Christianna Brand: Green for Danger

Green for Danger
Christianna Brand
First published in the UK 1945, The Bodley Head
This edition, Hamlyn Paperbacks 1982
ISBN: 0600203808
160 pages

Something was going wrong. Higgins’s face was turning from blue to dark plum colour, showing on the cheek bones and at the edges of the mask. He breathed noisily and under the blankets his limbs jerked convulsively. The line of bubbles in the jar altered as Barnes cut down the gas and increased the oxygen: he looked rather troubled.

I read Green for Danger several years ago, and think I put it down without finishing it. However, encouraged by my enjoyment of the Alastair Sim film version, I decided to have another go, and I am glad I did.

By the way, apologies for being unable to share the cover – for some mysterious reason it will not scan (I’ve had a similar problem with green Penguins).

Chapter one does a great job of setting up the scenario and the suspects – all very likeable individuals at first sight, all congregating on the Heron’s Park military hospital in the first year of World War Two.

The men are all doctors. Gervase Eden is a Harley Street quack catering to the imaginary ailments of ‘lovely ladies’ with injections of water. Dr Barnes is an anaesthetist, troubled by the recent death of a patient on the operating table. Mr Moon is his elderly mentor. The women are VADs (members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment). Jane Woods is a free-living, good-humoured bohemian type. Esther Sanson is joining up to escape the loving clutches of a domineering mother. Freddi Linley is a privileged and rather self-satisfied girl whose father has married an unsuitable woman. The emotionally vulnerable Sister Bates is the only professional nurse.

Fast forward one year, and the trouble begins when a local postman dies in suspicious circumstances on the operating table. The police, in the form of Brand’s series detective Inspector Cockrill, are called in.

Cockrill – Cocky to his friends – is a local man (‘of the Yard’ was added for the film). He is a spiky character, although not as vaguely demonic as Alastair Sim played him. He can be ungracious, contemptuous and mocking. He hates people to know more than he does, so is perpetually disadvantaged in a medical setting. When the bodies begin to pile up, he is conscious of his inability to protect the innocent.

Cockrill wished he knew; and because he did not know, because he was so anxious and uneasy, so helpless in the face of the appalling absence of tangible evidence that confronted him, he grew, as always, nervous and irritable, staring at their pitiful white faces with a sort of irrational enmity.

The setting of a hospital at war is striking – most notably the matter-of-fact way they all deal with constant bombing raids. This is a world in which the hospital staff routinely carried morphia with them just in case they get trapped in a bombed building.

Woods looked about her at the bomb-scarred landscape and the blast-pitted building where she and a hundred other women were voluntarily spending the days of their service to their country; at the fields, pitted with craters, at the gaunt white limbs of the trees broken down by a bomb the night before; at the ruins of a NAAFI where a girl called Groves, whom she had hardly known, had been killed by falling masonry; at the patches of dry grass all round her, blackened and scorched by innumerable incendiary bombs; at the jagged fragments of bomb-casing littering the ground at her feet … Six months of it. Six months of it, day and night, almost incessantly – and in all that time she had not known the meaning of fear; had not seen it in the faces about her […] They were all much too tired and busy to be afraid.

This all appears to be genuine atmosphere, as Brand herself worked in similar circumstances. I snuck a look at the Mysterious Press edition of Green for Danger online and read the introduction by Marian Babson. She included this quote from the author:

For five months, we were bombed almost every night. They would drop flares to light up the ground below and then bomb what they saw; what they saw was all too often the hospital; and they had a horrid habit of chaining two bombs together which did make a biggish bang: you saw the flares coming, floating down and then this pretty unearthly scream of the bombs falling and whacko!…

Reading Green for Danger so soon after watching the film, I was alive to the similarities and differences. The main peaks of tension – beginning with the death on the operating table of the postman Higgins – are there. But the characters have more room to breathe, which creates more investment in them. For example, wise-cracking Nurse Wood gets a emotional life, and the oddness of Freddi Linley’s distance is explored (and tolerated by her friends). There are also some characters that are not in the film. Plump little Major Moon is a sort of jolly father figure who despite his age forms some perhaps inappropriate attachments. Tib-and-fib patient William provides a love interest for Esther Sanson, shining more light on the least developed character in the film version. Is the killer the same? That would be telling. I couldn’t decide until I found out for sure.

Why read Green for Danger? It’s a classic whodunit which throws an interesting light on Britain at war. The characters are accustomed to sudden violence and tragedy, their ‘real’ lives in suspended animation for as long as it takes to win the war, but are thrown into confusion by the unfamiliarity and personal nature of murder. You’ll like the suspects and hope it isn’t any of them.

See also: Smallbone Deceased, A Bullet in the Ballet

I am entering Green for Danger in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, in the Book to Movie category.

Final destination: A keeper

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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11 Responses to Christianna Brand: Green for Danger

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Rich – It is indeed a classic. And what I found compelling about it is that Brand creates this creepy claustrophobic atmosphere as the suspects are gathered together. And of course the truth behind the murders is interesting and pure Golden Age. Thanks for reminding me of this one. I’m glad you enjoyed it.


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  3. Moira says:

    Great review! I’m definitely getting my copy off the shelf, perfect Bank Holiday re-read….


  4. lesblatt says:

    Excellent review. The book is a favorite – the sudden plot twists, particularly in the final confrontations, are devastating – yet the clues are fair. Glad you enjoyed it!


  5. It is very hard to read this after seeing the film and not compare the two – and you do a great job here Rich.


  6. I’ll just echo the comments – great review of a great book, Rich


  7. Mike says:

    This is a swell, smart review of a swell, smart book. I appreciate your effort to tease out the similarities and differences between the book and the film. I reviewed “Green for Danger” at my place a while back, and I too commented (but only in general way) on the movie version as well.


  8. TracyK says:

    Very good review. What I liked about the book over the movie was more information about each character and I did care about them. But I liked both.


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  10. Pingback: The Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge – Completed | Past Offences

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