The Milk-Churn Murder (Miles Burton)

By Miles Burton

First published: UK, Collins, 1935; US, Doubleday, 1936, as The Clue of the Silver Brush

2 stars

The epitome of humdrum, justifying Street’s neglect by the reading public.  It commits all the crimes of the bad detective story:

  • no attempt at characterisation (Faithorne is dead before the story begins, the murderer’s wife only appears as a corpse, and the murderer only appears in the last chapter, and all the other characters, including Farmer Hollybud and his fellow rustics, only appear for a chapter at most and are then dropped),
  • no story (Merrion and Arnold spend most of the book theorising and deducing about things that have happened off-page),
  • no involvement for the reader (there are no suspects, so the reader can’t theorise, but can only watch Merrion & Arnold),
  • and a plot pinched from another writer (Freeman’s Silent Witness – the murder of the killer’s wife in the detective’s house).

A couple of ideas should have been better used – the head hidden in the flower-pot is nicely surreal (although it’s a stupid place to hide it), and the kidnapping and drugging of the wife would fuel a Bailey, Freeman or Mason plot, but Merrion’s reaction is a token shudder and an attempt to reconstruct her movements.

It would make a good short story, with Merrion’s brilliant deductions from very little evidence, but it’s bloody awful as a novel.

Blurb (UK)

The little village of Tolsham was surprised one day by a most extraordinary looking stranger.  Clearly a foreigner, he had a full black beard, wore the oddest of old clothes, and from his mouth protruded a huge cigar.  “Must be one of them Bolsheviks,” remarked the villagers, and left it at that.  But with the stranger’s disappearance came the discovery of a dismembered corpse in the milk-churn of a local dairy.  Had the mysterious “foreigner” anything to do with the crime?  Inspector Arnold of the Yard and his friend Desmond Merrion think so at any rate.  Soon they are up to their necks in the most baffling case of the century, a mystery that is remarkable for its intricacy and really clever detection.

Blurb (US)

“The dash and drive of the story cannot be disputed.” – LONDON TIMES.

The headless, dismembered body of a man was found in a huge milk can on a rural English road.  The identification of the body seemed to be an impossibility until the analytically minded Merrion, assisted by Inspector Arnold of the Yard, took over the case.

Not that they were without clues.  The murderer had unquestionably planted many false clues and somewhere in the shadowy background moved a mysterious figure, evidently in grave danger, who was trying to present the police with clues to the guilty one.  The great problem was, which were the false and which were the true clues.

In the end, through deductive reasoning of the highest order, Merrion was able to identify not only the body but the mysterious O.M.N. and the actual murderer.  And in a thrilling hare-and-hounds chase which involved another murder and covered half of England he was able to bring to its conclusion what was, from all angles, “a really baffling crime.” (London Times)

The book is an amazing example of how an intelligent man can, through sheer deduction, trap an equally intelligent and ingenious murderer.

“Engagingly written – carefully reasoned.”  DOROTHY L. SAYERS

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (9th November 1935):

This, one of the best stories Mr. Burton has written, contains three murders and is full of the most gruesome details of dismembered bodies.  At the same time there is a sense of comedy in the minds of Inspector Arnold and Desmond Merrion, his intelligent assistant, as they set out to solve what is from all angles a really baffling crime.  Some of the farmer folk may seem to be tinged with caricature, but they are good company and vital to the development of the plot.  If farmer Hollybud had not quarrelled with the dealers who bought his milk, the murderer would not have been in the position to hide the body of his first victim inside a convenient milk-churn.  The story contains two problems: the problem of murder and the problem of jealousy turned to madness.  There are several good red herrings which have all the appearance of the genuine article, until Merrion exposes their false smell, to the great disgust of Inspector Arnold.  The dash and drive of the story cannot be disputed, nor do the events sound exaggerated or incredible, however sadly the reader may shake his law-abiding head.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 14th December 1935):

The Milk Churn Murder starts with a conundrum and ends with a chase.  How did a milk churn on a remote farm in Somerset come to contain not only a dismembered corpse in pickle minus the head, but a variety of objects which appeared to provide clues to the murderer?  An old acquaintance of ours, Desmond Merrion, solves the riddle, and Inspector Arnold then has a fine chase to get his man.  Mr. Burton produces very workmanlike plots, but he is very sparing with the condiments that make detective stories appetising as well as nourishing.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 26th April 1936, 220w):

This is an unusually well constructed and closely reasoned mystery story, nor is it, like some stories of the purely deductive type, devoid of excitement.  It deserves a place well near the top of the list of the season’s mysteries.

Chicago Daily Tribune (Mortimer Quick, 2nd May 1936, 160w):

Don’t miss it if a good, reasonable account of horrid deeds is what you like.  It’s the kind you can set your teeth into and solve with the solvers.

Books (Will Cuppy, 3rd May 1936, 210w):

‘Engagingly written—carefully reasoned’, says Dorothy L. Sayers.  It’s well worth your while.  We particularly liked the Fletcherish treatment of the dear old Wessex countryside, strewn as it was with milk cans and deaders.