RogerBW's Blog

Green for Danger, Christianna Brand 07 July 2016

1944 detective fiction; second of Brand's novels of Inspector Cockrill. At a military hospital during the Blitz, a patient dies under anæsthetic. Later, someone who'd claimed to know who was responsible is stabbed to death. Six suspects are left, and there's not a visible motive among them.

This is a formal detective story, with a limited pool of suspects and a constrained setting. But it's a story in which the suspects are aware of their status: it's established quite early that nobody else could have done the deed, and as they realise other people are keeping clear of all of them they draw together somewhat nervously.

There are seven of them at first. Gervase Eden, the Harley Street practitioner for rich young women without anything terribly wrong with them, and an inveterate womaniser; Jane Woods, clothes designer turned V.A.D.; Esther Sanson, getting away from her hypochondriac mother; Mr Moon, the old local surgeon who never recovered from the death of his young son, and his friend Barnes, the anæsthetist, who recently lost a patient on the table; Frederica Linley, avoiding her father's new wife; and Sister Marion Bates, hoping to meet some nice officers.

Frederica's father who for thirty years had been a legend in some outpost of Empire, had subsequently settled down in Dinard, where he could by no means be got to appreciate that the inhabitants had not only never heard of the legend, but had never even heard of the Outpost. The war put an end to this embarrassing state of affairs and, on a nightmare voyage to England, he met and affianced himself to a wealthy widow with a proper respect for the pioneers of the East. Frederica received the news with her habitual calm. "I think she's too frightful, Daddy," she said, "but it's you that's got to sleep with her, not me," and she absented herself from the new home upon a series of lectures, and finally wrote off to Heron's Park that she would be arriving for duty on such-and-such a day, as instructed. Since a blowsy trollop of fifty cannot be expected to care for competition from an exquisite, self-possessed little creature of twenty-two, the ex-widow was not sorry to see her go.

Brand plays them all masterfully, keeping everyone except the second victim in contention as a suspect right until the last moment. A little more character development would have been welcome, but would probably have made the book lag unacceptably.There are clues, but not many, and I fell at the last fence. The how is tricky but soluble; the why is much harder (why on Earth should someone want to kill an elderly postman?), and cracking this will give you the who. There's a little coincidence, but I think within the bounds of plausibility. Pacing slacks a bit towards the end, when Cockrill, having his own idea about the culprit but wanting a confession, isolates them under police supervision until he thinks they're ready to crack.

What this book has become since its publication is an effective period piece, showing life in a military hospital during the Blitz; Brand didn't work in one herself, but her ENT-surgeon husband did, and she sometimes joined the staff in the shelters. The atmosphere of life on the wards, with air raids every night, seems effectively captured, and as someone with a little medical knowledge I found the equipment and procedures convincing if frighteningly primitive. One unexpected note: when the murderer commits suicide after confessing, Cockrill treats this as an unwelcome evasion of justice, rather than as saving everyone the bother of a trial; I suppose this might well have been the attitude at the time, but I can't help feeling that dead is probably just as dead whether by one's own hand or from a hangman's noose.

I read this for Past Offences' 1944 month, but I'll be seeking out more of Brand's work in the future. Followed by Suddenly at His Residence.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:49am on 07 July 2016

    I only vaguely remember the movie with Alistair Sim as the detective.

    The title (I seem to recall) didn't play as well in a black and white movie.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:21pm on 07 July 2016

    The film was apparently well-thought-of; I haven't seen it. The green is the colour that operating theatres were painted, to try to be a bit less harsh on the eyes of the surgeon than plain white.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:57pm on 07 July 2016

    My parents keep recommending various series of detective fiction, like the Brunetti series. To use that as an example, I got fed up (and stopped reading them as a result) with how no-one ever ends up in court, instead they go bankrupt or their reputation is ruined or they commit suicide or whatever. To me this is a terrible cop out, I want criminals to go to court, be tried, be convicted (or not) on reliable evidence and serve a prison sentence. As such I'm in agreement with Cockrill seeing it as an evasion of jutice.

  4. Posted by Rich at 02:00pm on 07 July 2016

    Thanks for joining in with 1944 Roger.

    Green for Danger was one of the first novels I blogged about at Past Offences - it made it on to the CWA's list of the 100 best crime and mystery books. It has been most recently seen (in what you could charitably call a homage) in an episode of the BBC's Father Brown.

  5. Posted by RogerBW at 02:09pm on 07 July 2016

    Owen - I think it varies quite a bit with author and period. I haven't analysed this, but I suspect that once the death sentence for murder was abolished authors were more inclined to ensure their culprit died by some other means in order to satisfy the restorative urge that's at the core of many detective stories – i.e. the criminal has introduced a disruption into ordered society, and that disruption must be removed in order for the ending to be satisfactory.

    On the other hand you have something like the Campion series starting in the 1920s, where in several of the early books the murderer dies while trying to kill Campion but is not killed by Campion, since that would make the hero a killer.

  6. Posted by chris at 03:02pm on 07 July 2016

    In an earlier blog post you mentioned that in Madam, Will You Talk by Mary Stewart she goes to some trouble to make sure the hero is not a killer:

    "The villains are finally despatched practically off-stage, certainly with none of the good guys' hands getting dirty, though that needs even more contrivance to make it work."

    That was 1954, so before the death penalty was abolished too.

  7. Posted by RogerBW at 03:08pm on 07 July 2016

    Rich - thanks!

    Chris - Indeed, thanks for the reminder. I think there is always an urge to see villains dead, facing divine rather than merely human justice, even when (as in the classic murder mystery) the human system is assumed basically to get things right most of the time.

    Which is slacking, in a way, because it means the detective's evidence doesn't have to be foolproof: at most it has to convince the villain that it would work in court, and in a few books I've read the detective freely admits to his colleagues that he knows whodunnit but can't prove it, and therefore has to force the villain to do something stupid.

  8. Posted by Chris Suslowicz at 12:14am on 08 July 2016

    My suspicion is that the method simply would not work, due to various physical and mechanical mismatches. That apart, it's a rather good whodunit (though I have to suspend my disbelief by the neck for a suitable period first).

    I'm rather partial to Ngaio Marsh and Richard Austin Freeman for my crime fiction.

    Chris.

  9. Posted by RogerBW at 08:12am on 08 July 2016

    It certainly wouldn't work now, for the reasons you say - set up that way quite deliberately. Whether that was the case in 1944, I don't know.

    I'm currently reading Marsh and Allingham in interleaved chronological order. I very much enjoyed the Thorndyke stories a few years ago, and may at some point revisit them for the blog.

  10. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:53pm on 08 July 2016

    I have no urge to see villains dead, it's a cop out for everyone. It denies victims and relatives their day in court to get all the eveidence out and to have legal acknowledgement of guilt. The guilty party escapes the punishment of serving a 30 year prison sentence or whatever. And as far as I'm concerned they don't meet divine justice, because I'm an aetheist. A dead person is just a pile of meat.

  11. Posted by chris at 08:05pm on 08 July 2016

    The advantage of course is that in the event of a miscarriage of justice, they don't get out of jail free without serving any time in prison at all, and then do it again, whatever "it" may have been. This is probably a good thing.

  12. Posted by RogerBW at 08:09pm on 08 July 2016

    True, but I think irrelevant to the classic mystery story: certainly in these pre-war ones I've been reading, and in most of the later ones too, the villain is punished. That's the point of the exercise, that order has been restored, whether the punishment is judicial or otherwise. Certainly there are stories in which this process goes wrong, but I think that definitionally they aren't mystery stories of the classic type.

  13. Posted by Bev@My Reader's Block at 03:22am on 09 July 2016

    Roger, glad you're joining in with us at Rich's Crimes of the Century. Excellent review of Brand's book. Green for Danger was an early read for me (like 20-30 years ago...). I was very impressed with it then and enjoyed Brand's set-up--no matter how improbable it might be today.

  14. Posted by Michael Cule at 06:19pm on 10 July 2016

    The only classic murder mystery I can think of that depicts the 'day in court' is the classic MALICE AFORETHOUGHT.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malice_Aforethought

    But even that is a misrepresentation because you know from the first line who the murderer is. The question is only what sort of justice he will face and IIRC you don't find that out until the last.

  15. Posted by Chris Suslowicz at 10:33pm on 10 July 2016

    Oh dear... in 1944 it would be entirely feasible. The Pin Index Safety System was introduced in 1952 (and clearly nobody gave any thought to the acronym it would inevitably be known by).

    https://www.woodlibrarymuseum.org/museum/item/627/pin-index-valves

    (I now also recall reading about an aircraft incident where the ground crew installed compressed air bottles instead of oxygen.)

  16. Posted by J F Norris at 07:21pm on 14 July 2016

    Oddly, I've never read this book though I think Brand was one of the best of the women writers of mystery fiction during her lifetime. She was certainly overshadowed by a couple of other writers who are not as strong, IMO. I've seen the movie, however. I think it's a masterpiece as far as a movie mystery. It's the cinematic equivalent of a fair play detective novel. All the clues are presented in visual form or spoken dialogue. It's really rather brilliant. Very rare for a movie mystery. Only THE LAST OF SHEILA approaches this level of genius.

    If you have read as much detective fiction as I have you'd know that the suicide of the murderer may seem common but when taken in scope of the entire genre is a relatively rare event. Something I'd be interested in reading your opinion on is a much more frequent event -- that of the detective allowing the murderer to kill himself (or herself) or in some cases the detective becoming executioner. There is one writer from the 30s-40s era whose series detective is a woman and she kills the culprit in three different books.

  17. Posted by RogerBW at 07:38pm on 14 July 2016

    Interesting - it's not something that comes to mind as a usual thing. So that gives at least a three-way split of non-judicial punishments:

    • detective kills murderer (popular in the modern day)
    • murderer dies by misadventure (much early Allingham)
    • murderer commits suicide, perhaps with connivance by detective

    Clearly all of these are meant to be a satisfying ending from the perspective of the reader: this was a horrible person, he/she is now dead, things are back to normal (except for the murder victim). What particularly struck me in this book was how upset Cockrill was about the situation.

  18. Posted by John Dallman at 12:33pm on 20 July 2016

    I've bought a copy of this, and 20 pages in, it looks good.

  19. Posted by Chris Suslowicz at 07:17pm on 21 July 2016

    ...and I've just emptied another bookshelf into a box for the house move and found my (rather tatty) paperback copy of it. I may be some time....

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