Milk of Human Kindness (1950) by Elizabeth Ferrars

Milk of Human Kindness by Elizabeth Ferrars

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“I can’t see that there’s actually anything to worry about, yet I can’t get rid of the feeling that there’s something badly wrong here.”

She shouldn’t have answered the door. But Marabelle could never resist a knock on the door, knowing that something life-changing might be on the other side. This time it’s her sister Susan, having husband trouble once again. With three tumultuous marriages, Susan always needs Marabelle’s help with something.

Susan’s latest problem comes from an unexpected source: her first husband Norman, the only one she’s always gotten along with. All at once, he refuses to let her see their children. Against her better judgment, Marabelle agrees to intercede on her sister’s behalf. She’ll live to regret that decision—if she’s lucky.

No one could accuse Milk of Human Kindness of being predictable. From the moment Marabelle arrives at Norman’s home, nothing unfolds as the reader might expect. The atmosphere is almost farcical, with strange men popping in and out, midnight house-painting parties interrupted by police, and a closet where dead bodies and stolen objects seem to appear or disappear at will. The results are often funny and always unexpected, yet the anarchic plot doesn’t always mesh with Elizabeth Ferrars’ dryly witty tone.

Marabelle half expects to be turned away from Norman’s door. Instead, her former brother-in-law welcomes her with open arms. He couldn’t be more accommodating, except for one thing—he flatly refuses to discuss Susan. This means that the first mystery Marabelle has to solve is trying to figure out the nature of their conflict. Given that Susan is involved, it could be anything. Marabelle can’t be certain her sister’s account is trustworthy.

Yet, come to think of it, Susan’s moral tone was pretty high. Like Henry the Eighth, she always wanted marriage. I believe she must have been almost as idealistic about men as Henry must have been about women, believing that perfect happiness existed and could be made to sign on the dotted line if one went on looking long enough.

The oddest part of it all was still Norman’s refusal to explain his change of attitude to Susan. To do her justice, it was never difficult to explain awkward things to Susan, since she never took in more than she liked, thus making it next to impossible to hurt her. Whatever Norman had told her, I thought, she would have ended by finding it creditable to herself, and liking him all the better for it. Hers was a very comfortable sort of mind to have.

Ferrars perfectly captures the emotional toll of dealing with a wonderful monster like Susan. Interactions with her are all the more frustrating because her selfishness and cruelty are strangely lacking in malice. She simply says or does whatever comes into her head, never considering anyone else’s feelings one way or the other. Every conversation with her is littered with casually devastating remarks (“Good God, next time you want to buy a hat, you’d better let me know about it and I’ll come along and help you”). Even when Susan thinks she is telling the truth, it is highly colored by her own interpretations, which rarely correspond to reality. And when Susan is lying, the sky’s the limit.

Milk of Human Kindness by Elizabeth Ferrars 2Though they’ve been divorced for years, Susan and Norman have been on good terms until recently. Their children Beryl and Maurice, now young adults, live with their father, but Susan has continued to run the house, right down to hiring the housekeeper. Her latest find, Mrs. Fawcett, seemed like a treasure. Now, however, Susan harbors dark suspicions. “That kind of quiet, sly, meek little woman can be extraordinarily dangerous,” she says. Marabelle thinks her sister is being dramatic, until she meets Mrs. Fawcett and learns about the long line of deceased former employers who remembered her in their wills.

Stranger still, Norman has recently developed an ulcer that requires him to drink “priority milk” or “TT milk.” The distinctive gold bottle cap has the neighbors asking questions. (Since this milk is referred to throughout the book without ever being defined, I will reveal that “TT” stands for “Tuberculin Tested.” The neighbors are probably just jealous that they’re all going to catch bovine tuberculosis from their milk, while Norman isn’t.)

Every time Marabelle thinks she has the tangle of Susan’s current and former husbands straightened out, some bizarre event forces her to revise her theory. Her growing exasperation with this topsy-turvy household is amusing, but not entertaining enough on its own to justify the long lead-up to the first crime. Far more successful is her rapport with Basil, the charmingly flighty housecleaner. It’s Basil’s running monologues about his family, especially his despised brother-in-law, that point Marabelle in the right direction to solving her own family problem.

“Well, I’ll tell you some other things my brother-in-law does,” said Basil, warming up. “He puts his dirty socks away in the drawer and sends his clean ones to the wash. And he sends checks to people without signing them. And he goes and eats all the biscuits in the middle of the night, and then says at tea, ‘Why aren’t there any biscuits?’ And he takes mother’s good cutting-out scissors to cut up pieces of linoleum, and then he takes them to cut his nails and says, ‘These scissors are blunt.’ And he—”

“Listen,” I said. “I don’t believe your brother-in-law has anything to do with this murder. It looks to me as if you want to make him the fall-guy, or whatever it’s called, and I sympathize with you in the attempt, seeing the sort of man he seems to be, but I’m sure it won’t work.”

“I only meant,” said Basil, “that people do queer things. Because a thing seems queer, one shouldn’t say it couldn’t have happened.”

The solution works, but it comes on very abruptly in the last few pages of the book. Though Milk of Human Kindness shares the wit and nuanced characters that make Elizabeth Ferrars’ earlier novel Murder Among Friends so enjoyable, the frenetic plotting doesn’t always give these elements the room they need to really shine.


Milk of Human Kindness is out of print, with plenty of affordable used copies available.

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