Sunday, December 3, 2023

Milking Murder: Milk of Human Kindness (1950), Elizabeth Ferrars

Over her long writing career, Elizabeth Ferrars' favored milieu in mysteries became the professional classes in an English village within commuting distance of London.  Often the lead characters are a couple, the husband someone involved, like Ferrars' own botanist husband, Robert Brown, in scientific research at an agricultural station, the wife typically a homemaker.  (There may or may not be children.)  

Ferrars wrote fifty non-series mystery novels, along with five about journalist Toby Dyke and his enigmatic ex-lag friend George (1940-42), eight about estranged couple Felix and Virginia Freer (1978-92) and eight about Andrew Basnett, an elderly botanist based on her husband, for a total of 71 novels.  Until she began writing about the Freers, non-series mystery novels dominated her output, 39-5, whereas afterward series books dominated her output, 16-11. 

I don't know whether the author ever explained the reason behind her shift--perhaps it was a recognition that readers were increasingly interested in series books, particularly in the developing cozy genre, which her books came more to resemble in the 1980s and 1990s.  As late as 1981, she could still a manage a book as comparatively "dark" as Experiment with Death, but her books afterward usually seemed to have a lighter touch, even her non-series ones.  

But even before the Eighties her mysteries included many that were lighter in tone, like her 1950 domestic mystery novel Milk of Human Kindness.  This was her second mystery novel of 1950, and her eleventh since she started publishing them in 1940.  

Ferrars had wandered rather over the track in the Forties, producing the five Toby Dyke novels, then some very serious crime novels, but Milk of Human Kindness is more of a manners mystery, a domestic comedy of murder with some echoes of HIBK from the Thirties.  (See below.)  Milk would set the template for many of her later domestic village murder mysteries, though in its case the author brings humor to the fore.

The narrator of Milk of Human Kindness is Marabelle Baynes, who on the first page makes a classic Had I But Known observation straight out of a Mary Roberts Rinehart mystery novel.  Remembering that she answered the doorbell that certain fateful Sunday morning, Marabelle ruefully reflects:

...if I had been able to see who was outside, ringing my bell again and again with a rather offensive impatience...I should have never gone to the door.  By this I should have been saved a great deal of trouble and disturbance and perhaps should have saved a life.  

But Marabelle answers, thinking it is her pal Peter Frere, whom she might cajole to help her paint the flat.  (Her husband John is away in Holland for a fortnight attending a "conference of some sort.")  But it turns out it is not Peter Frere, but Marabelle's awful, much-married sister, Susan Beltane!  (By the way, the surname of Peter Frere, who never actually appears in the novel, rather resembles that of Felix Freer, Ferrars' antihero of the Felix and Virginia Freer series between 1978 and 1992.)

Anyway, Susan, who had two children, Beryl and Maurice, with her second husband, Norman Rice, says she wants Susan to go see Norman to find out why he has forbidden her from his house and their teenaged children.  (When she attempted to visit she was turned away by Norman's housekeeper, Mrs. Fawcett.)  Susan we can tell is a monstrously egocentric person, adept at pushing around people, including her younger sister; and soon Marabelle is at Norman's domicile, the Victorian house of his parents (deemed "hideous," like most Victorian homes in crime fiction of that day).  

Here we encounter a raft of characters, including

Norman Rice, a kindly if somewhat austere retired colonial civil servant engaged in writing a never-ending book (like Andrew Basnett in the Andrew Basnett series)

Norman's daughter Beryl, now learning gardening professionally, and Maurice, a day student somewhere

Mrs. Fawcett, a housekeeper who does "extraordinarily little," yet manages "to have herself regarded as a treasure"

Sholto Dapple, Susan's eccentric first husband

Basil, the Rices' amiable and smoothly competent cleaner ("He looked about twenty-five, was not very tall, was built with extreme neatness and grace, and had curly golden hair and blue eyes.  It was a little difficult to believe in him.")

Ernst and Millie Weinkraut, the Rices' neighbors

Later on Susan and her third husband, Piers Beltane, show up too.  All in all, it's a cast of characters (and murder suspects) that would not shame a Thirties country house mystery, though we are lacking a butler, of course.  Ferrars really manages to keep the plot twisting and turning. There are three murders and a denouement which produces three different solutions: one from Marabelle, one from the stolid police inspector and then the one which is actually right.  

Ferrars doesn't seem to me to get a lot of credit for her puzzle plotting and clueing and detection in this era, perhaps because she doesn't have series detectives and the police are sidelined.  But make no mistake, this is an intriguingly plotted whodunit.  Ferrars also places a lot of emphasis on characterization and, in this book, dry humor.  Susan is a type you see a lot in Ferrars' fiction, the egoist whose pushiness launches the reluctant protagonist into waves of mystery, while Sholto Dapple is an amiable rogue type like Felix Freer.  However, more original are the housekeeper Mrs. Fawcett and the cleaner Basil, vivid secondary characters.  

Mrs. Fawcett really starts to seem insidious with her tales of her former employers, all of whom seem to have been ailing gentlemen who expired and left her "a little something"; while Basil with his tales of his odious brother-in-law is really amusing.  Basil, by the way, may that seemingly rarest of things in Ferrars' mysteries: an lgbtq character.  Or maybe I have been led astray by his "pale primrose shirt."  

Also, points to Ferrars for coming up with a name like Sholto Dapple!  She compares him to a magician, and I have to say this would be the perfect name for one.

The mystery plot turns on myriad domestic details, including yes, a saucepan of milk.  Nothing more cozy than that, right?


  1. I recently read this book, and remember that I was constantly hoping Susan would be the next murder victim.

    1. I thought she was enjoyably awful. I'm reading a third Ferrars now and each one had an awful "Susan" type characters. Maybe Susan was Ferrars' anticipation of Karen.