John 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.