When I first got into vintage mystery fiction seriously, during my university days, I soon came across Milne’s The Red House Mystery (1922), which I remember enjoying a lot. However I also read that this was his only detective novel and if you read his page on the gadetection website that is indeed what you will be told, along with a mention of a couple of short stories published in a collection in 1950. He also wrote an inverted thriller play entitled, The Fourth Wall (1928).
So this certainly makes today’s read an interesting one…
What is Four Days Wonder? If you read the blurb on the dust jacket you are told: ‘It is easy to describe what this book is not; it is not a detective story although there is a body in it; nor is it a humorous book, although there is a laugh on every page; nor a romance, although there is a hero and heroine. But to describe what it is, is more difficult. Perhaps the only thing to say is that it is by A. A. Milne, and therefore entirely delightful.’ Yet when I asked in the Golden Age Detection Facebook group, those who had read it said they remembered it as a mystery novel. On a side note a short time after I posted this query Milne’s more obscure novels, including this one appeared in e-book formats with jazzy covers. Not saying these two events are linked but an interesting coincidence nevertheless. So before I give the big reveal on what genre this book is, let’s look at the plot…
The story opens with the following lines:
‘When, on a fine June morning not so long ago, Jenny Windell let herself in with her latch-key at Auburn Lodge, and, humming dreamily to herself, drifted upstairs to the drawing-room, she was surprised to see the body of her Aunt Jane lying on a rug by the open door. It had been known for years, of course, that Aunt Jane would come to a bad end.’
Aunt Jane is an actress and of the flapper persuasion and not someone Jenny has seen for 8 years, having been taken care of by her other aunt, Caroline, when she became an orphan. However Caroline died some months before and Jenny, now 18, only returned to Auburn Lodge, (which is now rented out), out of sentimental reasons. She wasn’t expecting to see Aunt Jane and not in such a way either. As far as she can tell Jane’s death is an accidental one, having slipped on the shiny floor with her high heel shoes, hitting her head on a brass doorstop. Too bad Jenny has absentmindedly clean and replaced this item on the piano. Too bad for Jenny that the people renting the house have returned. What will she do? In true P. G. Wodehouse fashion she makes her escape through the window, leaving her bloodstained and monogrammed handkerchief at the crime scene and nice footprint outside the window. Convinced that the police will soon be on to her, she makes her plans to go on the run, enlisting the help of an old school friend. From here on in of course the story expands into a full on madcap adventure with Jenny and her friend getting further into difficulties and complications, inadvertently roping in a number of other unsuspecting people, all the while trying to keep one step ahead of the police. Though given the bumbling nature of the lead policeman, one feels Jenny won’t have too much to worry about…
So the answer you’ve all been waiting for… Four Days Wonder is a mystery novel, but not a conventional detective novel as such, although the police’s progress in the case is documented, including the inquest and post mortem results. This story is certainly a comic crime novel, in the vein of Anthony Berkeley’s Mr Priestley’s Problem (1927) and I would also say it is a variation on the inverted mystery, with a fugitive focus. Some could call it a thriller but it didn’t come across that way for me. In terms of its tone and style it reminds of the comic crime films of the 40s and 50s, such as The Green Man (1956) and this is another title I would add to my ever growing list of books to be adapted.
If you enjoy irreverent send ups of the mystery genre then this is a must read and in my opinion Milne does this very well. For instance at the start of the story Milne pokes fun at the way characters come across bodies in a detective stories:
‘Jenny was a well-read girl, and knew that people were continually drifting upstairs and finding bodies in the drawing-room. Only last night Michael Alloway, a barrister by profession, had found the body of a well-dressed woman on his hearth-rug, with a note by its side which said ‘A K 17 L P K 29 Friday.’
Milnes gives a similar treatment to the clues invariably found by bodies as well, though Jenny is out of luck with her own corpse:
‘So feeling a little excited again, she looked about the floor to see if there were any messages in cipher from the heads of any of the Greatest Criminal Organisations in Europe.’
The way Jenny and others react on first seeing the body of Aunt Jane, (whose name must surely be an ironic reference to Christie’s character…), are also deliberately done in a cardboard, P. G. Wodehouse, am-dram fashion for comic effect. This is not a book where the reader should take anything too seriously. Danger and violence when it presents itself, such as when Jenny encounters a tramp or has to ward off another character’s amorous advances, is quickly undermined and made to look farcical, such as when the tramp ends up standing on a thistle. With a great deal of caution I would say this book has a mild association with the fun atmosphere of Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence novels, though I wouldn’t say that those who dislike the Beresfords should give this tale a miss. Jenny is an unusual heroine. She is an imaginative and adventurous spirit and seems to have developed a tendency to talk to/think thoughts to, her dead father (the Hussar). Though I wouldn’t say this aspect of the plot dominates in anyway, more just part of the colourful background. The early chapters have a faint Modernist air to them in the way they flit from different narrative viewpoints, but settle into a more conventional manner as the story progresses. For those who enjoy reading vintage mysteries for their little bits of social and cultural details this is a story for you, whether it is hearing a tramp call a pair of tweezers, ‘tweezies’ or Jenny’s shock at Nancy owning a pair of pyjamas, there is lots to pick up.
Overall this is a very well-written and entertaining ridiculous story, which I enjoyed for its language and style as well as its plot, which in itself is well-paced, taking place over four days. Jenny’s time on the run is wonderfully captured with a number of comic scenes such as those when she is being sold and/or using the Watson Combination Watch Dog and Water Pistol, (I’ll say no more), and aside comments such as the fugitive life lesson that ‘you cannot undress behind a haystack.’ Given my enjoyment of this book it is probably a good idea that it has been made into an e-book, though for those of you who prefer physical books, there are some available online that won’t break the bank. Or you could make non-subtle hints to your significant other that a copy of such a book would make an ideal present… tis the season after all.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Red Head