When Antony Gillingham realized that the Red House was a short walk away from the inn, he came round for an impromptu visit to his younger friend, Bill Beverly, who he knew happened to be staying there. He arrived around 3 pm, just in time to see the Matthew Cayley, the cousin of the House’s owner Mark Ablett, pounding on a locked door, asking Mark to open it. Cayley seemed a bit dazed when Antony asked if he could help, and surprised at the suggestion of trying a window, but he ran around the house and together they forced open the french doors. Cayley had heard a shot, and here was the body, which he looked at briefly and expressed relief that it was Mark’s ne’er-do-well brother from Australia instead of Mark. It appeared that Mark had accidentally shot his brother in the forehead, then fled in fear. Cayley ran out to get some water, and at Anthony’s insistence they called the police.
Now that morning at breakfast Mark had announced to the party of four that was staying at the house that regrettably, his brother Robert was going to arrive around 2 pm that day. The party was scheduled to play a round of golf, which was a little frustrating for several members, so, against the risk of Mark’s displease at the schedule change (he was not joining them, but did not like schedule changes, and tended to carry a grudge), the played a second round of time, much to the satisfaction of the ones who had played poorly earlier. Robert did arrive at two, and the maid, Elsie, showed the rather disagreeable chap to Mark’s office to wait for him. Then Cayley pounded at the door, and Antony arrived. Only somewhat later did the golfing party finish their second round and arrived to learn that their host had departed permanently.
Bill was excited to see his mendicant friend. Antony had £400 a year, so he entertained himself by exploring the world through working at various working-class professions. He had been thinking it might be time for a new profession, and so he took up that of detective, with Bill eagerly agreeing to be his Watson. Antony had been invited to stay at the Red House until the police inquest was held a couple of days hence. After Cayley bundled off the two women of the party into to car for the train home, he came round to Antony and Bill sitting on the grass. They talked, and Antony observed Cayley that it was odd that Mark took the key. Keys in the upstairs bedrooms were normally on the inside, so you could lock yourself in while changing clothes for dinner and such, but downstairs the women were afraid of burglars and kept the keys on the outside and locked the doors to limit the burglar to the room to which he came in the window. Mark would hardly lose his head and flee but only after opening the door to get the key to lock the door, and risk being seen; but if he locked the door beforehand, then it was premeditated, in which case fleeing was the absolute stupidest thing to do. Cayley maintained that it was accidental and he fled and Mark said that was most likely.
Antony and Bill walked to town to get his bags from the hotel by way of the park (followed by Cayley in the car to ascertain that they were indeed doing as they said). At the end of the park was a house rented by the mother of one of the women in the party. Anthony chatted up the mother, while Bill visited the daughter outside. The mother was determined the marry her daughter to someone Eligible, and it seemed that Mark was quiet eligible and that the daughter and Mark took a liking to each other. Well, it transpired that the girl was not excited about Mark and rather preferred talking Cayley, who had not been gifted a fortune like Mark had (although Mark had payed some of his gift forward and educated his cousin), was not Eligible. But it did establish that Cayley was jealous. On their return it turned out that some of the keys were on the outside and some on the inside, as Antony observed and Cayley reported.
That night Bill took Antony out to the bowling green where the fourth member of the party, a professional actress, had dressed up like a ghost some time previously and given Mark quite a fright. But Antony noted that the bowling green was flat and clear, and it was hardly possible to sneak up on someone unseen. He hypothesized about a secret passage, but there was not an obvious spot. The two talked on the bench, and then Antony had Bill continue expounding as if he were still there, while he snuck up on top of the nook where the bowls and croquet set were, and saw Cayley’s head peak up from one of the croquet bins to listen to the discussion.
The next morning while Cayley was out, they explored the office. After finding the body the previous day, Antony had gone down the hallway to look, and was surprised to find the door on the other side open when Cayley came to out get him. With Bill’s help, he realized that he had seen a shadow move while Cayley was gone getting the water, and assumed it was a door closing, but it was actually Cayley opening the window he forgot to open. That also explained why they had run round the long way to get to the office window, rather than what Cayley would have known was the shorter way. It seemed that Mark had not escaped at all, but that Cayley had opened the window to make it appear so.
The inspector said he was going to dredge the pond, just in case, on Cayley’s suggestion. This worried Antony, as what better place to dump evidence than in an already-dredged pond? During a quiet part of the day, the Antony and Bill examined the library, which was the most likely spot for a hidden passage. It was full of books, and Antony glaced at them casually (in Cayley came in), until he realized that Mark’s father had been a churchman, although Mark not at all. In a library full of interesting books, who would be interested in theological tomes, and that is where the hidden latch was. Antony ran down the passage, after Bill closed the shelf and kept watch. About the time Antony had anticipated returned from the end and testing opening the latch from the inside, Cayley came. Bill engaged him in casual conversation, while loudly and hopefully idlely-looking tapping out “S” in Morse code (which was all he could remember) and hoping that Antony would deduce the message. Anthony turned up shortly afterwards, having run out to the bowling green and back round to the hose as fast as he could, afterwards praising Bill for his quick wit and clever acting. Then they went back in the passage where Antony looked for something in a small storage area, without success.
In the evening they faked going to sleep, then changed clothes and climbed out the roof and down the pipe, to wait behind the trees at the pond. Sure enough, Cayley came out with a package, rowed out to the middle of the pond and dropped it in, waiting until it slowly sank. This surprised Antony, who expected it to be a body. Antony and Bill had each sighted the location of the drop using the fence on the far side of the pond, and Antony rowed out and had Bill jump over to get the package. It took a few tries, but Bill pulled it up. It turned out to be Mark’s clothes, and the message from his brother Robert in a pocket.
At this point Antony was somewhat mystified. The inquest was held the next morning, and Antony said what he was expected to say. Then, having no further claim on the hospitality of the Red House, they departed back to town. Here Antony saw a playbill advertising Mark in an acting role; Bill confirmed that he like attention, and was a passably good amateur actor, certainly better than the rest of them, although rather more demanding of attention that his skills warranted. Antony sent Bill off to pump one of pub keepers for information (which was eventually successful after buying him several rounds of beer).
The next morning Antony received a letter that he had been expecting; Cayley confessed everything. (Bill was somewhat peeved to know that Antony had him “get information” just to keep him away while he wrote a letter to Cayley, so that he could have a good reveal if Cayley acted honorably, as he in fact did.) It transpired that Cayley was, in fact, jealous of Mark. And also that Mark was hardly the well-regarded man that he outwardly seemed, being a complete drunk and completely unworthy of a lovely woman. He had suggested that Mark get his revenge on the actress by playing the part of his ungentlemanly brother and acting uncomfortably towards the women before revealing that it was he. Cayley, of course, saw an opportunity to kill Mark, as no one knew what Mark’s brother looked like. Furthermore, the brother had died several years prior, so he was not going to be showing up resurrected uncomfortably in the future. Cayley regretted that things did not turn out like he hoped, but he assured Mark that he was leaving for good. He did not say whether he was leaving the temporal realm or the physical vicinity, but Antony thought that he had at least acquitted himself honorably.
I had hoped that The Red House Mystery would have Milne’s charm from his Pooh books, but while it is a sort of poke light and knowledgeable fun at the minor gentry, it does not have the elegant wit of the Pooh books. In fact, I guessed from the beginning that Cayley had shot Mark instead of his Robert, just judging from Cayley’s surprised inability to handle the situation he found himself in, and also on the assumption that, this being a mystery, the obvious could not be the case, and there was not another option. However, the causal chain was unclear until the end, when I finally had my suspicions confirmed. So for me at any rate, the mystery was not who got killed but how did it actually happen. Still, it was an engaging read, and of course an interesting historical window onto the life of the minor gentry.