malcolm Torrie and 9 children's novels published under her own name.  Mitchell's interests appear in many of her novels: the detective she created under the pseudonym Malcolm Torrie is Timothy Herring, an architect concerned with the restoration of historic buildings; the supernatural, witchcraft and Freudian psychology are all central to the Mrs Bradley books.  Mitchell continued writing until her death in 1983, aged eighty-two.  Her first published novel was Speedy Death (1929), which introduced Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, who featured in another 65 of Mitchell's novels.
Mrs Bradley is a remarkable creation.  She is a remarkably ugly woman: 'a black-eyed, beaky-mouthed, yellow-skinned, reptilian old lady,' (Tom Brown's Body, 1949.)  She has a remarkably beautiful speaking voice but is prone to uttering blood-chilling cackles and screeches.  'She cackled harshly when William was introduced and chucked him under the chin, and then squealed like a macaw that's having its tail pulled.'  And her dress sense is appalling: '… her evening dress was of bright blue velvet and she was wearing over it a little coatee... of sulphur and orange.'  (The Saltmarsh Murders 1932.)  In ironical contrast to Christie's Miss Marple and Wentworth's Miss Silver, when she knits it is not delicate fluffy baby clothes but luridly coloured garments for herself.  Mrs Bradley is a well-known author and psychoanalyst, who bases her work on Freud.  She is a woman of unconventional lifestyle and original views and when asked how she 'rates' murder amongst the more heinous crimes, replies that she places it below rape and above grand larceny.  She is interested in witchcraft but she is cynical and analytical in every fibre of her being.  '”Mrs Harries is, of course, a survival,” he said.  “On the contrary, she is a charlatan,” said Mrs Bradley firmly.'  (Tom Brown's Body, 1949.)
For a character who featured in 66 books, Mrs Bradley is remarkably elusive.  It is impossible to know what she really thinks; she is ruthless but at other times kind, and her description of her personal history alters radically.  It is never totally clear how many children Mrs Bradley has or how many times she has been married.  Unlike other writers of long series, one doesn't get the impression Mitchell has made a mistake, rather that she is sharing Mrs Bradley's outrageous sense of mischief and the pleasure of never being totally known: 
'”Oh, you have sons in the plural?  I understood you had only one. The famous K.C.,” said Miss Loveday.
“Ferdinand?  He is my son by my first husband, who was of French and Spanish descent.  I have other sons, but I much prefer my nephews.  Ferdinand and I are unlike, and get on well.  He reminds me, in many ways, of his father, and that is welcome, since otherwise I might have forgotten what his father was like.  It is some time since we were married,” said Mrs Bradley alarmingly.'
  (Tom Brown's Body, 1949.)
Earlier in The Saltmarsh Murders, Mrs Bradley gives us more information about her son and her first husband:
'”By the way I have briefed Ferdinand Lestrange for the defence.”
“What, Sir Ferdinand?” I gasped, thinking, of course, of the fees.
“Yes, my son by my first husband,” said this remarkable woman.  “A clever boy.  Nearly as clever as his mother, and quite as unscrupulous as his father, who cornered wheat on Wall Street and then slipped up and all the wheat fell on him!”
She screamed with Satanic mirth and poked me in the ribs.'

Despite this apparent indifference to family ties, Mrs Bradley is depicted as an attentive grandmother, whose grandson Derek is eager to spend time with her, as is shown in When Last I Died (1941.)  Although it does seem odd to hear the redoubtable Mrs Bradley called 'Gran.'   
Cynical humour is the essence of Mrs Bradley's character and the reason she lights up the books as soon as she appears.  But there is something alarming about Mrs Bradley too.  There is an omniscient, untouchable air about her, as if she were some mythical creature from Greek legend.  This impression is increased by the fact that she is untouched by Time.  She is an old woman at the start of the series and suffers no diminution of her considerable powers over fifty years later in the final book to be published, The Crozier Pharaohs, published a year after Mitchell's death in 1984.)
Mrs Bradley does have regular companions, most notably her unshakeable chauffeur, George, and her secretary, Laura Menzies.  Laura became so prominent in the books that Philip Larkin, a great fan of Mitchell, expressed the fear that Laura was going to take over from Mrs Bradley.  However, when interviewed about this, Mitchell insisted that Laura was merely there in the role of Mrs Bradley's 'Watson'.
 Mitchell was an early member of the Detection Club and, in company with Christie and Sayers, was regarded as one of the 'Big Three' women detective writers.  The poet Philip Larkin was one of her fans and referred to her as ‘The Great Gladys'.
It is hard to know why someone whose star had burned so brightly should now be relatively little known.  It may be that her originality and unconventionality was the reason.  She frequently mocked the conventions of the mystery genre.  The Saltmarsh Murders (1932) is a very funny book but it is undeniably a spoof on such Christie novels as The Murder in the Vicarage and The Body in the Library.  Mitchell's Mrs Bradley was not an easy character to fit into the stereotypical detective mode and her books are too unique to fit easily into a pattern. 
When considering Mitchell in company with Christie or Sayers, it would be great fun to turn Mrs Bradley loose in the drawing rooms of St Mary Mead or sharing an investigation with Poirot.  The carnage she would wreak would only be equalled by the notion of her debating moral issues with the earnest dons in the SCR at Shrewsbury College.   
In the 1990s the Mrs Bradley Mysteries were televised with Diana Rigg in the title role.  However as Diana Rigg's depiction of Mrs Bradley lacked the crocodile looks, the cackling laugh and the hideous fashion sense, and both characters and plots were significantly altered, little of Mitchell's Mrs Bradbury remained.
By the 1990s only The Rising of the Moon (1945) remained in print in a regular edition (although some were available in Large Print editions.)  In the last few years many have been brought back in print and e-book form.  Perhaps the only way to end an article about this, the most currently neglected of the great Golden Age mystery writers is to quote Philip Larkin, writing in the Observer: 'Miss Mitchell has always stood splendidly apart from her crime-club confrères in total originality.’

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Review of Appleby and Honeybath by Michael Innes

Portrait painter, Charles Honeybath, is commissioned by members of the local hunt to paint a portrait of Terence Grinton, Master of Foxhounds. Honeybath goes to stay as a guest at Grinton Hall and spends some time trying to select a suitable setting for the portrait. There is one room at Grinton Hall that is never entered: the library, and 'the ghost of the library (if the expression isn't too strange a one) was somehow at large at Grinton. This was perhaps because Mr Grinton wasn't merely of a philistine temperament and indifferent to books. He hated them, particularly if their authors had names like Pliny or Julius Caesar.' Despite this, Honeybath thinks that the contrast of erudition and Grinton's ruddy complexion and hunting clothes may prove an interesting artistic challenge and seeks out the library..
When Honeybath enters the library he finds a man sitting there and apologises for disturbing him. 'the eminent painter (whose unflawed courtesy was an unobtrusive part of his make-up) was about to withdraw as quietly as might be when he realized that something was wrong. He walked up to the seated figure, touched a hand, with his own hand made a small gesture before open and unblinking eyes, and saw that he was almost certainly in the presence of a dead man. This was a shock. There was a greater shock when he took in the expression frozen, as it were, upon the dead man's face. It could be described only as exhibiting malign glee.'
Honeybath immediately leaves the library, locking the door behind him and goes to seek his host. On the way, he is fortunate to encounter his friend and fellow guest John Appleby, retired Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. They return to the library together and, to Honeybath's confusion and dismay, the body has vanished. Honeybath is afraid that people will doubt his sanity but after searching the library and guided by the smell of toasted cheese, Appleby and Honeybath find a concealed door which leads to some rough rooms, once quarters for outdoors servants, one of which is roughly furnished and bearing the remains of a simple meal. This time both Appleby and Honeybath go to tell Terence Grinton of their discoveries but when they return, accompanied by Grinton and Inspector Denver of the local police, the body is still missing and all sign that the servant's room has been occupied has disappeared as well.
What follows is a lively romp through many of the conventions of mystery writing: a locked room mystery, an 18th Century, literary secret from the time when Terence Grinton's ancestor, Jonathan Grinton, had 'entertained at Grinton Hall somebody referred to by Terence Grinton as 'a little chappie called Pope.' Indeed, at times, the story resembles a game of Cluedo, especially as one of the guests at Grinton Hall is an irritating woman who claims to be clairvoyant and rejoices in the name of Mrs Mustard.
The story culminates in a classic gathering together of all the suspects so that Appleby can run through the case as it stands and reveal the truth behind the death and the other strange events. Even this summation is treated to Innes' witty humour, as when Appleby pauses in his somewhat lengthy explanation and says, '”We are finished, however, with the events of the afternoon. The events of the night are to follow.”
“But quite a lot more happened yesterday afternoon.” Dolly Grinton broke in with this rather as if accused of having provided insufficient entertainment for her guests. “We all heard about Mr Honeybath finding a body, and Terence told me to send for Mr Denver, and statements were taken, and goodness knows what.”'
Appleby and Honeybath is an intriguing mystery, with literary clues, and lively characters. Because Appleby and Honeybath are both likeable characters the tone of the book is warmer than some of Innes' other mysteries and the wit and humour make it a very enjoyable read.

Publisher: House of Stratus; New edition edition (23 Sep 2008)
ISBN-10: 1842327186
ISBN-13: 978-1842327180

Monday, 11 August 2014

Michael Innes (1906-1994)

Michael Innes was one of the liveliest and most prolific of the writers of the Golden Age of Mystery. He is a favourite author of my good friend and colleague Charlie Cochrane. As her own books are set in a Cambridge College, it is not surprising that she is especially fond of Death at the President's Lodging.I share her admiration for Innes but tend to prefer A Night of Errors or Appleby and Honeybath (my next post will be a review of Appleby and Honeybath.) Charlie and I are in good company, Edmund Crispin admired Innes so much that he chose his writing name from one of Innes' characters.

Michael Innes was the pseudonym of John Innes Mackintosh Stewart. Born in Scotland in 1906, Innes was educated at Edinburgh Academy and later at Oriel College, Oxford, where he studied English Literature. In 1929 he went to Vienna to study psychoanalysis. From 1930 to 1935 he lectured at the University of Leeds. In 1932, he married Margaret Hardwick and they were together for forty-seven years, until her death in 1979; they had three sons and two daughters. Margaret Hardwick was his landlady's daughter and the prompt arrival of their children left the family in urgent need of a better income, which was one of the reasons they decided to emigrate to Australia.
From 1936 to 1946, Stewart was Professor of English in the University of Adelaide, South Australia. It was in 1936, on board ship, on the journey out, that he wrote his first 'Michael Innes' novel, Death at the President's Lodging featuring his best known creation, John Appleby, at this time a Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard. In his memoir, Myself and Michael Innes, Stewart gives three reasons for turning to detective fiction. One is that he felt he did not have the talent or experience to be a novelist and he did not write non-genre fiction until 1954 when he published Mark Lambert's Supper under his own name. The second reason he claimed for writing mystery stories was that it was 'respectable,' indeed many academics of the time had turned to writing mysteries. The third reason was that he needed the money to support his growing family.
In 1946, having written another nine Appleby novels, he returned to the United Kingdom. In Appleby's End (1945) John Appleby marries sculptress, Judith Raven, and retires, for the first time, to live in the country. However by 1947 in A Night of Errors, Appleby has returned to detection if not to the police force. From 1946 to 1948, Stewart lectured in English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The Journeying Boy (1949) has a richly drawn and comic Irish background which echoes this time in Ireland . In 1948 Stewart returned to Oxford University.
In 1973, when Stewart retired, he was a professor of Oxford university. As J.I.M. Stewart he was a notable academic and wrote full-length critical studies of Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce and Thomas Love Peacock and aspects of Shakespeare's work. His last published work was his memoir, Myself and Michael Innes. (1987)
Myself and Michael Innes is a collection of elegantly written and often amusing anecdotes about his life as an academic and observations about writing a crime novel, in which he speaks of the problems of keeping the plot on track while fully developing characters and settings. Myself and Michael Innes is remarkable for the skilful and charming way Stewart entertains while avoiding to give any of his inner life away.
The crime writer Julian Symons described Innes as a 'farceur' and, in Myself and Michael Innes, Innes acknowledges that he has attempted 'to bring a little fantasy and fun into the detective story,' his reason being that, 'Detective stories are purely recreational reading, after all, and needn't scorn the ambition to amuse as well as puzzle.'
This sums up the heart of the Innes' books. They are entertainment, humorous, witty and frequently highly improbable. His books have a literary or artistic theme running through them and this, quite often, provides the motivation behind the crime. Usually set in the academic world or in the homes of the aristocracy, it is interesting to note that Innes' depiction of the nobly born is sometimes of endearingly eccentric characters but often of arrogant, stupid and selfish noblemen who thoroughly deserve whatever unpleasant fate befalls them. Many of the mysteries centre around their possession of some literary or artistic treasure that they either do not appreciate and wish to reject, conceal, destroy or profit by. In The Ampersand Papers (1978) Lord Ampersand is irritated by requests from academics to study his family papers and Lord Ampersand's son and heir, Lord Skillet, comes up with a malicious and eccentric way of discouraging these visitors:
'What Lord Skillet had thought of seemed itself attended with an element of risk. Why not constitute that large upper chamber something that could be called a muniment room; fix over the entrance to it, in a temporary way, one of those rope-and-pulley affairs used to hoist things up into warehouses; and then deposit in it by this method all the Ampersand papers that ever were? The sort of people who devoted themselves to antiquarian pursuits and crackpot researchings would not be of a temper to remain undaunted by so arduous – indeed perilous – a path to knowledge. They'd take one look and give Treskinnick a wide berth.
Lord Ampersand was at first rather shocked by the levity of his son's proposal. But as well as being funny, there was something faintly malign about it that appealed to the arrogant side of his nature.'
One thing these noblemen have in common is a sense of entitlement, not because of their achievements but because of their birth. Even Appleby's wife, Judith, has a sense of entitlement that Appleby, who comes of middle-class stock, finds disconcerting:
'Appleby, who was fond of admitting that he was a very conventional man, stared at his wife aghast. “Ask for him? We can't barge in on a total stranger.”
He can't be a total stranger to Uncle Julius. Uncle Julius knows all the other nobs in the county, I suppose. We could explain I was his niece.”
Appleby's alarm grew. This social outrage was already vivid in his imagination.
It just isn't done,” he said.' (A Connoisseur's Case, 1962.)
John Appleby is Innes' chief detective creation and, at the start of his stories, he is a detective inspector at Scotland Yard. Appleby is a quiet, eminently civilised man. Despite his middle-class background he moves with ease amongst the aristocracy and academics that he has to investigate. He is well-educated and erudite and his insight into literature and art often provides the vital clue to the case. Appleby is one of the longest lived protagonists in detective fiction. His career started with Death At the President's Lodging in 1936 and continued for fifty years until his last case, Appleby and the Ospreys in 1986. One of the greatest mysteries surrounding Appleby is his extraordinary career. Appleby retired at an early age just after the Second World War, soon after meeting his wife, Judith. (Appleby's End, 1945.) He was involved in two investigations as a civilian and then reappeared a in A Private View (1952) as Sir John Appleby, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. His meteoric rise is neither chronicled nor excused by his creator. Even after his second retirement, Appleby becomes involved in a large number of cases and leads the official investigators in the right direction. Although occasionally the police in charge of the investigation are less than impressed by his intervention, in most cases they welcome assistance from a man of Appleby's reputation, especially a man who by his own knighthood and by his wife's aristocratic connections, has entry into places and secrets where an ordinary police detective has no hope of being admitted. During both his retirements, Appleby expresses his unwillingness to be involved in the case and, inevitably, he is drawn in. Soon after his first retirement, when a police friend asks him to accompany him to the home of a murdered baronet, Appleby replies: '“I've had my fill of murdered baronets – and especially at midnight, as you say. The annals of the Yard are glutted with them. It was hard at times to believe that any could be left alive in England. For you must add, you know, all those we were obliged to hang... Who is it?”' (A Night of Errors, 1947.) And there in the last three words is the sound of a man taking the bait.
Appleby is Innes' main detective but there are other cases solved by Charles Honeybath, a well-known portrait painter and a friend of Appleby, who first appears in The Mysterious Commission (1974.). In Appleby and Honeybath (1983), the two men combine to investigate. Although Honeybath first discovers the body, it is Appleby who actually solves the mystery. In some of the later Appleby mysteries, Appleby's son, Bobby, also investigates.
As well as the Appleby and Honeybath series, Innes wrote several stand alone mystery novels, but all his books were written in the same humorous, elegant style. 'In his books, he concerned himself more with style and humor than with realism, and his work was widely admired.' (The New York Times Obituary for J.I.M. Stewart.) Innes certainly placed humour above any form of realism. Coincidences abound, both in the plots and in the detection of the crime; his characters are outrageous and (apart from Appleby, Honeybath and their close family and friends) quite often unlikeable. Many of the names could easily grace a Restoration Comedy. Lord Osprey (a tedious, nervous and rambling old gentleman); Honoria Wimpole (a well-born and decisive young lady); Trumfitt (the enormous and threatening local publican); Miss Minnichip (the local spinster); Mr Broadwater (a dedicated fisherman); Bagot (the ancient-retainer butler); Rupert Quickfall (a successful barrister) can all be found in the last Appleby novel, Appleby and the Ospreys (1986), but similar gems can be found in all the Innes' novels.
However Innes' novels are not just about humour, even of the most elegant literary kind. The plots are intricate and fascinating and his understanding of psychology and motivation is excellent. As a young man he had travelled to Vienna to study Freudian psychology and this is evident throughout his work. The first pages of A Night of Errors (1947) beautifully illustrate the on-going emotional destruction of one person by another.
'”Lucy,” said Lady Dromio, “can you see the little silver bell?”
There was a lot of silver on the tea-table; nevertheless Lucy did not trouble to survey it, or to take her eyes from the single fleecy cloud sailing almost directly overhead.
No, mama. Swindle has forgotten it.”
How very vexatious.” Lady Dromio, who had been peering despondently into an empty hot-water jug, glanced with equal despondence over the spreading lawns by which she was surrounded... “How very vexing,” Lady Dromio repeated.
Yes, mama. But the situation is a familiar one.”
Familiar, child?” From under her white hair the faded blue eyes of Lady Dromio expressed a large, vague surprise.
Swindle, I think, has a horror of the ringing bell. He avoids it. One day he will undoubtedly try to avoid the clangour of the angel's trumpet too.”
Lucy, dear, what odd, clever things you say.” Lady Dromio's tone was placid, but there was a remorselessness in the way she flicked open and shut the lid of the hot-water jug... it brought Lucy to her feet – a tall, dark girl in her early thirties, at once lackadaisical and restless. Her movement was received by Lady Dromio as if it was something entirely unexpected.
Well, dear, if you would like to fetch some that will be very nice.”
Lucy compressed her lips, held out her hand for the hot-water jug and departed across the lawn. Lady Dromio watched her go, turned to scrutinise her tea-table, watched again. Across the hot lawn Lucy was almost out of earshot. Lady Dromio called; she picked up and waved an empty cream-jug. Lucy turned obediently back.'
Innes always remained at his core J.I.M. Stewart, an academic and his understanding of criminal motivation is informed not only by his interest in psychology but also by his critical studies, especially concerning Shakespeare. Much of the root of wrong-doing in the Innes' mysteries comes from characters who are thoughtless, selfish, greedy and ambitious, rather than deliberately setting out to kill. The observation he made about Macbeth in his critical study Character and Motive in Shakespeare (1949), could apply to many of the 'villains' in his books: 'The evil which may rise up in a man's imagination may sweep him on to crime, particularly if... he is imaginative without the release of being creative.'

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

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.
AA Milne
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)
ISBN-13: 978-0099521273

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 façade 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.