A Barrel Full of Red Herrings

"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.

Hopefully, I'll have something better for my next blog-post.


  1. This one it seems to me would have been better as an out-and-out thriller, it had elements of that. I mean, a dismembered body in a milk churn! Not to mention that other murder. Instead though it seemed a mix of detective novel elements and thriller stuff, ultimately just didn't grab me.

    1. Agreed. It could have been salvageable if it had been played as a straight up thriller.

  2. For some reason I never cared for the Burton books and liked very much the Priestley books, even though they are written by the same author. It has always felt to me like he needed Dr. Priestley to bring out his best writing.

    1. The Rhodes tend to bring in science and complex murder means more. In the 1930s I think the Rhodes tend to be stronger as a whole, though there are some good Burtons. And often very hard to find!

      By the 1950s (after 1953 anyway) I think the Burtons generally are better than the Rhodes, though the 50s books don't compare with the 30s ones. I get the feeling though that in the 1950s Street was enjoying writing the Merrions more than the Priestleys, just like Christie preferred Marples to Poirots. Easier to write?

    2. Based on my limited readinge, I agree that the Rhode novels appear to be better than the Burton's, but has that really to do with the series characters?

      Dr. Priestley always struck me as a rather sedentary detective, while Merrion and Arnold were far more active investigations. They seemed to offer more possibilities for the plot than the armchair/labratory-bound Dr. Priestley.

      And thanks for the suggestions, Curt. I'll leep the Burton novels from the 50s in mind, but first I'll be returning to Priestley novels.

    3. You'd be surprised how active Priestley is in the early books. The Ellerby Case is almost like a film serial: The Perils of Dr. Priestley.

  3. Priestley tended to be much more active in the earlier books in the series, but as time went on he became much more of an armchair detective. As a personal opinion, Priestley seems to me to be a more memorable detective than Arnold/Merrion if only because of his ability to project his presence as a Great Detective. I think it is his relentless sticking with the facts which makes him a memorable detective. The Rhode books have this in common with Freeman and Crofts: the focus of their books, almost to the exclusion of everything else, is not just on the detection of crime, but rather on the process of the detection of crime. What they are trying to show is the exact process by which you get from point A to point B to solve the crime, whether it involves the intensive questioning of witnesses as in Crofts, or the more scientific methods of Freeman. If Freeman is going to use some scientific matter as proof, he first details exactly how the evidence can be procured (as, for instance, in his treatment of ashes in A Silent Witness). Then he will often go a step further and explore the legal implications of how the scientific results can be admitted to court under the laws of evidence. (This seems to me to be missing from just every other scientific investigator.) Freeman leaves no stone unturned in displaying the detailed process of detective investigation, a trait shared with Rhode and Crofts. It does not seem to me to be dealt with in the same sort of detail in the Arnold/Merrion books (at least in the few I have read).

    1. I make a lot of these points in Masters so naturally agree with you. I think Dr P does succeed as a Great Detective figure and that gives power as an archetypal character. I love how is zings the police too, treats them like ignorant schoolboys. People who say Rhode has no humor miss this aspect somehow.

      I enjoy the byplay between Merrion and Arnold, but Merrion is a less singular amateur gent sleuth type. He's more active that Priestley in the later books, but P is not an armchair detective in the earlier books and is still somewhat active into the 1940s. It's after WW2, with the retirement of Hanslet, that Rhode switched to that sedentary format of Waghorn consulting with the trio of old man: Dr P, Hanslet and Oldland. One reason the later Rhode books aren't as interesting as a group in my view. The later Rhodes often more resemble police procedurals, with Waghorn getting 90% of the book, with a few consultations with the old men.

      Also Dr P's secretary and son-in-law, Harold Merefield, plays a much larger role in the early books, receding after Jimmy Waghorn comes on the scene.

      There are come very good Burtons: Murder MD, The Cat Jumps, The Trick Corpse Trick, Where Is Barbara Prentice? are a few that it would be nice to see published. I think they are usually quite good through the 1930s into the mid-40s.

    2. Correction: Three-Corpse Trick.

    3. I've not read nearly enough of John Rhode's work, or the humdrum school for that matter, to give any additional comments, but I have taken note of yours for when I return to them.

      This is also why I never stopped feeling like a novice when it came to exploring the genre!