Green For Danger

Christianna Brand

A man dies on the operating table, and Inspector Cockrill suspects murder

 

As German V-1 rockets rain down on the English countryside, the men and women of the military hospitals fight to stay calm. The morning after a raid, Doctor Barnes prepares for a routine surgery to repair a postman’s broken leg. But with general anesthesia, there is always danger. Before the first incision is made, the postman turns purple. Barnes and his nurses do what they can, but the patient is dead in minutes.

 

The coroner calls for an inquest. Barnes has a history of lost patients, and cannot afford more trouble. Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Cockrill is unimpressed by the staff at the hospital, which he finds a nest of jealousy, indiscretion, and bitterness. One of them, doctor or nurse, murdered the postman—and it won’t be long before they kill again.

Brand introduces the characters in a very interesting way. At the beginning of the story, postman Joseph Higgins is carrying a sheaf of letters. As he considers each letter, we meet its writer. The seven characters we meet this way - plus Higgins himself - will soon be caught up in a murder mystery. It's wartime, and all seven characters have either been called up to service, or have volunteered to serve, at Heron's Park military hospital. Dr. Gervase Eden, Dr. Barnes and Mr. Moon will all serve as military doctors. Sister Marion Bates will serve as a military nurse and Esther Sanson, Frederica "Freddi" Linley and Jane Woods will serve with the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment). They all take up their duties and soon become accustomed to their routines, despite the realities of blackouts, bombing raids and casualties. Then one night, Joseph Higgins himself is rushed into the hospital. He's sustained a fractured femur and although his injury is not life-threatening, arrangements are made for him to be operated on the next day.

Tragically, Higgins dies during the operation, and at first, his death is put down to accident. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent County Police is sent to the hospital to do what seems at first to be a routine investigation of the events that led to Higgins' death. Very soon, though, there are hints that Higgins might have been murdered. First his wife suggests it. Then, Sister Bates has too much to drink one night at a party and blurts out that she knows who Higgins' murderer is, and she has proof. Later that night, she's stabbed to death and her body is found stretched out on an operating table in the same room where Higgins died. Only a limited number of people could have killed both Higgins and Bates, so Inspector Cockrill soon focuses his suspicions on Eden, Barnes, Moon, Sanson, Linley and Woods. As we get to know each character, we learn of the connection that each had to both victims, and we learn what each character's motive is.

One of the elements we see in this story is the slow unfolding of the characters and their histories. When the novel begins, we don't know very much about any of the suspects, although we do get little "snapshots" of them as we meet them. As the story continues, we gradually learn more and more about each person's past. For instance, we learn Jane Woods is hiding a family secret that makes her ashamed. Dr. Barnes is coping with his guilt about losing a patient. There are other pieces of background information, too, that are revealed as the reader gets to know the suspects, and they get to know one another.

There's also a network of relationships among these characters that adds to the tension. For example, Marion Bates and Gervase Eden once dated, but he's moved on, although she is still in love with him. Eden finds himself attracted to Freddi Linley, although she's engaged to Barnes. Mr. Moon finds himself falling in love with Esther Sanson, but she's become engaged to someone else. Besides those complications, there are also the inevitable conflicts that arise when disparate people have to be at close quarters. For instance, Sanson, Linley and Woods share a small place; they're very different personalities, and although they get along well enough, there is a sense of tension.

There's also the character of Cockrill himself. He's described as"…small and brown and irascible, his shabby old felt hat crammed sideways on his head in the familiar, Napoleonic fashion…"He's quite a human character. He's annoyed at first to be called out on a case that's so clearly (or at least, so it seems) an accident. But then, when it's clear that there's been murder, he's determined to catch the killer. He's observant, shrewd and a clever judge of character, and it's easy to underestimate him. There's a sense of creeping paranoia, too, as the story moves on. After Barnes is found dead, and it's clear that there's a murderer on the staff, the remaining suspects begin to doubt one another, and Cockrill encourages this. That's because although he knows who the killer is, he has no direct evidence to really prove that he's right - no evidence, anyway, that would stand up in court. So he decides to break the killer down by making sure the six suspects are monitored at all times, the idea being that that sense of being confined will fray their nerves and weaken the killer. The other staff members at the hospital don't help matters much as it's well-known who the suspects are, and everyone else is uncomfortable around them. That confinement affects all of the suspects, and their unraveling nerves add to the suspense.There are some interesting larger questions woven throughout this novel, too. For instance, when we find out who the killer is, we also find out that at least one of the other characters acted to protect the killer and the question becomes: Was that the right thing to do? On one hand, protecting a killer is, by most people's estimation, wrong. On the other, we learn why that happened, and although that doesn't change things, it certainly makes the case less "black and white."

The interplay of characters, the sense of suspense and tension and the black humour all play out against the backdrop of World War II air attacks and the realities of a military hospital under stress.

 

Review by Margot Kinberg, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist

About Christianna Brand:

Christianna Brand (December 17, 1907 - March 11, 1988) was a crime writer and children's author.

She was born Mary Christianna Milne in 1907 in Malaya and spent her early years in India. She had a number of different occupations, including model, dancer, shop assistant and governess.Her first novel, Death in High Heels, was written while Brand was working as a salesgirl. In 1941, one of her best-loved characters, Inspector Cockrill of the Kent County Police, made his debut in the book Heads You Lose. The character would go on to appear in seven of her novels. Green for Danger is Brand’s most famous novel. The whodunit, set in a World War 2 hospital, was adapted for film by Eagle-Lion Films in 1946, starring Alastair Sim as the Inspector.

She is the author of the children's series Nurse Matilda, which Emma Thompson adapted to film as Nanny McPhee (2005).