Seven letters. Old Mr Moon and young Dr Barnes, and Gervase Eden, surgeon, of Harley Street; Sister Marion Bates; Jane Woods and Esther Sanson and Frederica Linley, V.A.D.s. Higgins shuffled the envelopes together impatiently, and wrapped them round with a piece of grubby tape and thrust them into his pocket, plodding on, wheeling his bicycle up the hill. He could not know that, just a year later, one of the writers would die, self-confessed a murderer. (p.14*)
This is how Christianna Brand (1907-1988) sets up her most famous and probably best detective novel, Green for Danger. It is a brilliant drop-shot opening: before the passage quoted, we meet each of the seven letter-writers, seeing something of their strengths and weaknesses and learning that all have secrets. But, in the small hospital to which they are posted, they have to work together on the case of an aid-raid victim who inexplicably dies during a routine operation and their secrets are cruelly exposed in the investigation which follows.
Christianna Brand’s current claim to fame is as the author of the Nurse Matilda books for children, which Emma Thompson has adapted as the Nanny McPhee films. But in her lifetime she was better known for detective stories written in the 1940s and ’50s. Though generally in the cosy, English tradition, these are unusually sharp and cynical in tone. Brand seems to have drawn material from her own life. Her first novel, Death in High Heels (1941), was inspired, she said, by hatred for a work colleague (and I thought it was just me who fantasised about murder in the workplace). Green for Danger, set in a military hospital in World War II, uses her experience as a VAD nurse and her surgeon husband’s.
As this month’s subject is books with a medical setting, let’s set the crime to one side and deal with that aspect of Green for Danger first. The book rings true as social and medical history: the traditional hierarchy of doctors, trained nurses and unqualified VADs, stifling but breaking down a little in wartime (compare this with Josephine Elder’s Sister Anne Resigns, also reviewed here); the, to us, creaky medical practices and procedures; the bureaucratic pettiness of the organisation; the grim uncertainties and shortages of war; the fears of patients and their relatives; and the stress and tiredness felt by all the characters – principals and extras. All this is first-rate, described by an unsentimental and acute observer. Turning back to the crime, the hospital also supplies those invaluable ingredients for a successful detective story: a closed and unfamiliar setting and a small group of suspects, all the more convincing and intriguing because they vary so much in class, profession and intelligence, and come together only through the exigencies of war.
These suspects are very skilfully drawn. Christianna Brand takes a detached tone, as unsentimental about her people as her setting. No-one is allowed to dominate the scene and the reader is kept uncertain, suspicious of all and not quite warming to any. There is Gervase Eden who finds that he is terribly attractive to women – he does nothing to attract them, you understand. They just fall for him and so – really, who can blame him? – he enjoys their company for a while, but then, you know how it is, they become tiresomely clingy and he has to drop them. Well, it’s their own fault. Vulnerable Sister Bates is impatient of all these unskilled and flighty VADs and hopes, like most of the women in the hospital, to ‘meet some nice officers’ (Gervase, for example) (p. 14). And dispirited Esther Sanson longs to do her bit but is hopelessly guilty at leaving her manipulative, hypochondriac mother who, at the news of her daughter’s job, ‘shrank away from her, curling herself up into a small, frightened ball in the corner of the sofa, covering her big, blue eyes with her little hands’ (p. 11).
Christianna Brand is less successful with her detective, Inspector Cockrill, who also appears in other books. We are exposed, not to his deductive processes, but to his whimsical eccentricity and so find him charming but exasperating. Perhaps this is deliberate, putting us in the position of the suspects, waiting uneasily for accusation and revelation.
She added anxiously: ‘You don’t think it could be him? ‘ ‘Ah, that would be telling,’ said Cockie. … ‘Does that mean that you know? You know who did it?’ ‘Of course,’ said Cockrill. … ‘You know, Inspector? But how on earth? I mean, how could you …? what can you …? when did you find out?’ ‘Oh, just a few minutes ago,’ said Cockie gaily, and was just in time to wink at her before the hat fell like an extinguisher over his bright brown eyes. (p. 118)
The wartime setting is put to excellent use. Along with the characters, we feel the rising tension as German planes fly overhead, bombs fall, a defiant nurse takes a lonely walk down a dark drive and operations take place in a brightly lit, green-painted theatre filled with potentially lethal weapons and unrecognisable gowned and masked figures. If this sounds over the top, it’s not, but it does leave the reader overwrought. By the time we reach the denouement, we are almost as strained as the suspects, and so the identity of the murderer, revealed unexpectedly sympathetically by the author, is all the more affecting.
Read Green for Danger if you can find or borrow a copy. (Inexplicably, no-one has yet Kindled it but there are second-hand copies around.) And look out for the 1946 film of the same name – a simplified but still satisfying plot, directed by Sidney Gilliatt and filled with stalwart British actors led by the wonderful Alastair Sim as the policeman (much better on screen than in the book).
Both book and film are perfect winter Saturday afternoon fare.
- This and all page references from the 1961 Penguin edition.