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.

Heads You Lose by Christianna Brand

Originally published in 1941
Inspector Cockrill #1
Followed by Green for Danger

As war rages in Europe, the citizens of London flee to the country. At Pigeonsford, a group of guests plays cards, drinks tea, and acts polite—but Grace Morland knows the strong emotions that lurk beneath the placid social surface. She’s painfully in love with Stephen Pendock, the squire of Pigeonsford, but Pendock’s smitten with young beauty Francesca Hart.

One afternoon, Fran debuts a new hat, and Grace’s jealousy gets the better of her. She exclaims, “I wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch in a thing like that!” She will soon be proven wrong. Grace is found dead with the hat on her head—and her head removed from her neck. To the scene comes the incomparable Inspector Cockrill, who finds that far more than petty jealousy lies beneath this hideous murder.  

Recently I contributed to an episode of the In GAD We Trust podcast where bloggers were asked which authors they most want to see back in print. Listening back to the episode recently reminded me that while I own several of her novels, my experience with her writing boils down to one or two short stories. Clearly this was something I needed to remedy!

Heads You Lose was Brand’s second detective novel and the first to feature Inspector Cockrill, one of her series detectives. The book begins some months after the bound and decapitated body of a young woman had been found in the woods near Stephen Pendock’s house. No culprit for that murder was ever found and life appears to have got back to normal with Pendock entertaining guests at his home.

During the night Pendock is woken by Lady Hart who tells him that a woman has been seen in a ditch in his garden and she appears to be wearing a hat that her granddaughter Francesca had shown off earlier that day. That hat had been the subject of a barbed remark from Grace Morland who said that she would not be seen dead in a ditch in such a hat yet when Pendock investigates the body he lifts it to find Grace’s severed head staring back at him.

Inspector Cockrill, who had known Grace and briefly been the subject of her affection, is called in to investigate the case. Though this is quite a short novel (my ebook copy was 220 pages), it is remarkable just how effectively Brand establishes this character and sketches out his personality. In just a couple of paragraphs we not only get a sense of his figure but also his life story and reputation. I think that it helps that he is familiar to several of the other characters, allowing us to get to know him through their interactions rather than simply presenting him as an outsider.

I liked Cockrill a lot as a sleuth though and appreciated his somewhat irascable manner when dealing with others. He is not presented as a superhuman but rather as a dedicated and thorough detective carefully following his leads to compile a complete picture of the crime.

Decapitation is not a particularly common crime for this period but while the horror of the idea is described though Brand doesn’t go into graphic detail about what the injuries look like. It definitely helps these murders to stand out though and while I think the brutality of those crimes is not really explored as thoroughly as it perhaps would have been a few decades later, there was more than enough to the puzzle to keep me occupied.

Among the elements that Brand includes are some threatening telephone calls to the Police, a lack of footprints in the snow around a body, a curious difference between the murders and false solutions. Those elements, coupled with the short page count, mean that the story chugs along at a good pace. Technically the virgin snow would constitute an impossibility though I would stress that it isn’t really a focus of the story.

One of the things that I also enjoyed was that prior to the book even beginning Brand includes a statement at the bottom of her list of characters that two of them would be murdered and one would be the killer. While I no doubt would have anticipated secondary murders, knowing for sure that a further death would occur for sure only heightened my anticipation for that happening and left me incredibly curious who that second victim would turn out to be.

As much as I enjoyed the build-up to the final reveal, I shared that same feeling of disappointment in the ending that several other bloggers reported. The explanation of what was done certainly makes sense but it feels more conventional than the developments that precede it and so I think I expected something a little more complex than the answers we are given.

Before finishing up this post though I probably ought to address another aspect of the book that often features in reviews of this title – the antisemtitic comments made towards one of the characters. These comments are frequent and make for pretty uncomfortable reading, in part because Brand offers no explicit commentary on them for much of the text. As such it can seem like she is condoning those attitudes or considers them a character trait. I don’t think that was the intention – I read the final chapter as attempting to play against those negative stereotypes but even with that in mind, I don’t think it works well and I can understand why some readers felt discomfort at the handling of those elements here.

Though I had some issues with aspects of the book, I did find much to admire in this novel and I certainly was left curious to try more of her work. I am pretty sure I will be doing so again soon so if you have any recommendations please feel free to share them below!

The Verdict: The murders are memorable and I appreciated the direct storytelling but the ending felt a little underwhelming.

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime noted that she prefers some other later works by Brand and notes similarities between this and Suddenly at his Residence.

Ben @ The Green Capsule was much more enthusiastic and lavishes particular praise on the sequence where the suspects attempt to recreate the problem of the lack of footprints in the snow. He also notes that the thing I loved about the characters list is a feature of Brand’s work more generally – good news for me!

Crime on the Coast & No Flowers by Request by Members of the Detection Club

Originally Published 1954/1953

The Detection Club produced several collaborative stories in which members contributed a section making up a part of a bigger mystery story. Perhaps the most famous of these is The Floating Admiral but there were several others including the two efforts contained in this volume.

This book is a very slim volume as each of the stories is only about seventy-five pages long. The list of collaborators is a little less star-studded than the one in The Floating Admiral with the first story featuring few familiar names other than Carr’s. No Flowers by Request boasts a more familiar lineup of some of the leading female crime writers of the decade who likely better known to modern readers.

Crime on the Coast

Authors: John Dickson Carr, Valerie White, Laurence Meynell, Joan Fleming, Michael Cronin, Elizabeth Ferrars

The first story in this double-header originally appeared as a serial in the News Chronicle in 1954. Each of the authors gets two consecutive short chapters, just eleven or twelve pages, to make their contribution to the story each picking up from the conclusion of the previous author.

The first two chapters are the work of John Dickson Carr who sets up an interesting adventure scenario in which a mystery author arrives at a seaside fun fair at the urging of his publisher. A ‘fat man’ urges him to take a ride on Ye Olde Haunted Mill which he declines on the grounds that it is a romantic ride for two and is surprised when a very attractive young woman he had never seen before calls him by name, urges him to take the ride with her telling him that it is a matter of life and death.

The first two chapters are quite amusing in spots and do set up an appropriately mysterious situation for the succeeding writers to work with. Characterization is slight but that seems appropriate for this sort of story where the writers are trying to change directions and introduce new elements and the action is pretty well paced, although I think things get a little tangled towards the end.

I am not familiar with the other contributors’ styles having only read Laurence Meynell’s work before (and I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t found I already had a tag for him on here) so it is hard to judge the success of the other collaborators. If our measure is whether the works feel consistent enough that a reader might be persuaded they were the work of a single writer then I think it succeeds but personally I think that misses the point of a collaborative story. For me these stories should be about celebrating the differences between the writers rather than an exercise in literary craftsmanship.

As such I feel ambivalent towards this story. It is competent if not particularly exciting work and will do little to make you seek out a story by, for instance, Joan Fleming or Michael Cronin if they are new to you.

No Flowers By Request

Authors: Dorothy L. Sayers, E. C. R. Lorac, Gladys Mitchell, Anthony Gilbert, Christianna Brand

The second story appeared in the Daily Sketch in 1953 and follows a similar format. Each author gets two chapters although there is a little more variation in the lengths – Sayers and Brand each get 18 pages whereas Lorac and Mitchell contribute just 12.

The story concerns a widow whose children have grown and decides that she will work as a housekeeper. She accepts a position working within a house in the country for a couple, an artist and his invalid wife, whose niece lives with them along with an injured airman and a nurse.

Sayers’ opening chapters set up the situation in which she and the niece are left alone in the home with the invalid wife and asked to check in on her. When they do they find her in a bad way and try to summon the doctor but are unable to get him to come out. She dies later that night, apparently of digitalis poisoning.

Unlike the previous story here each of the authors is able to put more of their storytelling style into their chapters. For example Mitchell gets to deal with some of the mutual suspicion that develops within the home. Their writing is still clearly a little constrained in scope and style to make sure it fits alongside the others’ work but I think it is easier to see that it is the work of multiple writers.

I feel that the story also benefits from the creation of a much stronger central character in the form of Mrs. Merton who is a rather formidable personality. She is not a particularly pleasant character but she is consistently portrayed across each of the chapters and it does feel like she plays a more active role in her story than Philip Courtney ever does in Crime on the Coast.

I found the solution to the puzzle to be more interesting and complex than I expected, holding together pretty well. Brand’s final chapter is, perhaps, a little confusing and I did have to reread the final few pages to be sure I understood an aspect of the ending but I think she does manage to pull the clues together to reach a convincing conclusion that fits the situation, clues and characters well.

I do think it is easily the more successful of the two stories here. It is not a perfect work and I can’t shake the feeling that any one of these authors given the premise to work with on their own (and an extra hundred pages) might have created something even more imaginative and satisfying but it is a pretty successful collaboration that does at least represent its authors.


When I bought this collected volume I spent no more than a dollar on it and I do not regret that purchase but I do not think I would feel the same if I had spent much more than that. It is an interesting curio and I do think the second tale is a pretty engaging short story. Do be aware that it is a very short volume however and that few of the authors are shown to their best advantage.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Written by more than one person (What)

The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

The Long Arm of the Law
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2017

I have mentioned before that I am a bit of an unbeliever when it comes to short stories. I understand and respect the craft and I know that it can actually be far harder to write a really effective short story than a novel. I just have not found many that I could get all that excited about.

The Long Arm of the Law is one of the more recent short story collections published as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. Once again Martin Edwards has curated the collection, writing a general introduction explaining the themes of the book and individual shorter introductions for each story.

I would say that on the whole this is an enjoyable read, though I think there are a number of stories here that feature policemen as a character rather than being about the police investigation. The good ones though are superb and well worth your time.

The Mystery of Chenholt by Alice and Claude Askew

A fairly straightforward story in which Inspector Vane is approached by a butler who is worried his master is secretly poisoning his wife. Expect to see the twist coming though it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The Silence of PC Hirley by Edgar Wallace

I couldn’t get into this somewhat open-ended story about a case of blackmail that escalates into murder. The most memorable thing about the story was one character referring to his wife as being ‘very seedy’ which apparently has a secondary meaning that I was unaware of.

The Mystery of a Midsummer Night by George R. Sims

A very thinly veiled fictionalized account of the Constance Kent case that you can find out more about in Kate Summerscale’s excellent The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. This is quite a readable story but given it draws such heavy inspiration from a real case, the revelation at the end makes little impact.

The Cleverest Clue by Laurence W. Meynell

Told in the form of a barroom reminiscence, this story involves an academic who is developing an anti-aircraft defense being caught up in some intrigue. I liked the background to this and thought the resolution was good, though I think it gets a little cute with the titular clue.

The Undoing of Mr Dawes by Gerald Verner

Cute and unlike the previous story the policeman plays an important part in this one. The story involves a jewelry heist and the policeman’s efforts to see the mastermind put away for the crime. The way it is managed is quite clever and it is a pleasure to read. I’d be interested in trying more Verner so if anyone has any recommendations, please share!

The Man Who Married Too Often by Roy Vickers

Given my love of inverted mysteries it will come as no surprise at all that Roy Vickers has been on my radar for a while. I have a volume of his Department of Dead Ends mysteries that has sat near the top of my To Read list since Christmas. If this tale is anything to go by I’ll have to push them higher.

The story concerns a woman working on the stage who contrives to marry a Marchioness through a Becky Sharp-style piece of manipulation. Later she gets a couple of cruel surprises that lead her to commit murder.

The development of her case features some entertaining twists and reveals while the resolution is superb. I might, if I were nitpicking, complain that I think the police get their solution without a strong base of evidence but I was entertained by the conclusion. One of the gems of this collection!

The Case of Jacob Heylyn by Leonard R. Gribble

The most noteworthy thing about this story for me was that one of its characters happens to rubbish a key element of the previous story. I was curious whether its respective placement was coincidence or intentional.

The mystery certainly isn’t bad but it lacks the distinctive characters or lively plotting of some of the other stories in this collection.

Fingerprints by Freeman Wills Crofts

Hooray! Just when I thought that I had exhausted all of Crofts’ inverted tales I stumble on this gem. It is an incredibly short tale that gives use the basic details of what leads Jim Crouch to give himself away when he murders his uncle. Inspector French turns up and in just a few paragraphs he is able to point out why this is not the suicide it appears to be. Clever and entertaining.

Remember to Ring Twice (1950) E. C. R. Lorac

One of the shorter tales in the collection, this concerns a policeman overhearing a conversation at the bar and then shortly afterwards being called to a crime scene that is linked to one of the participants in that conversation. I can’t say this gripped me but the mechanics of how the crime is committed and its inspiration are interesting enough.

Cotton Wool and Cutlets by Henry Wade

I have been on a bit of a Henry Wade kick lately and I must confess to having been drawn to read this by the inclusion of one of his short stories. Unsurprisingly I found this to be one of the stronger crime tales in the collection, both in terms of the depiction of the police and also in the case itself.

With regards the former, one of the things I think this gets right is it shows you some of the ego and competition involved in any workplace. In terms of the latter, the premise of the faked suicide is handled exceptionally well and is undone through some simple evidence. It is interesting to discover how the crime was worked and the motivation behind it.

After the Event by Christianna Brand

{Whoops – my comments on this story were missed when I first posted this review. Thanks to Kate for indirectly prompting me to realize this!}

This story made me realize how I hope that at some point there may be a theatrical mysteries collection. This story is recounted by the Great Detective many years after it took place and involves a strangling taking place after a performance of Othello.

It all hinges on a rather simple idea but it is brilliantly executed and I was caught completely by surprise. One of the highlights of the collection.

Sometimes the Blind by Nicholas Blake

This is one of the shortest stories in the collection but it packs a lot into just a few pages. The tale is recounted by a policeman who is using it to illustrate how there are many cases where the police know who was responsible for a crime but cannot prove it sufficiently for the criminal to ever be charged with it. The story explores the motivations of the killer convincingly and I thought the ending was superb.

And now I’m kicking myself for having yet to get around to reading any of the Blake novels I have on my Kindle…

The Chief Witness by John Creasey

A superb story that packs an emotional wallop and manages to pack a neat revelation in that genuinely caught me by surprise. The story concerns the death of Evelyn Pirro who is found strangled in her bed. The immediate assumption is that her husband, whom she had started arguing violently with, was responsible though no one can understand what caused a seemingly devoted and loving couple to turn on each other.

The story is exceptionally written and Creasey manages to create three dimensional characters in just a handful of pages. The use of the child is particularly effective, the character being written as innocent but still able to provide some important information.

Old Mr Martin by Michael Gilbert

A bit of an odd one, though I found it to be quite entertaining. The owner of a sweet shop is killed by a car in what seems to be a hit and run accident. The Police are called to look at his basement where they find something that shouldn’t be there and hints at a crime.

The story was highly unpredictable and handled very well. The ending is not unexpected but I think executed very effectively.

The Moorlanders by Gil North

I found the action in this story impossible to follow which surprised me as I had little problem following the Cluff novel I tried recently. It’s not a dialect thing or a lack of familiarity with the characters that’s to blame – it just doesn’t communicate its ideas. To illustrate: I had to reread the story to pick up that there had been a motorbike accident. Unfortunately it ends the collection on a somewhat disappointing note.