I first read Green for Danger (1944) by Christianna Brand about 12 years ago on the back of enthusiastic Agatha Christie comparisons, and came away impressed with its wartime hospital setting but underwhelmed by what I remembered as the seemingly random allocation of guilt to an undeniably surprising party in the finale. Since then, I’ve been assured by reputable sources that the book is in fact rigorously — and very fairly — clewed and warrants re-examination, so its republication in the British Library Crime Classics range is the perfect chance to find out if it does indeed stand on its own or if everyone’s enthusiastic just because they also love the 1946 movie (because, my god, don’t people ever love that movie).
Upon second reading, I’ve found even more depth in Brand’s perfectly-captured wartime hospital, with its 60-some staff “of greatly varying ages and drawn from every imaginable class” part of the magnificent background against which Brand does some superlatively subtle work in laying some of the foundations for her mystery. Whether drawing magnificently artful lines around her minor characters (“‘[A]ny case of death under annersetic has to be reported to the Coringer, and if he orders a poce mortem there’s nothing we can do about it.’”), working in shades of suspense and unease that should really be more fully exploited…
The very darkness about her seemed to hold its breath, listening for the reply; but there was no reply — only a creeping of dry leaf against dry leaf, and a stealthy, motionless silence that crawled with fear.
…or examining the laissez faire attitudes which demonstrate the calmness and exhaustion with which many of them meet the frequent falling of bombs from German planes…
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 in the faces about her, the faces of middle-aged women or young girls, a shadow of panic or failure or endurance-at-an-end. One felt it, of course; some people had a queasy sensation when the sirens wailed; some people’s tummies turned over at the sound of a falling bomb; most of them would go through life with a humiliating tendency to fling themselves flat on their faces at any loud noise; but that was all. They were all much too busy and tired to be afraid.
…the triumph of this book is how effortlessly Brand’s setting breathes. To a certain extent, the setting is so expertly drawn that it’s almost a shame to impose a murder mystery plot upon it at all, and the first flaw I can level at this is how at odds with the setting the essential focus feels. By ring-fencing seven suspects — one of them a future victim — in the opening chapter, it almost feels like Brand is artificially drawing your eye where it does not need to be, something akin to the sleight-of-hand involved in a magic trick, and yet one of the delights of Brand is how openly she declares her intent with her novels: when she tells you that one of these people will be a killer, she isn’t trying to slide some misdirection past you, this is indeed where you should be looking and one of these people is the killer come the end. For a genre built on get-out clauses of clever phrasing, this open-handedness is an undeniable delight.
Interestingly, I found her cast slightly hard to bear this time around. An excuse could be made for the vicissitudes of wartime, but they all emote like 12 year-olds, falling in love in an instant, keeping guilty secrets about feelings displayed or unfaithfulness enacted with the high-wire drama of a telenovela…and it gets rather wearing. It fits the tone perfectly that a pregnancy is revealed with the afterthought of someone saying they’re going to the shops if you want anything, and I felt sorry for poor Inspector Cockrill that he has to spend so much time dealing with these giant children who seem incapable of taking the fact that one of them is a double murderer seriously: chatting about it like it’s nothing more than a doctoring of a ration book, and delighting in tormenting the police who have been put in place to protect them in a manner that honestly wouldn’t be out of place in the Five Find-Outers‘ treatment of Mr. Goon.
The other flaw you can level at this is that it is far too long, the obvious moment for the finale being the attempted murder that occurs during the second surgery scene, after which Cockrill knows the who, why, and how of the scheme…yet this drags on for another 60 pages past that so that some agonisingly unsubtle discussions can be had to galumph in some horribly after-the-event clues before a showdown takes place without anything about the central situation having changed. Say what you like about Cockrill trying to fatigue these “worn out, unhappy, exhausted people, and one of them a murderer” but you’ll not convince me what he does couldn’t have been done far, far sooner with a better result and fewer unanswered questions (rot13 for spoilers: Ubj pbzr Zbba whfg unccraf gb unir gur nagvqbgr gb unaq?).
But, these issues — and the glossing over how damn hard it would be to dress a corpse in certain clothing — aside, the book really is a triumph, with a clear central murder plot cleverly misdirected away from by all manner of false background threads, and some impressively solid reasoning that does, I cannot deny, point the finger of guilt at one person and one person only. I’m not sure that I buy the motive, it again has about it the feeling of emotional immaturity that marks out almost every other interaction, but when the setting is this well-developed, when historical principles are so neatly folded in (“I thought I would do a bit of voluntary [A.R.P.] work while I waited, just to prevent the girls from handing me white feathers in the streets”), and when Brand takes such glee in playing with such highly enjoyable tropes (has anyone ever, upon threatening to take evidence only they have to the sleuth the following day, survived the night?) it’s hard to take against this too strongly.
For my money, Brand has written tighter plots, assembled more sympathetic casts, and structured her reveals far more successfully, and I’ll never shake the feeling that solidly 40% of the love for this book is actually for the movie, but this second reading leaves me with a much more favourable impression of Green for Danger. In capturing a moment of history it might be unequalled in the genre, and the simple fact of pursuing the answers at its heart when so much death and destruction surrounds its players speaks to much of what this genre held dear and evinced so wonderfully during its Golden Age. I don’t think I love it as much as you do, dear reader, but I celebrate its republication and look forward to more Brand coming into the hands of eager readers; she really was one of the best, and enterprises like this — high-quality reprints made readily available for all to enjoy — justify themselves fully in enabling us to celebrate her still after all these years.
Mike @ Only Detect: Overall, the plotting here is more densely layered than it needs to be, but that flaw doesn’t undermine the status of this work as both a fine period piece and an enduring gem.