The Mystery of A.A. Milne Transcript

Caroline: There was a bit a formula to literary success during the golden age of detective fiction. You wrote one crime novel, it was a hit with readers, and so you wrote lots more. Some of the most popular writers I discuss on the show are also some of the genre’s most prolific practitioners, from Agatha Christie with her 66 detective novels to John Dickson Carr’s at least 55, E.C.R. Lorac with over 70, Ngaio Marsh with 33 and so on. Anthony Berkeley’s 20 and Dorothy L. Sayers’s dozen feel like slight bibliographies by comparison, but even they appear prolific compared to the writer we’re going to meet today, who wrote just one fully fledged golden age detective novel.

And yet that one book had an outsize impact: it ran into over a dozen editions, it attracted attention from the most serious and severe critics of the genre, and it is still in print today, delighting people over a hundred years after its initial publication.

So why didn’t he write more detective fiction? That’s the mystery of A.A. Milne.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. Make sure you listen all the way to the end of this episode for a little surprise. And I’m going to give my standard spoiler warning here: I’m not going to reveal the solutions of any mysteries, but I am going to discuss some details of the books listed in the description, so if you’re avoiding anything specific please consult that before continuing.


Yes, you did hear me correctly, and no you didn’t misread the title of this episode. I did say A.A. Milne — the same A.A. Milne you know and love as the creator of Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Christopher Robin and all the other inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood. In a way, Pooh is also a creation of the golden age — he first appeared in Milne’s book of children’s poems, When We Were Very Young, in 1924 and then in the prose stories in Winnie-the-Pooh in 1926 and The House At Pooh Corner in 1928.

Alan Alexander Milne was about a decade older than most of the writers who began their careers in the post-1918 golden age of detective fiction, having been born in London in 1882, and thus he had a writing career already established before he joined the army for the First World War. He graduated from Cambridge in 1903, where he had interestingly studied mathematics, not the more expected writerly degrees of literature or classics, and by 1906 he had landed a job at the satirical magazine Punch as assistant editor.

He wrote short stories and humorous verse for the magazine, and then beginning in 1917, he also made a name for himself as a playwright and a screenwriter in the nascent London film industry. His comic play Mr Pim Passes By, which was first produced in Manchester in 1919, became an international hit with runs in the West End, Broadway and in Australia, as well as a silent film adaptation and then subsequent radio and television versions.

Already by the 1920s, then, he has switched form twice — starting in satire at Punch and then moving on to write for stage and film. As I said at the start, most writers, especially those who do it as their living, rather than as their hobby, tend to find an avenue in which they can be successful and profitable and then stick to it, but Milne seems to have been different. It isn’t that surprising, then, that in 1922 he came out with something new again: a detective novel.

As Shedunnit listeners well know by this point, the classic puzzle mystery was already very much in vogue by the time Milne’s effort, The Red House Mystery, came out. Agatha Christie and Freeman Wills Crofts had both published successful debut novels in 1920, and the short stories of writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, R. Austin Freeman and H.C. Bailey that had appeared in newspapers and magazines did much to quickly feed the public’s enthusiasm for the genre.

What first strikes you upon reading Milne’s book, I think, is that the author is clearly a fan and a voracious reader in the genre he is now working. I think he wrote The Red House Mystery because he just really, really liked detective stories. It was also clearly a shared family obsession because the first edition of the book was dedicated to his father with this inscription: “Like all really nice people, you have a weakness for detective stories, and feel that there are not enough of them. So, after all that you have done for me, the least that I can do for you is to write you one. Here it is: with more gratitude and affection than I can well put down here.”

In an introduction titled “The Watson Touch”, collected in a 1920 book called If I May, Milne explains that the Sherlock Holmes stories were really the origin of his own obsession with the genre. He even hits at the fact that he had tried writing his own detective story, with a plot concerning a poisoned envelope flap, but had let it lie dormant while he was serving during the war, only to pick up a paper one day in the mess and read a published story that, by chance, used the same device. “Since then, I have fancied myself rather as a detective-story-writer,” he wrote. “If only I could think of something which nobody else would think of while I was thinking of it, I would try again.”

And indeed he did try again, and to great effect. The story of The Red House Mystery concerns the house of the title, where an upper middle class house party has been taking place. The Red House is not a grand country house in the aristocratic pre 1914 tradition, as Styles Court is in Agatha Christie’s first novel. Rather it is, to quote Raymond Chandler, “a typical laburnum-and-lodge-gate” house inhabited by a man called Mark Ablett who has pretensions to that lifestyle, but who in fact recently inherited his money from an elderly woman who had befriended him as a boy and who now likes to flash his cash around as a patron of the arts.

To further cement the impression that this is not your usual posh country house mystery, Milne opens the book not in the drawing room or the library, but in the housekeeper’s room, where Mrs Stevens and her niece Audrey the parlourmaid are taking an afternoon break on a summer afternoon. Within the first chapter, though, their peace is disturbed: the master’s no-good brother arrives for a visit and then a shot is heard. All very ominous.

Next, Milne introduces us to the figure who is going to play the role of detective in his story, one Anthony Gillingham. A younger son of a fairly well to do family, he lives a strange life using his private income of £400 a year to take as many different jobs as he can in order to see all sides of the world — we are told that prior to the start of the story he had been variously a newspaper reporter, a valet, a shop assistant and a waiter. It was while he was working a tobacconist that he met the character who Milne repurposes as Watson to Anthony’s Holmes in this novel — Bill Beverley, a rather brainless but kind young man of independent means in the best tradition of P.G. Wodehouse.

It is through his friendship with Bill that Anthony is brought into the murder investigation. He is down in the country on a bit of a holiday between jobs, having got out of the train at random because he liked the look of a particular station. Then he realises that the address from which Bill last wrote to him — the Red House — is nearby, so Anthony strolls over to make contact. As he arrives, he finds a man banging on a locked door demanding it be opened, and when they go together round the house and find another way into the locked room through the window, they jointly discover that it is occupied by a dead body, a man killed by a gunshot to the head.

Since Anthony was in at the start, so to speak, he is required to remain on the spot to give evidence at the inquest, and ends up being invited to stay at the Red House with Bill while the slow gears of the official investigation grind towards justice. He thus decides that a new job — that of amateur detective — is called for, and he and Bill proceed to sleuth their way through the rest of the story in the best tradition of Holmes and Watson.

The Red House Mystery is in its purest form a detective fiction fan’s attempt to satisfy his own tastes. I’m sure lots of us can recognise this impulse and the thought has probably crossed all of our minds at some point — I’ve read a lot of these books, it would be fun to write my own one day — but not many of us actually follow through on that impulse. But Milne did. And to great success. The Red House Mystery quickly ran into several editions, and when yet another new one came out in 1926, Milne wrote an introduction for it to explain his motivation in exploring this kind of writing, and it’s a fascinating source to put alongside the novel itself.

In this short essay, Milne sets out his own preferences about what a detective story can and can’t be. Some of his choices recall the more famous “decalogue” that Ronald Knox was to pen a couple of years later, and the subsequent “rules” of detective fiction adopted by the Detection club at the start of the next decade. He is a proponent of fair play, hating the “final chapter” dramatic reveal and desiring that the detective should share what he learns with the reader along the way. He wanted his whodunnits written in easy to understand language, without any sort of romance, and for the murder to be investigated by a detective who uses logic and reasoning rather than science or esoteric knowledge to solve the crime.

This last point may well be a dig at Sherlock Holmes and his cigarette ash, or perhaps R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke, who always seems to have already read up on exactly the obscure Egyptian hieroglyphs he will need to solve his next case. In addition, Milne felt there must always be a Watson who can stand in for the reader and ask the questions the detective needs in order to explain himself. Milne’s book is quite self-conscious about the tropes of detective fiction that it deploys, which is one of its pleasures for the seasoned mystery reader — he uses the verb “watsonize” to mean the opposite of soliloquise, when Anthony wants to “think aloud” to Bill and the reader. It’s fun to note, too, that Milne touches on two other things that show up in subsequent lists of golden age “rules” — the idea of twins or doubles, and that of secret passages. Although on the latter point, he is still within Ronald Knox’s rules, having included just the one.

After the break: Raymond Chandler is not best pleased.

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One of the many remarkable things about A.A. Milne’s one-and-done career in detective fiction is how extremely successful it was. The Red House Mystery ran into over a dozen editions and is still being reprinted today — personally I have a rather nice Vintage books hardback facsimile that came out in 2008 and also includes Milne’s 1926 introduction, but there have been others in recent years too.

And for all that it is light in tone, the book has also attracted some substantial critical attention. Julian Symons, a great appreciator and interrogator of golden age detective fiction, turned his gaze upon it in his wonderful 1972 study Bloody Murder. He identifies Milne as one of what he calls the “farceurs”, a group of mostly British writers whom he defines in opposition to the so-called “humdrum” style that focused on things like railway timetables and unbreakable alibis. Think Freeman Wills Crofts. By contrast, the farceurs, he said, were “those writers for whom the business of fictional murder was endlessly amusing”.

There’s a bit of social history at work in this observation. It was possible for these British writers to treat violent crime as amusing, he argues, because Britain between the wars was a relatively safe place to exist, unlike perhaps some areas of America and increasingly, in the 1930s, Europe — especially if you were of the class that these books generally focus upon. Milne’s The Red House Mystery is “probably the most entertaining book of this kind”, Symons says, and attacks on its handlings of improbabilities are a little unfair, since not much golden age detective fiction would stand up to such ruthless examination. The Red House Mystery‘s “charm remains potent” despite its defects, he concludes.

The attacks that he mentioned mostly emanated from the pen of one very eminent writer: the founder of the American hardboiled school of crime fiction, Raymond Chandler. In December 1944, Chandler published an influential piece of literary criticism in The Atlantic Monthly magazine titled “The Simple Art of Murder”. In it, he makes a passionate attack upon the golden age detective story, which he considers to have utterly parted ways with the precepts of reason and realism in which it purports to deal, while at the same time losing touch with the basic requirements of good fiction, such as “lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace, and an acute use of observed detail”.

The Red House Mystery gets special treatment as an example of a novel that is offered to the reader as “a problem of logic and deduction” while requiring said reader to suspend disbelief in order for its core plot mechanism to function. Chandler breaks this down in detail, but suffice it to say that Milne’s story relies heavily on a piece of impersonation which would be very unlikely to hold up to even the most routine policework, and Chandler feels this undermines the foundations of the golden age detective story. There is simply too much luck involved for his taste, although in that essay “The Watson Touch”, Milne does say that “that must be the best of writing a detective story, that you can always make the lucky shots come off”, so I think Anthony Gillingham’s luck is an intentional addition on the part of his creator.

I think what Chandler misses is why people like to read stories like Milne’s. Speaking for myself, I can say with some certainty that it is not to learn more about the grim realities of crime and policing in the murder hotspots of the world — once there were newspapers for that, and these days there are more than enough true crime podcasts on offer should you tastes tend in that direction. No — I re-read The Red House Mystery about once a year because it is fun, and it is funny, and I enjoy the way in which Milne combined charming characters and witty dialogue with a satisfying puzzle, even if the way it unravels could never happen in real life.

As Julian Symons noted, The Red House Mystery is no less pleasurable to read once you realise that its central disguise is a lot less opaque than the reader is encouraged to believe. That, I think, is a mark of quality in a detective story. There are those that I read just to discover the solution before instantly forgetting and discarding them, and then there are others than I can read over and over again just to appreciate being in the scenario the author has brought into being. There is great deftness and skill involved in creating the latter type of novel, and just because that skill is worn lightly does not mean that it is not there.

Aside from Chandler, Milne was well recognised for his achievement with The Red House Mystery. The book was sufficiently popular and well reviewed to bring it to the notice of the other foremost practitioners of the genres in the 1920s. He became known to and friendly with the founders of the Detection Club, Dorothy L Sayers and Anthony Berkeley. And when the club was brought together formerly in 1930, Milne was among the first cohort of members to be inducted — a rare one who, along with E.C. Bentley of Trent’s Last Case fame, was invited to join upon the strength of a single novel.


I have said throughout this episode that A.A. Milne wrote just one detective novel, and that is true. Sort of. He never repeated the form or style of The Red House Mystery, nor did he contribute to any collective Detection Club projects, but he did do some other crime writing that I think we should look at as part of this appreciation. Back in 1903, when he was newly come down from Cambridge, Milne demonstrated his vast knowledge of the Sherlock Holmes canon in a piece of comic commentary that was published in Vanity Fair under the title “The Rape of Sherlock”. I have seen this parody of a Holmes story described as an early piece of Sherlock Holmes fanfiction, and it is also of course a reference to the 1712 poem by Alexander Pope, “The Rape of the Lock”, which is a heroic mock epic about the cutting of a piece of hair. Milne’s effort is a rather involved piece of Sherlockian literature, perhaps only of interest to the true fan, but it does nevertheless demonstrate his long running passion for the crime fiction genre.

Later on the 1920s Milne combined two of his writing styles and wrote a thriller play. The Fourth Wall was first staged in London in 1928 and then transferred to Broadway for a nine-month run under the title The Perfect Alibi. It is a country mystery of a sort, with a murder that takes place at the end of act one, which is then followed by a Scotland Yard investigation, and more interestingly, an attempt at sleuthing by one of the houseguests. Her name is Susan, and it is her love of detective fiction that she feels qualifies her to take on the case. After the West End and Broadway runs, Miline then co-wrote a screenplay based on this play for the 1930 film Birds of Prey (again known as The Perfect Alibi in the US. The film starred among others Nigel Bruce who, pleasingly to Milne no doubt, would go on later in the decade to play Dr John Watson opposite Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes.

The character of Susan from this play is intriguing to me, because I think it has a bearing on what I believe to have been Milne’s last foray into writing crime fiction — his 1933 comic novel Four Days’ Wonder. This is very firmly in the zone of parody, so those looking for the puzzle style of The Red House Mystery will be disappointed, but it is no less charming for that. The book follows a heroine named Jenny, who wanders into her childhood home one day and discovers the murdered body of her wayward aunt. Without thinking, she proceeds to touch a few things and wipe up some bloodstains before, as a fan of both sensational newspaper stories and detective novels, she realises that this will no doubt put her firmly in the frame for the crime. So of course she takes the most sensible way out of her dilemma by going on the run in madcap fashion for four days and leaving a complicated trail of contradictory clues and whirlwind romance.

The book is great fun, and especially so if you are, like Milne, fully immersed in the detective fiction of the time. People re-read crime fiction over dinner and constantly reference the minutiae of fingerprinting and telephone call tracing, as if everyone in the world is a crime fiction addict as a matter of course. At one point a character invokes the spirits of Arthur Conan Doyle and Freeman Wills Crofts in support of Jenny’s doomed escape and there’s some great dialogue along the lines of

“Oh Derek,” cried Jenny, “I’ve killed somebody!”
“Not again?” said Derek, surprised.

Although Four Days Wonder arguably fails at the ultimate purpose of a detective novel, it is a delightful homage to a genre that its author clearly loved very much.

And so we come to that tricky question I posed at the start. Why didn’t A.A. Milne write more detective fiction? He clearly enjoyed reading it and his one true effort at it, The Red House Mystery, was a substantial success. Some blame the enormous success of the Winnie the Pooh characters and stories, which came just a couple of years after the detective novel. And I’m sure that was part of it, but it can’t be the whole reason, because he carried on writing plays and other things long after he became best known for the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood.

My best guess comes from something he says in the 1926 introduction to The Red House Mystery. He says that he slightly regrets writing the book at all, because although he was able to make it align precisely with his own preferences for the perfect detective story, this was ultimately a futile exercise. He, the intended audience for it, couldn’t take his usual pleasure as a reader because as the writer he knew what was going to happen. I think perhaps Milne discovered what a lot of us find when we try and turn a hobby we love into work: something you have loved on your own terms becomes much less enjoyable when you make it a professional endeavour. He was wise to realise this quickly, then, and stop after just one detective novel. He was free after that — free to enjoy the rest of the golden age of detective fiction as just a reader, albeit one who was very astute about the creative potential of fictional murder.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, produced and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton.

You can find a full list of the books we mentioned in this episode at I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at

Don’t forget that my new book, A Body Made of Glass, has just come out and is currently available everywhere books are sold or borrowed. Keep listening to the very end of the episode for an exciting surprise on that score.

Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.

Thanks for listening.

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