Green for Danger – Christianna Brand

GreenForDangerJohn Dickson Carr has left me with some emotional moments – the anger followed by enlightenment at the reveal of It Walks By Night; the poignancy of the end of He Who Whispers; the shock and disbelief of The Burning Court; the haunting conclusion of She Died a Lady.  Never though, have I been so impacted as the final chapters of Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger.

I was bound to delve into non-Carr works eventually and so why not take the leap with a classic?  I’ve started to accrue a backlog of books by other authors, and the temptation to branch out proved to be too much.  My first choice would have been Brand’s The Death of Jezebel, but that title has proven itself hard to find in physical form.  My tipping point was a recent purchase of Tour de Force and Green for Danger by the same author.  I desperately wanted to read the former, but worried that it may contain some end of series reveals, I opted for the earlier work.

Set in the bombed out countryside of early-WWII England, Green for Danger places us in the intimate confines of Heron’s Park Hospital.  A converted children’s sanatorium, the facility is the home of a hard working staff of doctors, nurses, and VADs.  It is in this place of mercy, with German bombers prowling the skies, that a most memorable set of murders takes place.

A postman, caught in the rubble of a night time bombardment, undergoes a seemingly standard operation on a broken leg.  Beneath the lights of the operating theatre, before a surgical team of seven, he dies of asphyxia.  The death is ruled an accident, but Inspector Cockrill is brought in for a quick investigation to avoid further gossip.  All details of the operation are poured over – the gas, the tubes, the injections, and other nuances of 1940’s medical procedures – but everything comes up clean.  The detective is about to leave the scene, when a bombardment traps him there until morning

A drunken night at a party and a spat between lovers leads to a bold claim from a member of the operating team – “I know who did it and how it was done and everything.”  Of course, it’s ill advised to make such a statement and then walk off on your own through a near deserted hospital to grab the evidence.  The nurse who made the declaration is found stabbed to death; her body dressed in surgical gear and laid out on the operating table where the first death occurred.

What transpires from this point forward is nothing short of a masterpiece.  Evidence strongly suggests that one of the members of the surgical team is a murderer, and that knowledge suffocates the close knit group.  Brand takes pains to flesh out the humanity of each suspect.  Sure, we have some stereotypes – the playboy doctor, the ditsy nurse – but even within those trappings we have a true sense of a person.  More importantly, we have a true sense of the relationships between them.  As these bonds unravel and suspicion grows, we sense not just the strain on the relationships, but how tight they were to begin with.  The tension within the group escalates as Inspector Cockrill applies more and more pressure, leading to one of the most powerful and unforgettable endings I’ve read.

Brand’s writing style in Green for Danger took me a while to get used to.  Her writing focuses very much on the conversation and much less on scene descriptions and events than an author like John Dickson Carr.  In a way, the story almost reads like a movie script, as it features mostly dialog.  The dialog sometimes flows without references to who is talking, and so you have to piece together what exactly is going on from what is being said.  While this threw me off initially, I had acclimated to it by mid-book, and it did lead to a very fast engaging read.

Inspector Cockrill provides an interesting departure from the super-detective that Carr typically deploys with Fell and Merrivale.  He feels more human – prone to get annoyed, capable of making simple mistakes.  The rest of the characters are also a deviation from the norm of stories revolving around aristocrats.  In Green for Danger, the characters come from a variety of backgrounds and walks of life.  This helps strengthen the glimpse that Brand gives us into life during war time as we watch how the hospital personnel live their lives amidst the chaos of bombings.

Brand’s positioning of clues and her use of misdirection is a definite strength.  Upon learning the solution, every action that led up to the string of murders is as clear as day.  There is no need to include “remember when…” references at the conclusion to the story; the mind is able to seamlessly stitch the events together because everything that matters took place in such an open way.  Brand doesn’t rely so much on subtle cluing; it is instead that the reader doesn’t see the clues as clues and doesn’t know how to assemble them to make everything fit.

As well known as the story may be for its puzzling murder (committed in full view of seven witnesses), it isn’t the howdunnit that sticks with me.  Sure, that was a clever little bit, but the true brilliance is the who.  Not just the who, but the why.  As much as Carr used the who/why to create a haunting ending to She Died a Lady, it is Green for Danger that will stick with me much longer.

The book was adapted into a 1947 movie of the same name, which is available in full on Youtube.  It was interesting to notice the small deviations from the book, such as a key clue not being shown during the scene of the first murder.  More interesting though was the ability to watch the crime unfold and to see just how subtle the clues can be when you merely see them and not read them.  I personally find the written word to be advantageous for stressing the impossibility of a crime, as well as giving proper attention to clueing.  I advise reading the book and then treating yourself to the film version, rather than just skipping straight to the movie.

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22 thoughts on “Green for Danger – Christianna Brand”

  1. Glad you share my enjoyment of this one. My favourite Brand is Tour de Force, which I would be willing to argue is better than what Carr could have done with the same material. I don’t believe it contains any revelations about earlier works, but I could be wrong.
    Also glad to see you’re going beyond Carr … I think you’ll increase your reading pleasure from getting a perspective of where the field was working rather than just one of its foremost practitioners.

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  2. Ben, I am thrilled that you loved this book! Like you, I love the identity of, and motive for, the murderer, as well as the brilliant way Brand sets all of that up and conceals it. I also think she does an amazing job of weaving the historical context into the plot and making it count!

    Like Noah, I adore Tour de Force, but some will argue that it is much too far-fetched. In the end, though, I felt the same emotional sick in the gut. I think you have a treat coming.

    Time to branch out to what’s her name . . . The Christie woman.

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    1. You and Noah have confirmed my resolve to read Tour de Force soon. I’m curious to see if the writing style is similar to Green for Danger. Of course, before getting to it, I have a Carr or two to read, plus I just picked up the mother load of Ellery Queen and I think I might experiment with one of those. I also have to read Rim of the Pit in time for JJ’s July event, although I refuse to buy anything other than the Dell map back edition, so we’ll see how achievable that is.

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      1. Well, I obviously wish you every good luck with tracking down the Dell edition, but be aware that the Ramble House edition does use the same map on its back cover…and is mch easier (and probably cheaper) to achieve…

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  3. A cracking book and good, if not unexpected, to hear that it worked for you. It begins well, is smart as can be throughout, and ends with aplomb.
    As others have said, branching out and adding some variety to your reading diet adds balance and is a healthy move in the long run. Have fun.

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  4. I know that I’m the only person in the civilised world who doesn’t love this, but it just did not work for me. There is far too much delighted smugness as they all sit around between crimes discussing openly with each other how possible it would have been for any one of them to have done it, and the ending is unexpected purely because there’s virtually nothing that means it couldn’t also have been any one of the others. Now, I know that’s supposed to be the point in a way, but you also want a trail of clues leading up to the guilty person that can be appreciated retrospectively. Here she just sort of picked someone, went back and added a line of text to an earlier chapter, and job done.

    But, yeah, it is just me. The Crooked Wreath (aka, Suddenly at His Residence) and Death of Jezebel were much more my kind of thing, and not just because they’re impossible crimes — Brand has a far better sense of the inevitability of clewing there, I feel, and this looks staggeringly like an apprentice work by comparison. I have Tour de Force on the TBR, too, since that’s apparently staggeringly audacious and I love a bit of audacity. So, y’know, it seems that if you loved this one then there are delights aplenty ahead of you.

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    1. I’m actually with you on this one, JJ. I like Green for Danger but I don’t think it’s a great mystery … and you’ve nailed it exactly, “there’s virtually nothing that means it couldn’t also have been any one of the others”. If I had to suggest a best-to-worst order for Brand, this would be fourth or fifth … mind you, her average books are miles above lots of other writers’ best!
      It’s possible that the only reason this book has such celebrity is because of the ability to watch Alistair Sim play it out.

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      1. Out of interest, what would you put above it, then? I’m guessing Crooked Wreath, Jezebel, and of course Tour de Force…but anything else? Or not any of those?

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      2. Yes, Crooked Wreath, which I like very much — excellent character work — Jezebel, her best puzzle — and Tour de Force. I’m not going to pick which is best of those three, but probably Fog of Doubt would be fourth. I actively disliked Cat and Mouse. Death in High Heels has some fun stuff in it, notably Mr. Cecil, but there’s not much to it; I always thought it was a kind of roman a clef.

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    2. Blasphemy!!! ahem… er, ok, so you have a point that it was fairly open ended, but I swear the clues are there! It really sank in when I watched the movie and there are all of the tell tale signs in what the characters are doing, where they are, how they’re feeling, etc. Granted, this is nowhere near the level that we get from someone like Carr, where you wonder how the author could have ever pulled off such a briar patch of interconnected clues.

      I’ve been looking forward to reading Brand for a while, primarily for The Death of Jezebel and Green for Danger. I had an inkling that Tour de Force may be a classic, and a recent review of Suddenly at his Residence had me thinking “why don’t I hear about this one more?” The comments so far confirm that I have much to look forward to, even beyond the books that I had on my radar.

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      1. There’s a certain part of The Crooked Wreath (aka SaHR) that I think does what it does better than you’ll find the same sort of thing in any other book ever. And then there’s a moment of clewing in Death of Jezebel that might be the most brazenly awesome piece of fair-play ever recorded. No doubt about it, when Brand was on form she really knew how to write ’em.

        Delighted to see you branching out, too. A bit of a shock — I thought you’d been hacked or something — but I look forward to seeing where your adventures take you next.

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  5. In my far from humble opinion, Green for Danger alone gives Brand a greater claim to the title of Crime Queen than Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey.

    But then she also went on to write such gems as Death of Jezebel, Tour de Force and the superb London Particular (a.k.a. Fog of Doubt), which I can highly recommend because the ending will impact you as much as Green for Danger. The book is set among a small cast of characters who genuinely care for one another, even covering for each other, which makes the ending all the more bleak and tragic.

    Like JJ, I also liked Suddenly at His Residence, but opinions on that book seems to be split right down to the middle. One half hate the book, while the other half loves it. However, I would avoid Heads, You Lose. A poorly plotted, disappointing mystery novel with a poorly executed impossible crime. The reader has been warned!

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    1. The ending of Heads you Lose made me want to throw the book across the room. There’s some nice characterization in there, which makes it all the more galling that the solution is such rubbish.

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    2. I haven’t ever really heard anyone say anything about London Particular, it seems to fly below the radar. Thanks for all of the recommendations. I’m anxious to get to more of Brand’s work, though it is unfortunate that there is so little of it.

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  6. I think I’m somewhere in the upper middle with this book. Not a wow all out favourite but one I still enjoyed. I think it was my first experience of Brand as well. I have watched the film version but it didn’t really work for me, dragged on a lot and was rather dull.

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    1. Omigod, Kate! The film is a mystery classic! It’s considered one of the truly best filmed whodunnits of all time! I – I – splutter! Gasp!

      And I don’t think JJ should read Tour de Force either. I couldn’t bear to think what he would make of it!

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      1. My experience with Tour de Force was, upon first reading, I remember distinctly flipping back through the pages furiously trying to find out where exactly I’d been misled. And by golly there it was. Whiz! It went right past me 😉

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      2. Well, gauntlet…picked up (I suppose?). Tour de Force shall be my next review on m’blog. Well, next next, since Sprigg’s Death of an Airman is next.

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      3. Good, I can’t wait to see your review. I’m finishing up Panic in Box C, and then I may attempt another author (whose identity will be exposed this weekend), so I probably won’t get to Tour de Force for a while. This definitely turned into a fruitful post due to all of the Brand recommendations it resulted in.

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      4. I’m sorry Brad (I’m getting nearly as controversial as JJ these days one way or another), but for some reason I just found it very slow and dull. Remember enjoying the book more and I’m fairly sure I enjoyed Tour De Force so perhaps you’ll be able to forgive me?

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