Saturday, June 3, 2023

Green For Danger, by Christianna Brand


Poisoned Pen Press, in association with the British Library, 2023
originally published 1944
284 pp


I'm still working at restoring my mental mojo, but that doesn't mean I've been idle readingwise. I'm just very, very behind and now I've got a stack of like five books sitting here waiting for me to post about. Not to worry -- I'll get there.

Green for Danger is book number two in Christianna Brand's Inspector Cockrill series, preceded by the series opener, Heads You Lose (which I'm reading now).  I'm just thrilled that it is a part of the British Library Crime Classics collection, since the copy I have is an old mass market paperback in pretty beat-up condition.   I enjoyed Green for Danger so very much that I immediately bought the remaining books,  including preordering Death of Jezebel (also from British Library Crime Classics and arriving in August) -- that's how very good it is.  

World War II serves as the backdrop for this clever, closed-circle mystery, which takes place at a former sanitorium now serving as military hospital at Heron's Park just outside of Heronsford in Kent.  The seven main players have all been called to duty there, and they are introduced one by one  (along with a bit of each person's backstory) via their acceptance letters which are being delivered by  postman Joseph Higgins.  The male contingent consists of Dr. Gervase Eden, a surgeon from Harley Street, Mr. Moon, another surgeon hailing from Heronsford, and Dr. Barnes (Barney),  a local anesthetist; the women are   Jane Woods  (Woody), who has been called as a VAD nurse as have Esther Sanson and Frederica (Freddi) Linley, and finally Sister Marion Bates.  Offering the tiniest bit of a clue as to where this story is headed, as Higgins takes himself and his bicycle up the hill leading to Heron's Park, the author tells us that he "could not know that, just a year later, one of the writers would die, self-confessed a murderer."  

Within that year, the hospital working routine of these new arrivals has been established, romance and more than a bit of sexual tension hangs in the air, and air raids are regularly bringing in casualties.  One of these is Joseph Higgins himself, admitted with a fractured femur.   His surgery is routine, "only a little operation, hardly anything at all," so when he dies before the operation begins while the anesthesia is being administered, everyone is surprised.  After all, "the old boy was all right" physically, and no one can find anything wrong in the equipment or the procedure that might have caused him to die so unexpectedly.  Goodness knows things like this can happen "for no rhyme or reason," but the problem is that this wouldn't be the first time that Barnes had lost a patient while administering anesthesia.  Major Moon tells him that if anything comes of Higgins' death, he'd be happy to call in "the high ding-a-ding" Inspector Cockrill  to ensure that "there isn't a lot of undue fuss."   At first Cockrill (who often goes by the nickname Cockie) doesn't "see what all the fuss is about," but it isn't too long before he realizes that Higgins' death was definitely suspicious, and definitely a murder.  He also realizes that it's one of our seven main characters who is responsible, but as to motive, he has no idea.  It seems however, that the murderer isn't quite finished, as there is a second death, again in the operating theatre.  

 Original first edition cover, from Wikipedia

As a person who often figures out the who long before the big reveal comes, I have to say that I was extremely delighted not to have done so this time.  I actually had two different suspects in mind but Brand came along and pulled the rug right out from under me.  That's not too surprising, since the author sort of toys with her readers by planting doubts (and thereby possible motives) about each of the seven suspects. In hindsight, all of the clues were definitely there, and it was like a "how did I miss that?"  kind of moment when Brand actually unmasked the killer.  Add to this the very realistic and credible sense of place and the atmosphere that the author delivers pretty much from the start, all making Green For Danger a pitch-perfect mystery. 

from Cinema Sojourns

I have the old black-and-white film (1946, Pinewood Studios) on DVD as part of my Criterion Collection movies, so I watched it right after finishing the novel.  While it deviates a bit from the book I could have cared less.  Alastair Sim definitely steals the show here in the role of Inspector Cockrill, often playing his scenes for laughs, which at times given the dark and actually somewhat sinister atmosphere underlying this film, can be a welcome relief.  He is eccentric, but underneath his quirkiness there is definitely a sense that he is a wise detective with a keen sense of justice.  The supporting cast, including Trevor Howard, also does a great job.  I would definitely recommend both book and movie, in that order.  

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