I just finished reading a book by A. A. Milne. No, nothing from the world of Winnie-the-Pooh. You may not know this (or perhaps you do – who knows) that before A. A. Milne wrote about a funny bear who liked hunny and his adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood, A. A. Milne wrote a detective novel. It’s called The Red House Mystery, and it’s everything a British crime novel written in the 1920s should be. It’s got stereotypical maids, cooks and brothers banished to Australia, a secret passageway, and a lovely English manor. The amateur detective and his side-kick (whom the detective jokingly refers to as his Watson) say things like ‘I say’ and ‘rather not’ and ‘old man’ and ‘oh rot’. It’s rather adorable.
But it is rather surprising that such a novel comes from this author, famously associated not with violent crimes or mystery, but children’s poems and bedtime stories. In fact, A. A. Milne wrote this story before he wrote anything about Winnie-the-Pooh. He was actually advised against writing anything for children by his agent, after being advised not to write a detective story since he was, at the time, a successful comedic writer:
‘When I told my agent a few years ago that I was going to write a detective story, he recovered as quickly as could be expected, but made it clear to me (as a succession of editors and publishers made it clear, later, to him) that what the country wanted from “a well known ‘Punch’ humorist” was a “humorous story.” However, I was resolved upon a life of crime: and as a result was such that when, two years afterwards, I announced that I was writing a book of nursery rhymes, my agent and my publisher were equally convinced that what the English-speaking nations most desired was a new detective story.’
What this shows us is firstly, that editors sometimes have no idea what they are talking about, and two, that A. A. Milne had talents that spread across many genres, and three, that we can never really know what we are going to be remembered for. The Red House Mystery was a roaring success and was in print for fifteen consecutive years. However, it is undoubtedly his children’s stories that have stood the test of time and become true classics. When A. A. Milne first wrote them, and his editors read them, and they were first published, I wonder what A. A. Milne, and his editors, and publishers, and the public thought was the ‘true’ A. A. Milne book? Was he a crime writer trying to branch out, or a children’s writer that just hadn’t written a children’s book before?
Looking back on the books that are being written and published right now, I wonder which ones are going to be true classics, and which ones will stay in print for 15 years, but then get a bit lost behind the next big book that its authors are currently writing. Maybe Suzanne Collins will write a crime series that ellipses The Hunger Games. Maybe Dan Browne will write a travel biography that is being read in one hundred years, when all his other books are forgotten. Maybe EL James will write a book of literary essays that make the sales of Fifty Shades of Grey seem small in comparison. Who knows what brilliant books lie in the minds of authors, both established and undiscovered, until they actually take the plunge and put pen to paper…