Green for Danger by Christianna Brand

green for danger24-carat…

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World War 2 is underway and a military hospital has been set up at Heron’s Park in Kent. As the book begins, the local postman is taking a bundle of letters to the hospital from seven people confirming acceptance of positions they’ve been offered there. There’s Gervase Eden, doctor to the hypochondriacal rich and fatally attractive to women, feeling he must do his bit for the war effort. Jane Woods has always been a bit of a party girl but in a fit of conscience has signed up for nursing duty and is now wondering if she’s done the right thing. Esther Sanson sees nursing as an opportunity to escape from being a permanent companion to her needy mother. Mr Moon, an elderly surgeon, is glad of the chance to get away from his home, empty since the deaths of his wife and young son. Dr Barnes is the subject of local gossip about a patient who died under his care as an anaesthetist, so is also glad to get away. Frederica Linley just wants to avoid her father’s awful new wife. And Sister Bates lives in hope that she might meet some nice officers…

These seven people will become the chief suspects when a patient at the hospital dies unexpectedly on the operating table. At first, it’s assumed the death was no more than an unusual reaction to the anaesthetic, but when Inspector Cockrill is called in to confirm this, he learns a couple of things that lead him to suspect the death may have been murder. But before he can find out who did it, he first has to work out how it was done…

This has everything you would hope for from a true Golden Age mystery, and is exceptionally well written to boot. Brand introduces the characters straight away, and sets up the plot so that only these seven people could have had the opportunity to commit the crime. Her initial sketches of them already suggest possible motives even before we know who the victim will be, and she develops them more deeply as the book progresses so that, in a Christie-esque way, we are led to care more about some of them than others, enabling her to build up a lot of tension as they come under suspicion or even into danger. Because of course there’s going to be a second murder! And when it comes it’s brilliantly written – goose-bump stuff!

Film of the Book - Alastair Sim is Inspector Cockrill in the movie - review coming soon...
Film of the Book – Alastair Sim is Inspector Cockrill in the movie – review coming soon…

The plot is beautifully complex, as is the murder method – both murder methods, in fact. It turns out that almost everyone could have had a motive for doing away with the first victim, Higgins, an air-raid warden who’s been hurt in a bombing. The motive for the second victim is clearer – if one decides to reveal to all and sundry that one knows who the murderer is and intends to tell the police, well, frankly, it’s almost one’s own fault when one is discovered in a deceased condition not long thereafter…

Life in this military hospital during the Blitz feels totally authentic, with that rather stiff upper lip attitude that I believe the Brits genuinely had back then. So despite the war and the constant danger from air-raids, life very much goes on, with people falling in and out of love, making friends and enemies, coping with rationing and shortages and, importantly, keeping a sense of humour, which helps to keep the novel entertaining while not avoiding darker subjects.

Cockrill is also an old-fashioned detective. There’s no overbearing boss, departmental politics or whining about paperwork – he concentrates on solving the crime and does so by skilful questioning and clue-gathering. He’s can be a bit rude and has no hesitation in playing on the nerves of his suspects to try to frighten the murderer into mistakes. He’s also a bit of a sexist piglet, but then that’s another Golden Age tradition. But he’s dedicated to getting at the truth and, though he might take the odd risk, he’s willing to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions.

Christianna Brand
Christianna Brand

All the clues are there, meaning the novel is “fair-play”, but for most of it I remained nicely baffled, only getting there towards the end, and even then there were enough red herrings floating around that I still wasn’t sure I’d got it right. If I had a complaint, it’s that there a bit of a hiatus towards the end, when Cockrill decides to do nothing for a bit to try to allow nerves to work on the murderer. While his plan works, it does mean that the story slows down a lot at this point. But it quickly builds up again towards a nicely dramatic and complex climax, with enough moral ambiguity to make it satisfying. And Brand doesn’t forget to clear up all the side plots she has used as distractions along the way, as well as letting us know how things work out for the remaining characters.

Not all Golden Age novels glitter, but this one does – highly recommended.

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