A few years ago, I had the good fortune to discuss Green for Danger with two other bloggers: John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books and Ben Randall of The Green Capsule. Here is that conversation, where you’ll discover that the idea I had to revisit all of Christianna Brand’s mysteries is a lot older than even I remembered. It was a pleasure to talk about this favorite book of ours with these esteemed friends, and it’s a pleasure to revisit and Re-Brand her most famous novel.
The richest biographical material that I can find about Christianna Brand comes from Tony Medawar in his preface to The Spotted Cat, Crippen & Landru’s 2002 collection of Inspector Cockrill short stories. But even Mr. Medawar skips over the three-year period between the appearance of her first two novels in 1941 and the masterpiece she published in 1944. Perhaps the war raging throughout England or the raising of her family had slowed her writing down. Or maybe Brand decided to take a more measured approach to getting her new novel down on paper.
Part of the inspiration for Green for Danger may have come from her husband’s experience in 1939-40 working in a military hospital in south London. The author also found herself frequently seeking shelter from the frequent bombing raids: Medawar relates a story Brand told of hunkering down in an air-raid shelter in 1941:
“As I watched, a stretcher was carried carefully down across a pile of crazy rubbish, rafters bricks, furniture, the height of a house – and indeed had one spin two houses – and laid down on the road. I realize now that, as nobody went near it, or attended to the white figure on it, the body must’ve been that of a corpse; it looked ominously short and stumpy. Terrible things happen in an explosion.”
Heads You Lose, which was published after this traumatic event, only pays lip service to the war (“If you say, ‘Is it an air raid?’ I shall scream!”). But Green for Danger is a mystery about the war, of the bombs dropping without warning and decimating villages, and the various services into which ordinary citizens were drafted as part of the battle against Hitler. The setting here is a military hospital in Kent, where we bear witness not only to the tireless courage of the doctors and nurses but also the steps they take to mitigate the grim toll of the work on their lives: the gay parties and amateur talent shows, the gentle flirting between nurses and patients, the more intense, doomed affairs between staff members.
Green for Danger is a novel of war, a workplace mystery, and a gripping domestic drama. Its strengths were recognized almost immediately by the British film industry: the book was adapted to film in1946 and is now recognized as one of the best classic mystery films of all time. It made Green for Danger Brand’s most famous book, an honor it certainly deserves, for it is a wonderful mystery.
The opening chapter introduces us to the dramatis personae as local postman Joseph Higgins delivers seven letters to the military hospital at Heron’s Park, a few miles outside a village in Kent, to announce the arrival of additional staff. In a short space, Brand paints an incisive portrait of each member of the medical team that comprises the main cast. There are the doctors: top surgeon and louche ladies’ man Gervase Eden; earnest and ugly anesthesiologist Dr. Barnes, who is suffering rumors around the death of a patient under his care; and kindly old Dr. Moon, still haunted by the fifteen-year-old death of his only son. And there are the nurses, Marion Bates, the man-hungry theatre sister, Esther Sanson, seeking to escape the confines of a fretful hypochondriac of a mother; Frederica Linley, on a similar mission now that her dad has married a “blowsy trollop of fifty;” and heavy, jolly Jane Woods who dreams of being a dress designer. (In a nod to Death in High Heels, we are told that Woods sends designs to our old friend, Mr. Cecil at Christophe et Cie, who mails her a few quid and calls the drawings his own.)
A year passes, and the lives of these seven strangers thrown together by wartime terrors now resembles a week’s worth of General Hospital: Eden has broken the vengeful heart of Sister Bates, flirted with Woods, and is about to tear apart the betrothment between Dr. Barnes and Fredi Linley, while Esther is consumed by grief and guilt over the death of her mother, whose dire warnings that she would be killed by bombs if Esther left her to work have come true. As the victims of the most recent air raid come pouring in and the stress level rises, one wouldn’t be surprised to find Dr. Eden lying dead in the operating theatre with a scalpel in his chest!
But death, when it comes, strikes nobody in the circle; instead, a patient with a leg injury that is not very serious ends up dying on the operating table. The cause of death is not apparent, and the victim – who turns out to be our old friend, the mailman – hadn’t an enemy in the world. Fortunately, Dr. Moon has an old friend who happens to be “the high ding-a-ding” at the police station in Torrington. If Inspector Cockrill can’t clear the whole matter up, who can?
That is exactly what Cockie intends to do – “Just another anesthetic death. You doctors slay them off in their thousands” – and he hopes to grab a free lunch, interview the widow and staff, sign off on an accidental death and be home before the blackout. But things are about to get a lot more complicated: a figure masked in surgery garb was seen taking the key to the operating theatre the previous night, and yet nobody in the hospital admits to being that person. It’s just the kind of niggling fact that will lead to more intrigue . . . and another death.
As we have already seen, Brand creates well-drawn and sympathetic characters using charming prose and well-crafted dialogue. Her pages teem with good humor and sharply etched observations of the world, as when Cockie is questioning Fredi Linley early on and professes surprise at the all-too-human goings on of the medical staff. Fredi replies:
“People are – just people, aren’t they, wherever you go? I mean, I look upon detectives as superhuman creatures who press buttons and waffle about with a little gray fingerprint powder for a bit, and have their case all solves in half a minute; but I suppose you’re really just ordinary people with worries about having a clean collar and eating your breakfast too quickly and things like that, and so are we.”
Moments like these are a reminder of the changes being wrought in classic detective fiction: the humanizing of the sleuth and the suspects and the emphasis tipping away from pure puzzle and more toward psychology and emotion. Brand was at the forefront of this change and became one of the best of its early purveyors.
And yet, what Green for Danger has that can’t quite be said for her first two novels is a beautifully wrought puzzle, containing clues, a fascinating method for murder, a second murder that is as gripping and dramatic as the first in a totally different way (and it’s not just padding), and some moments that I think rival Christie in their cleverness. One of the most effective examples of this is in the way Brand uncovers motive. There are overt examples: Higgins had overheard all the romantic hijinks going on in the ward; he had also threatened to make trouble for Dr. Barnes by spreading the news that he had killed a girl on the operating table before the war. Additionally Brand invites her readers to speculate – whose voice did Higgins recognize just before his surgery, and from where? – and to jump to conclusions, as when Major Moon tells the story of the unpunished bicyclist responsible for his young son’s death (“I knew who the man was, but – I couldn’t do anything; there was no proof.”) and we are left to wonder if a certain bicycle-riding mailman couldn’t have been responsible.
True to her style, Brand invests as much time exploring the pain wrought upon a close circle of suspects by fear and suspicion as she does on the investigation. Even the murderer is not immune from this growing panic: two more people are nearly killed before Cockerill unmasks a surprising killer, a clever method, and a motive that feels as inevitable as it is tragic.
Three books into this project, and I’m dead sure as to why Christianna Brand appeals to this reader. Fond as I am of a clever puzzle, I am deeply drawn to a story that contains a powerful emotional pull and a gut punch at the end. This may help you understand why I am drawn to Agatha Christie’s 40’s mysteries and Ellery Queen’s Third period (especially Calamity Town and Cat of Many Tails), even though their puzzle aspects can pale beside their 1930’s work. It’s why I love John Dickson Carr’s He Who Whispers and She Died a Lady, which aren’t nearly as complex as, say, The Three Coffins – you feel something at the end of this pair of mysteries that you won’t feel no matter how long you hang out on Cagliostro Street!
And yet . . . the puzzle itself isn’t merely gravy for me; otherwise, I’d be reading a lot more modern crime fiction, wallowing in despair and wondering if these authors ever used order and method to plan their books, why they confuse “closed circles” with “locked rooms” (Ruth Ware did this while referencing her own work in an interview just the other day), and why nobody can come up with a clever clue.
There are clues aplenty in Green for Danger. For the first time in her work, Brand strikes a fine balance between logic and feeling. In the end, one finds oneself heaving a sigh of gratitude for a well-crafted mystery, but there is also a clutch at the heart as we realize that the little circle of medical personnel at Heron’s Park will not soon be forgotten.
* * S P O I L E R S * *
“The old man stirred and groaned, ‘Bombs! Bombs! The bombs!’
”’No bombs,’ said Esther reassuringly. ‘Only guns; not bombs.’
“He lost even his feeble interest in the bombs. ‘The pain!’
“’Just bear it for a little bit longer,’ she said, her hand on his wrist. ‘Just while I get your clothes off and clean you up a little bit; and then you shall go off to sleep and forget all about it.’
“Standing with the basin balanced on her hip, towels over her arm, she looked down at him pityingly. Poor old boy; poor, frightened, broken, pitiful little old man . . . She rung out a piece of gauze in the hot water, and began gently to wash his face.”
One of my favorite types of trickery in classic mysteries is the Trick of Omission. The author gives us certain information and invites us to jump to conclusions. The doctor bidding leave of his friend in the study, the young couple at a fancy restaurant innocently celebrating their betrothment, the girl coming upon a dead body and then staring at her own face in a mirror as her mouth forms a scream. Of course these examples are all Christie, for she excels at this bit of flummery. Who notices the oddity of Dr. Sheppard’s phrasing, or questions if the couple have the same innocence when we next meet them, or wonders whether the girl is truly in shock or if she’s deliberately fixing that appearance of shock on her face.
Whatever the situation, it serves to push suspicion away from a killer (or two), and the above passage early in Green for Danger does the same. We don’t see Esther wipe the dirt away from Higgins’ face and recognize him as one of the local crew who failed to rescue her mother. We are drawn to Esther in sympathy – and because Inspector Cockrill knows her and is fond of her, and because Major Moon dotes on her, and because she has a sweet romance brewing with one of her patients. She’s not pretty and cold like Fredi or quick-witted and brave like Woods. And so we like her and excuse the fragility that turns her into a murderer.
Esther is a good person stricken mad by grief and guilt, but it’s not the unsatisfying insanity with which we were presented at the end of Heads You Lose. As Cockie himself explains, “The murderer is not a lunatic. I think he has what they call an idee fixe on just one subject but in everything else he’s as sane as – as you or me.” Esther’s concern for the others throughout the investigation is genuine, as is the love that blooms between her and the handsome brewer William. In fact, Brand doubles down on Esther’s tragedy, first by having her shoulder – quite unreasonably – the blame for her mother’s death, and then by finally allowing herself to fall in love, only to learn that William was part of the same rescue team as Higgins.
In the end, Cockrill laments at having to bring in the daughter of an old friend for murder, but it is her circle of friends who give Esther the peace she needs. Esther’s death provides a fascinating coda to Cockie’s journey here: after tenderly explaining the how and why of her actions, he reacts with horror at her suicide and frantically tries to revive her in order to face trial and possible execution. Meanwhile, her friends bid her a loving and sad farewell and fend off Cockie’s accusations by pointing out the part he unwittingly played in her death.
In a few weeks, my friends Jim Noy and Moira Redmond and I will be discussing another book that came out this same year: Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero. It’s a book strong on both characterization and clueing, and I like it very much. And yet, there is not a sign of war going on in the country (Christie was good at holding the war at bay when she chose to), and while in retrospect we might feel a tinge of sadness that this is the last time we will come upon Superintendent Battle, we don’t leave the circle at Gull’s Point feeling much about anyone else. The killer is caught, and everybody pairs up neatly and goes off to live happily ever after, forgetting that this lunatic once dwelled in their midst, savagely beat their hostess and friend to death, and tried to frame an innocent person for their crime. No muss, no fuss.
On the other hand, Green for Danger reaches its conclusion and leaves us shattered. The tight circle of wartime co-workers breaks apart. One romance might survive, another certainly has no chance . . . and everyone must go back to their lives haunted by Esther’s tragedy and what it cost all of them, not least the murderer herself.
“Laughing and talking they strolled on up the hill, and if the ghost of an old man toiled ahead of them, carrying in his hand a letter signed with the name of his own murderer – they did not notice him.”