#1006: Green for Danger (1944) by Christianna Brand

Green for Danger

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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.

~

See also

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.

14 thoughts on “#1006: Green for Danger (1944) by Christianna Brand

  1. Spot on.

    There are things I like more about the novel than the film— I really miss some of the omitted subplots, characters (particularly Major Moon), and clues (the color of the bicycle is one of the great false-leads of the genre, IMO). And though I don’t know how it would have been possible to convey the bittersweet emotional tug of the novel’s final moments (Eden’s conversation with Jane Woods), not having it feel’s a genuine loss.

    At the same time, there are also things I prefer about the film. Though placing the culprit identity solution at the same time as the explanation of the “how” is much more conventional, it’s also more powerful. And the conversations in Brand’s novels become so informal, slangy, and nick-name-y, that at times it becomes a bit hard to follow— never the case in the film.

    Neither one is perfect, but I feel both are awfully good. And maybe the film is so beloved simply because “awfully good” has been so rarely achieved in whodunit films.

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  2. Green for Danger is one of those books that I read during the height of the pandemic that deserves another reading from me even though I thoroughly enjoyed it on my first go around. I think a re-read would help combat Brand’s singular style which can be a little difficult for the uninitiated to penetrate. Scott hit the nail on the head in his comment by saying that her tone can be so light and jocular in places that you can’t help but lose track.

    Our only point of real divergence in opinion, however, is the motive. I think it is one of the best that I have come across and so well hidden in plain view. When I first read the book, I was struck by that slapping-the-forehead in astonishment feeling that I always chase when reading a classic mystery. It’s one of my favorite motives in GAD fiction; a category which I feel often gets overlooked when discussing the mechanics of these stories.

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    • I’d admit that the revelation of the motive within the text is well obfuscated, but the motive itself…I’m terrible at remembering motives, but could come with at least a score which I prefer to this…it just feels so unearned.

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  3. I’ve known for some time that you were going to reread this, one of my favorite mysteries. I’m so glad that you liked it much better – except for the characters, the length, and the motive! I’m not one who reads history books, but in revisiting Brand from the beginning this year, I’ve gotten a good sense of what it felt like for average Brits living in the midst of war back in the 40’s. I think Green for Danger perfectly captures how raucous and silly people behaved when they weren’t in the midst of saving lives in underground bunkers while the bombs were bursting in air. The movie does this, too, with the actors perfectly capturing periods of intense professionalism followed by high school madness – much like M*A*S*H did for the Korean War.

    The movie is great. I love the visual clue about the missing oxygen tank that isn’t in the book. But the book is better, for all the things that Scott includes above and for that killer ending. Maybe I just get a kick out of mysteries where the entire circle conspires against the detective, even though they know one of their own is a killer. It’s a big part of the reason why I love The Hollow so much. But I will give you a point in that some of what follows the second surgery is draggy.

    As for the motive, I would seriously take you to task, but Nick beat me to it and said it all beautifully. I will just add that if you had no problem with a woman hacking her roommate to death and then impersonating the victim at her brother’s funeral just so she could buy a teashop (another fantastic motive, mind you), then you shouldn’t have a problem with this one, which is beautifully clued. The mindset of the killer is openly displayed as well; it’s quite lovely.

    With all that said, this isn’t the Brand that gives me the biggest punch in the gut. You know what that one is, and I’ll be addressing it in a few months.

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  4. I really need to reread Green for Danger to properly comment on the flaws and issues you mentioned, you’re already being challenged on the motive, but you’re right it captured a moment of history like few other mystery novels at the time did. It’s why Green for Danger is one of the best and most striking of all World War II mysteries.

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  5. The ending to this book stands out to me as one of the greats of all time. It’s tense, chaotic, illuminating, and sad all at the same time. Yes, the book sagged a bit in the chapters leading up to it and the story could have been tightened without that part. Tour de Force has a similar sag in my mind.

    What I love about the movie is that it puts all of the key details directly in front of the audience, but they are such subtleties you could never catch on to them – the presence of some props in the background in an early scene, an item missing during a later scene, a character walking into a room during a key moment that you have no way of understanding is key. It’s a fair play mystery captured perfectly on screen.

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    • I wonder now if this is in part why Brand wrote relatively little, because — apostasy to suggest it! — she struggled with the construction of her ideas. The short fiction of hers I’ve read to date has less of this problem, so maybe she was just more comfortable in the shorter form and avoided criminous novels.

      Thoughts? You’ve read more of her than I have, so I’d be interested in what you think.

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      • Green for Danger and Tour de Force are the only two Brand novels that I can think of that have a noticeable lull that could have been cut to tighten the story. All of the rest move fairly well in my opinion.

        Brand’s short stories are excellent, although I’ve only read a handful, as I’m reserving them for when I run out of novels. As such I can’t quite compare them yet.

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  6. Green for Danger, as opposed to the traditional red, unconsciously creates curiosity and it is well rewarded.
    Rereading gives up extra information making it a book well worth revisiting.

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  7. A few other points about the film version. For all its acclaim regarding the thoroughness of its clueing, I find it interesting that the key evidence (that the culprit later goes to such lengths to remove) is actually not to be seen in the earlier surgery scene. And I’m
    not at all sure what Cockrill refers to as the key to whole situation that was right under his nose. Also, though I love the added “salvage bins” clue, I’m not sure what missing oxygen tank Brad is referring to.

    One thing I find most remarkable about the film, is the use of the (superimposed) flashback technique halfway through the film, incredibly audacious as its deceptive strength is dependent upon the audience disbelieving that the filmmaker would display such an open level of audacity. Actually, Alastair Sim was involved with several films that played with various experimental uses of the flashback. Besides the example in this film, there is the notorious flashback in STAGE FRIGHT, often (inaccurately) cited as the first “lying” flashback in a detective film, the double-edged inclusion of flashbacks in AN INSPECTOR CALLS, simultaneously giving the film more visual variety and making a key idea of the plot somewhat non-sensical, and (if you can consider it a flashback) the last moment of Fan’s death scene in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, in which old Scrooge is granted a very pivotal piece of information that his former self missed by just a moment. “Alastair Sim and The Flashback” is certainly the subject of a fascinating possible thesis paper.

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