"A quarrel is like buttermilk: once it's out of the churn, the more you shake it, the more sour it grows."- proverb
On the tail of my review of Death in the Tunnel (1936), the Puzzle Doctor announced his embarkation on a month-long Rhode-a-Thon and Vintage Pop Fictions posted an enticing review of Death at Low Tide (1938), which managed to immediately lure me back to the works of John Street – who penned over a hundred of plot-driven mystery novels as "John Rhode," "Miles Burton" and "Cecil Waye." Initially, I wanted to read one of his Dr. Lancelot Priestley novels, but ended up settling for the book that preceded Death in the Tunnel.
The Milk-Churn Murder (1935), alternatively known as The Clue of the Silver Brush, began very promising as the opening chapter painted a charming picture of rural dairy farming in "the small hamlet of Tolsham." A place called Starvesparrow Farm, owned and run by the short-tempered Mr. Hollybud, is used an example to illustrate how the milk is transported from the local farms to the dairies for processing.
But one day, the working routine is broken by a sensational and gruesome discovery that "set the police a problem which at one time it seemed they would never solve."
The break in routine came when a lorry-driver from the dairy picked up an extra, unaccountable milk-churn from Mr. Hollybud's farm and at first glance the content seems to be pig-wash, but the "curious liquid" turns out to be something more disgusting than simple pig-wash – a pottage of milk, water, formalin and the dismembered body parts of a man. Only the head was missing! There were also an assortment of particulars found in the churn: a sharpened, ivory-handled carving-knife, an old leather wallet, horn-rimmed spectacles without lenses, a railway guide and a key to a hotel room, which were wrapped inside a blood-stained flannel vest. Some of these items also had initials scrawled on them, namely "A.L.S."
Chief Constable of Wessex immediately put in a call for assistance to Scotland Yard and that same afternoon Inspector Arnold from the Criminal Investigation Department arrived in the vicinity, but there's barely a chapter between his primarily investigation and him sending an invitation to his friend, Desmond Merrion – who has made a name for himself as an amateur detective. Here's where the story slowly began to sour for me.
Merrion comes to the conclusion that "the murderer is a pretty cunning bloke," but is also "one of those people who can't resist the temptation to gild the lily" and seems to be very "fond of red herrings," which he seems to have dragged across every trail they uncovered.
However, the first problem is that Merrion seems a bit too omniscient when it comes to separating the manufactured pieces of evidence from the real ones. Or when correctly guessed there might have been as second person who left bread crumbs for the police to find. It also makes you wonder why the murderer did not simply drove the innocently looking milk-churn to a quiet, remote and rarely frequented spot in the English countryside and simply buried it, but that would have been entirely forgivable as the investigate parts of the story were not bad – which seems to be the best parts of the Miles Burton books.
What I have a problem with is that the murderer turned out to be an unknown element in the story and only made an appearance when this person was identified, but the story did not end there. Unmercifully, the plot began to drag itself out and two additional bodies failed to sustain or renew my interest in the story. One of the murders was suppose to make it very personal for one of the detectives, but the personal note of the second murder was not done very convincing and the final murder, presented as a suicide, was very frustrating – because it stretched the story out over another chapter. Even the inspector eventually remarked that he was "sick to death of this infernal case."
Considering the renewed interest in Rhode/Burton, I really wish I had a better story to report back on, but this is what I found and it simply was not that good. I might take down a third Rhode/Burton title later this month and hope it'll even out this negative review, but The Milk-Churn Murder is a title that can only really be recommended to completists.