Green for Danger by Christianna Brand
Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)
Christianna Brand presses a lot of buttons. The setting of this 1944 mystery is an English military hospital, so right away we gulp at the prospect of murder in the OR. We feel the stress of wartime with the characters frazzled with work and quietly miserable about deprivations of decent food and heat. As if medical murder and home front fatigue were not enough, we have the Blitz: sirens screaming, Nazi bombers droning and roaring overhead, crammed shelters, bombs falling and wreaking havoc on lives and property. This novel is worth reading for the immediate atmosphere alone.
But it’s also a refined puzzle of a whodunit. A mail carrier dies on the operating table. The death is ruled an accident but the head nurse, in a drunken unguarded tirade, claims that it was murder and that she has hidden the evidence. She is found stabbed to death. Suspects can be narrowed down to six, three doctors and three nursing staff. Romantic feelings and the accompanying jealousy are a little tedious at the beginning but they turn out to be crucial to the unfolding of story.
Inspective Cockrill, who will call to mind Fat Andy Dalziel in Reginald Hill’s novels, gets on the case only to find that he knows but can’t prove whodunit. How to force a confession? By putting them all under extreme pressure. The half-dozen suspects are all unique personalities. Brand makes us see that the flawed characters like and respect each other enough to tolerate faults – and that makes the reveal all the more painful for them and the reader.
And it’s also well-written. Brand describes people and places vividly. The characterization and dialogue are convincing as are the solution and motivation. The action scenes are exciting. It’s understandable that a film version was made in 1946, starring Alastair Sim as Cockrill and Trevor Howard. Directed by Sidney Gilliat, it is regarded by mystery fans and film historians as one of the greatest screen treatments of a whodunnit.
“You have to reach for the greatest of the Great Names (Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen) to find Christianna Brand’s rivals in the subtleties of the trade” said Anthony Boucher, a well-regarded critic for the New York Times.