Green for Danger by Christianna Brand

Originally published in 1944
Inspector Cockrill #2
Preceded by Heads You Lose
Followed by Suddenly at His Residence

It is 1942, and struggling up the hill to the new military hospital, Heron’s Park, Kent, postman Higgins has no idea that the sender of one of the seven letters of application he is delivering will turn out to be a murderer in a year’s time.

When Higgins is brought in following injuries from a bombing raid in 1943, his inexplicable death from asphyxiation at the operating table casts four nurses and three doctors under suspicion, and a second death in quick succession invites the presence of the irascible – yet uncommonly shrewd – Inspector Cockrill to the scene. As the prospect of driving back across Kent amid falling bombs detains the inspector for the night, a tense and claustrophobic investigation begins to determine who committed the foul deeds, and how it was possible to kill with no evidence left behind.

When I posted about my first Christianna Brand novel, Heads You Lose, last month each of the comments suggested that I quickly follow it with Green for Danger. I was happy to oblige, not only because it was the next in that series (and I do generally try to read in order) but because it also featured Inspector Cockrill who I had enjoyed a lot as a sleuth.

The novel takes place during wartime at an English country hospital the day after an air raid. A local postman is brought into the hospital during the night shift to repair a broken leg and is prepped for surgery. During the event however something seems to go wrong shortly after he is placed under anesthesia and he dies moments later. Inspector Cockrill is dispatched to investigate what seems to have been a tragic accident and initially seems to pay little attention to the claims made by the deceased’s wife that her husband had been mistreated in the few hours between his admission and the fatal surgery. When a second death takes place a short time later, the victim having asserted a short time before in front of everyone involved with the surgery that they had evidence that would prove murder, he starts to investigate in earnest…

Since starting this blog I have read a number of detective novels that have taken place during wartime. This is one of the most effective and interesting depictions of what it feels like to be living at a time of war. What fascinated me was not simply the expected fears of death or danger from the bombing raids but the range of other emotions depicted here. The moments of flippancy or morbid humor, the sense that for some that wartime offered a chance to find a purpose or status they didn’t otherwise have and living in the moment. This is a much broader and more nuanced depiction of life during a period of enormous uncertainty and danger and I appreciated how well-observed it felt.

I think that same attention to detail is obviously also noticeable in its depiction of the operations of a rural hospital and of the range of personalities who work there. We witness several medical operations during the course of the novel and both are carefully described, particularly the second which takes place under considerable scrutiny, making it clear that the work had been well-researched.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this story is that it is an example of a type of murder in which no crime appears to have been committed at all. For all the characters may suspect that there has been foul play, it is really the attempts to cover up that first crime that draw the attention of the investigator. Brand does a good job of explaining both why Cockrill doesn’t pay much attention to the suggestion at first, which is partly based on his somewhat caustic personality as an investigator, and also the medical reasons why it isn’t clear that it was murder.

The mystery itself is cunningly constructed, both in terms of the initial crime but also the killer’s subsequent activities. One of my favorite sequences in the novel concerned an attempt by the detective to prevent a repeat of the incident by overseeing each element of the operation and while I think the crucial element is perhaps highlighted a little too effectively early in the book (often an issue with crimes that have to introduce specialist knowledge), I love the way that it is discovered later which is both exciting and quite clever.

I also really appreciated that Brand creates a very effective example of a closed circle mystery, limiting her suspects to a small group of doctors and nurses who were present during that first operation. She even quite specifically names who the suspects will be before the murder even takes place in the novel’s opening in which the postman has a collection of letters, each described, one of which is linked to the person who will kill them. This is one example of how Brand uses foreshadowing quite effectively to set and play with the reader’s expectations, creating suspense within her narratives.

I felt that each of these characters were rendered quite effectively and I enjoyed the process of teasing apart their connections and their feelings about each other. We are never really given reason to root for any of them as each has moments that expose their prejudices and personality flaws but I felt that they were compelling and realistic. Similarly Cockrill is not always a likable man, particularly later in the novel as we see him place the suspects under some intense and uncomfortable scrutiny, but I always found him interesting.

It is that period of sustained pressure on the suspects that I think really stands out to me most about this story, not only because it creates a compelling situation for the characters but because I think it helped me figure out what I like about Cockrill. This is a character who is not a master detective the way a Poirot or Gideon Fell is. Rather he is a plodder who recognizes his limits but also the tools available to him in his official capacity as a policeman. While I typically do not like stories in which a character is forced to reveal themselves, this feels different precisely because there is no deception involved. The killer is perfectly aware of what Cockrill is doing and why making the moment in which he declares the killer’s identity all the more compelling.

While all the of mystery elements of the story worked for me, I am a little less enamored of some of the romantic subplots running through the book which do not always read quite as naturally as some of the other character moments of tension and conflict do. These are not tacked on however and are important to our understanding both of the characters and of the background to which these crimes take place, making them feel purposeful and essential to the novel as a whole making them easier to appreciate in retrospect.

Overall then I am happy to say I really enjoyed Green for Danger and quite agree with the sentiments that this is a much stronger work that the previous Cockrill story. It presents an interesting scenario, a good mix of suspects and I think it builds well to a memorable and satisfying conclusion. Expect that further Cockrill posts will follow!

The Verdict: An excellent fair-play thriller that builds superbly to a really strong conclusion.

21 thoughts on “Green for Danger by Christianna Brand

  1. This was my first Brand, probably because it’s the one that’s always reprinted. (Making a movie out of a book will do that for you! Oh, and the movie is GREAT!) Yes, I agree that the romantic subplots tend to blur – everyone is in love with this man or that woman – but some of it is great, like the way it makes a monster out of Bates or the subtle feelings Woods has for Mr. Eden. Mostly this book just sings! Not many authors can fool us with characters’ thoughts like Brand could – she and Christie had a remarkable way with timing clues. And the red herrings are legitimately interesting, especially for the way they interweave the social history of the time.

    Cockie has a few more great cases to offer. I can’t wait to see what you make of Death of Jezebel and Tour de Force!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do mean to watch the movie – it sounds really interesting. I agree about the romances – there is a lovely moment where a character is basically being dumped and tries to manage her reaction so as to appear unfazed which struck me as beautifully observed.
      I am looking forward to reading more too. I think I will just do these in order at this point.


    2. The movie is quite good and mostly faithful. If I recall, two characters are condensed into one, and I know this is sacrilege, but I don’t care for Alistair Sim’s portrayal of Cockrill. I don’t view Cockrill as a humorous character.

      Really though the movie stands out in my mind as an example of how a really good Golden Age mystery just doesn’t translate effectively to film. What I mean is this: the movie brilliantly captures all of those little details that are in the book, and yet in the book they stand clear in your mind, whereas in the movie they are such nuanced details. Now, if you’ve read the book, you’ll be squirming all over with a massive grin on your face while watching the movie as character X walks down the hall, or you notice a particular prop being used in the background by some extra. And that’s what makes the film adaptation of Green for Danger so brilliant – much like the book, you basically see everything unfold right before your eyes, but without the insight to understand what is significant. But if you hadn’t read the book, I can’t imagine that a viewer could really appreciate that. They’re not going to remember what work was going on in the background while two characters talked. They’re not going to remember that character X was in room Y when Z was mentioned.

      And yet a good Golden Age mystery is about these subtleties. And when you read a book, the details may have passed under your nose at the time you read them, but when they’re referenced later, they stand out in your mind and suddenly everything makes sense. I just don’t think you can get those subtleties in a movie unless you make them unsubtle, such as zooming in on the object while playing ominous music. And then of course you defeated the point.

      I get that same sense when I watch the Poirot adaptations of Christie. I love the acting, the stories, and most of all the sets, but as I watch, I’m acutely aware of the shortfalls of the format conveying the mystery. My non-mystery reading wife is sitting next to me (bored) and saying “I’m guessing the major did it” and I’m screaming in my mind “Watch this scene!!!! Did you notice how the cup was placed on the sideboard and not the dining room table?!?!?! That matters more than anything else!!!!!”

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Great analysis, Ben, and evidence of why the mystery genre, as a rule, emphasizes action over intellect. We actually see the moment I referenced above about a character’s thoughts played out onscreen, but it’s more beautifully (and subtly) rendered on the page. I love it when I see it for the reason you state: I can reference one of my favorite moments from the book and relish that it has been included. Still, it’s an excellent adaptation. I know my other favorite probably couldn’t be adapted for reasons that will become obvious to Aidan once he’s read it! (No spoilers!)


      2. I will certainly be interested to see it brought to life! I imagine the operation scenes must be wonderfully tense (they read quite filmicly – particularly the second).


  2. I couldn’t agree more, Aidan, about the effective use of sustained pressure on the suspects in this novel. It makes for a claustrophobic atmosphere, in my opinion, and that adds to the suspense. The wartime context adds to the story, too, but for me, it’s the interplay of the suspects as the novel goes on that has the impact. And I did like the mystery itself, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! That sense of claustrophobia can really be felt towards the end and I love how conscious the choice to create that feeling is. Little moments like when they try to go for a drive and are sent back inside – it doesn’t move the plot forwards but it definitely adds to that sense of confinement and claustrophobia.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m so happy you like it. I’d say this is Brand’s most balanced book in terms of method, motive, and investigation. London Particular is very much a book about motivation while Jezebel is all about the mechanics of the crime. Green for Danger strikes a lovely balance with a heartbreaking motive and a clever method. And the misdirection (That fall down the stairs!) is entertaining.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I definitely fell for the misdirection here. I was so sure I had cracked this very early that I allowed other stuff to pass me by. The construction of this is absolutely wonderful.


  4. Tell me that your heart didn’t just break at the end of this one. And Brand has a lot more of that in the books that you have ahead.

    Your reading public now demands that you read Fog of Doubt (London Particular), Suddenly at His Residence (The Crooked Wreath), Tour de Force, Cat and Mouse, The Rose in Darkness, and A Ring of Roses.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great review of a great book! Since it’s Brand season, I’m obligated to shill my favorite mystery novel ever, *The Death of Jezebel* by Christianna Brand herself, on your post. In my humble opinion, it’s not only *the* mystery to beat, but also *the* locked-room mystery to beat. No two-ways about it: a masterpiece that you could do worse than to seek out!

    Happy reading!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have the digital editions of all novels of Christianna Brand. Hence if you have difficulty in procuring any particular title, I can provide you a digital copy !


      1. Excellent post Aidan. It is a classic so glad you liked this one. Indeed more than a dozen of Brand’s oeuvre are available as ebooks at least in the US, but it seems you know that already.

        Given how much the GAD community appreciates her work (the number of comments on this post show that), I wonder if Christianna Brand would be considered one of the Queens of Crime, more well known, more likely to be reprinted as an actual book, etc. if she had been as prolific as Christie or Carr. The detective fiction that she did publish are all prized possessions in my collection.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you Scott. I am glad for the ebooks though it’s a shame that there aren’t print editions currently.
        That does sound convincing to me though I need to read more Brand to offer any theories of my own.


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