I don’t think that my love of Christianna Brand is a secret. If given any opportunity to praise her, I’m gonna to do it. Her writing and plotting is something that has always clicked with me, and I’ve never read anything by her that’s disappointed me. It’s been about a year or so since I first read a Brand and then devoured most of the rest, so I thought now was as good a time as any to revisit some of her old stories, especially as I had forgot the finer details of most. As such, Green for Danger was the novel I probably least remembered from her catalogue, so I jumped in once again.
GfD is set in the early day’s of WWII, and follows the lives of several personnel working at Heron’s Park Hospital, a former sanatorium converted for usage during the war. German bombardment hangs heavy over the entire story, with sirens and air raids being a common, and accepted part of life at the hospital. This setting is obviously a breeding ground for stress and anxiety, and following a recent raid, several new patients are transported to the hospital, including an old postman who had the misfortune of being trapped under several feet of rubble, resulting in his leg breaking.
Unfortunately, this break will require a minor surgery to mend, and so the old man is put under anesthesia, and operated on in the facilities operating theater. Things go wrong when he suddenly stops breathing, and dies of asphyxia, even though all the used anesthetics and tools seemed to be in proper order and not tampered with. Though the death is initially ruled as an accident, Inspector Cockrill is sent over to mull over everything and ensure that there has been no foul play, and his early departure is delayed by a bombardment.
However, the table turns when the staff of the facility host a party for everyone working, and a lover’s spat leads to a woman publicly declaring that the old man was murdered and she knows how it was done. Naturally, since this is a detective story, instead of waiting it out or finding Cockrill, she decides to flee the party to collect the evidence, and is subsequently murdered, found in the operating theatre in full medical garb, taking the place of the previous victim.
I think on reread, I’ve realized that the one thing that truly makes GfD shine as a story, and as a unique work of GA detective fiction, is the setting and how it’s used to create the backbone of the novel. For some mysteries, you can take the setting of say, a decrepit family mansion, and switch it with a similar location from another story, and you can pretty much keep the base plot the exact same. With GfD, that’s not possible. It’s a mystery, and story, firmly rooted in it’s setting of a wartime hospital. Without the looming shadow of WWII and it’s effect’s, none of what comes to fruition in the story would be a possibility. And I think Brand’s past experiences as a nurse, as mentioned in the preface, really are brought to light here in the same way that say, Agatha Christie’s experiences with poisons were in her stories. You can obviously tell that Heron’s Park and it’s inhabitants are built around the skeletons of places and people she’s encountered, even if the preface says that none of what’s written in the book is based on real life events or people.
Another thing about GfD, is that it’s plotting is so on point. Brand has a way of throwing out clues into the open in a way that makes you remember them, but not recognize the importance of them until she’s already spun her web, trapped you, and then destroyed it with the denouncement. This story is just so tightly plotted, with everything coming together like a jigsaw puzzle in the end in the best way. In fact, I think one of my favorite clues of all time is why the main victim was dressed in surgical garb, because it’s basically the equivalent of a jack in the box clue. The reason behind it leads to another key part of the mystery and so on and so forth, and this style of peeling an onion of clues back is something that Brand knows how to do, and does well.
But the thing that I think really makes this story work, and what makes really any story of Brand’s work, is the writing and the way characters are created through it. Brand’s writing style isn’t easy. It doesn’t have the classic and universal simplicity of Dame Agatha, or the macabre tone created in a single sentence like JDC. Instead, her writing is based purely on conversation, and human interaction. Its hard to get into at first, I can’t deny that because it takes me at least two or more chapters every Brand story to get acclimated to the writing, but once you do, I feel as though you truly see just how talented she is with pen and paper. With a few lines, she can paint a full picture of a character that’s more vivid that what entire novels by other authors would be able to do in an entire novel. It’s witty, complex, and absorbing. When she’s creating or describing the conversation between two characters or their interactions, she makes it feel like you’re legitimately there with them. There’s something really, well, real about her storytelling, and once you get used to it, I don’t think you can deny that she had real skill in this department of the detective story.
And onto the character work in GfD, which I honestly think is probably the best of any Brand story I’ve read insofar. While the characters start off as simple caricatures, they soon start to quickly grow and become fully fleshed out human beings as we watch them handle the implications of the murders and how it affects their relationships and work. You see these complex relationships, and are privy to their development over the course of the story, and as we watch these people change, grow, and stay the same, we are given such complete and rich portraits of how they are as people. There’s a sort of camaraderie between all those who could be involved in the murder, and too see all these connections and to see how throughly human everyone is only makes the coming resolution more impactful and more stunning. A wonderful scene that occurs near the end of the story is when all the suspects are forced to share living quarters together under the watch of police officials, and the tension written about in the pages positively radiates off onto you.
When we are treated to the solution, it’s the definition of a roller coaster. Several solutions are presented, and they each carry emotional weight and impact, alongside general ingenuity, but the real solution blows all of them out of the water. The motive behind GfD’s murderer is one of the most emotionally destructive you could every read. It creates so much sympathy for the killer, while juxtaposing it to their crimes and the disparity in actions and consequences. You feel, or at least I felt, so deeply for the murderer, but of course, justice, in it’s weird ways, has to be served. It’s really haunting, and the solution coupled with the killer’s fate is a one two punch combination that hits you in the gut, and I would dare say that the ending is flawless.
I think you can obviously tell what verdict I’m going to give Green for Danger, even when putting aside my bias for Brand and her work, there is a reason why this story is so highly regarded by GAD enthusiasts and elevated to the top tier of novels written during the period. It’s a tightly constructed, incredibly rich, and truly human story that only Brand could have written, and I feel lucky to live in a world where she did write it. 5/5, get a copy NOW if you haven’t read it!
On a side note: I’d love to discuss the merits of the first crime in this story as an impossible crime, because honestly, I see it as one. Even if it’s quite simple, I still think that it hits most of the basic qualifications of an impossibility, so let’s discuss!
Another side note while I’m finishing up this post: Why is the new WordPress editor so … bad. It took me 10 or so minute to figure out how to include a photo, which feels, unnecessary, to say the least!
Now before I finish, I would like to discuss the classic 1947 adaptation of this story. In my opinion, it does deserve it’s acclaimed status as one of the best movies based on a GAD novel. There was honestly something so satisfying about seeing the story I’d read twice playing out on screen, and to such accuracy. There’s even this truly incredible scene about a fourth of the way in that prefaces the first murder, and is really a masterclass in suspense in cinema. It’s available free on Youtube, so if you have the time, watch!