Green for Danger by Christianna Brand   

It’s always an unexpected joy when one of these lovely British Library Crime Classics drops through the door, especially if it’s as enticing as this. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

First published in 1944, Green for Danger – the second book in Brand’s Inspector Cockrill series – is set at Heron’s Park, a military hospital in Kent in the midst of WW2. As Martin Edwards notes in his excellent introduction, the novel is an example of a classic ‘closed circle’ mystery in which the culprit is one of a small pack of potential suspects the author shuffles during the story, shifting the focus from one person to another until the perpetrator is revealed.

Brand cleverly introduces her cast of suspects in the opening chapter through their acceptance letters for positions at Heron’s Park. So, we have Gervase Eden, a Harley Street surgeon, the type with a string of women falling at his feet; Jane Woods (Woody), a rather plain woman of forty who has given up a life of gaiety to volunteer as a V.A.D. nurse, mostly to assuage her conscience for past misdemeanours; Esther Sanson, a young woman whose life has been dominated by a needy, hypochondriac mother – if nothing else, nursing will give Esther some sort of training and a life away from home.

Mr Moon, another surgeon, is a kindly, mature man (almost Churchillian in appearance), still mourning his son, who was killed in a road accident. The sensitive anaesthetist Dr (Barney) Barnes remains troubled by the unfortunate death of a patient on the operating table while in his care. Nothing untoward was found in the inquiry, but the patient’s family have their suspicions – hopefully the move to Heron’s Park will offer Barney a fresh start. Finally, we have Frederica Linley (Freddi), a cool, detached young woman who views volunteering as a V.A.D. as a way of escaping her dreadful stepmother; and Sister Marion Bates, who seems to be on the lookout for a husband on the hospital wards.

Once all the main characters have been introduced, we fast forward to a point in time when the team has been working together for a while, steadily dealing with the casualties in its care. The hustle and bustle of hospital life is brilliantly conveyed, oscillating between periods of high activity and quieter moments when the staff get a chance to chat.

One day, a recently admitted patient – Joseph Higgins – dies while undergoing a seemingly routine operation, much to the team’s distress. At first, the outcome is put down to a bad reaction to the anaesthetic; but given Barney’s history of a previous unexplained death, the surgeons decide to call on Detective Inspector Cockrill to give the incident the once over. The hope is that this will nip any potential gossip about foul play in the bud, but when Cockrill takes a look, his suspicions are soon aroused…

Initially, there appears to be no clear motive for the murder of Higgins, a postman who had been working as an air-raid warden during the war. But as the novel unfolds, more details about the hospital staff emerge for the sharp-eyed reader to spot. Brand does a terrific job in raising subtle doubts about each of her key players as the story progresses, shifting our suspicions from one person to the next – and occasionally back again, just to confuse things further. There’s even a second murder to add to the mix when a stabbing in the operating theatre makes for a rather macabre twist!

Brand – who spent time with V.A.D.s during the Blitz – captures the inner working of a military hospital so well, from the layouts and daily routines of the wards to the anaesthesia procedures in the operating theatre. Right from the very start, there’s a strong sense of authenticity (and a somewhat sinister atmosphere!) to the descriptions of these scenes.

The men slept uneasily on their improvised beds, humped under rough brown army blankets, their arms, outflung in sleep, lying supine across the dusty floor. Here and there a pair of bright eyes gleamed, open and aware; here and there a face was coloured vividly green or purple, where the skin specialists were trying out some new treatment; once she almost collided with a blue-clad figure, its eyes dark hollows in a huge, white-bandaged face. (p. 106)

Some of the most enjoyable aspects of this novel stem from the lively interpersonal dynamics between various characters. There are lots of romantic entanglements here, with people falling in and out of love on a fairly regular basis, possibly as a distraction from the war. While Freddi seems happily engaged to Barney, she cannot help having a little crush on Gervase – a most unlikely Don Juan, especially given his rather dull appearance.

Esther said thoughtfully: “What people can see in Gervase, I never could understand. I mean, he’s nice and he’s funny, but he’s as ugly as anything, so thin and grey and, well, he must be at least forty…”

“Thanks very much,” said Woods.

“Well, I don’t mean that, darling, you know what I mean. He’s not a glamour boy; and he never seems to try to make women like him.”

“Ah, but you’re a lady icicle, Esther.”

“Well, I must be, because I seem to be the only female in the hospital who can see Gervase Eden without swooning at his feet…” (pp. 45-46)

Sister Bates remains madly in love with Gervase following an earlier brief affair. Gervase, on the other hand, is no longer interested in Marion, as his affections ultimately lie elsewhere…

Meanwhile, the war rumbles away in the background, but everyone seems to take things in their stride, particularly the V.A.D.s – Jane, Esther and Freddi – who share a small cottage on the site.

The whole place rocked with the deafening roar of the guns, but the bombs seemed fewer and the flares were dying down. They sat very comfortably with their feet on the fender, drinking cups of cocoa, in defiance of all orders that nobody was to remain in their quarters after black-out, during a raid. (p. 45)

So, in summary, this excellent mystery ticks a lot of boxes for me. The characters are interesting, engaging and really well-drawn. We have an atmospheric WW2 setting with plenty of tension, and there’s just enough detail on the medical front for the drama to feel realistic. Plus, it’s a devilishly clever mystery to boot. The solution, when it comes, is a very ingenious one – not something I would have worked out for myself without or Inspector Cockrill’s explanation, but perfectly possible nonetheless!

The 1946 film adaptation (same title) is excellent too, with Alastair Sim perfectly cast as Inspector Cockrill, a no-nonsense, old-school detective with a cigarette permanently on the go. Trevor Howard also features as Barney, with Judy Campbell (mother of Jane Birkin) as Sister Marion Bates. Very highly recommended indeed – both the book and the film!

23 thoughts on “Green for Danger by Christianna Brand   

  1. gertloveday

    You answered my question. I was going to ask if this had been made into a film, as the more I read the more familiar it sounded. I now recall the film; so enjoyable as you say. And Alastair Sm is one of my all time favourite actors. But I can’t remember was the murderer was, so will have to get hold of the book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! Funnily enough, I’d also seen the film by the time I read the book, but my memory for plot details and perpetrators is so dreadful that I’d forgotten the identity of the killer! Brand does a really good job at shifting our suspicions from one possible perp to another, so it’s not an easy one to guess. Totally plausible though, once the resolution is revealed.

      Reply
  2. madamebibilophile

    At first this sounded quite reminiscent of Inspector Alleyn’s Nursing Home Murder, but the WW2 setting brings a whole other dimension. The film sounds very tempting too – I’m very fond of Alastair Sim and Trevor Howard. I’ll seek out both!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I don’t think I know the Nursing Home Murder, but I’ll definitely look it up. Thanks for that. It’s a great setting for a mystery, especially with so much potential for poisoning or overdosing etc. Plus, gowns, masks and various uniforms make it easier for a killer to conceal their identify, as is the case here. I think you’d enjoy this one, Madame Bibi – and the film is on YouTube if you fancy a watch!

      Reply
  3. mallikabooks15

    The sounds a wonderful read, especially the look it gives one into a military hospital during WWII. Christianna Brand has been on my list of authors to get to for a while but I am yet to. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on his one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. I’m glad you enjoyed my review. It’s a fun book to write about, so I’m hoping that comes through!

      The BLCC ‘Guilty Creatures’ anthology also contains one of Brand’s stories, The Hornet’s Nest. A really excellent mystery about a man who dies in the middle of his wedding breakfast, the sort of tale where everyone seems to be a suspect. Definitely a writer I’d recommend based on these two mysteries alone.

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I’m glad to know you liked this one so much, Jacqui, as not only do I have a copy lurking on the TBR, I also have the film on a DVD somewhere! I love Alistair Sim which is enough of a draw, but the wartime setting will make it a winner too! Definitely one I need to get to over the summer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How wonderful that you have both to look forward to! It’s a pretty faithful film adaptation too. I think they’ve cut one of the characters from the ‘closed circle’ of suspects, but to be honest, the person concerned wasn’t a crucial part of the mystery in Brand’s book. If we leave that relatively minor alteration aside, it’s fairly close to the original text. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think Brand captures that wartime atmosphere very well, the sense of business-as-usual in the hospital as the aftershocks of the bombings can be felt around them. So glad you enjoyed the book and film too.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    This sounds really good, a military hospital is such a tantalising setting. I love a WW2 setting too. I have so many unread BLCC books, I can’t remember if this is one of them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a recent release, so you may well have been sent a copy from the BL. Brand captures the military hospital setting really well, partly because she spent quite a bit of time volunteering in one during the war. As a result, all the stuff about nursing practices and hospital management feels very true-to-life.

      I think you’ll enjoy this one, Ali. Some very interesting characters here, nicely fleshed out on the page!

      Reply
  6. Grier

    I don’t think I’ve read a mystery set in a hospital which is intriguing and the WWII setting is a plus. I’ll definitely watch the film and look for the book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great setting for a murder mystery as there’s plenty of scope for all manner of interference and dirty deeds. I hope you enjoy it, Grier!

      Reply
  7. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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