Christianna Brand has long been one of my favorite mystery writers. After Christie and Carr, Brand and Ellery Queen were the most formative authors of my lifelong obsession with all things GAD. The truth is, however, that I devoured the ten mystery novels Brand wrote over thirty years ago, and I never returned. Now that I’ve decided to make a richer study of the Golden Age, I think it’s high time to revisit an author whose plotting technique and style mark her as one of the best at her craft.
Despite her classic style, Brand barely fits into the perceived time period that marks the classic era. She published her first novel in 1941 and wrote almost all her crime stories up until 1955, after which, rather mysteriously, she stopped writing mysteries until 1977. Her work reflected the emergence in mysteries of the 1940’s was a time of more novelistic elements, including a new interest in the psychology of the characters, sometimes at the expense of the pure puzzle – but certainly not in Brand’s case. Her books benefited from her acute ability to create a compelling and sympathetic circle of suspects, yet they also incorporated wonderful twists of plot and expert misdirection. Perhaps the thing that most separated Brand from Christie and Carr is that in all of her books the reader feels a definite emotional wallop when the killer is revealed.
In 1946, Brand was among the last of the classic authors to be accepted into the Detection Club. In Martin Edwards’ fascinating tome about that organization, The Golden Age of Detection, he offers a tantalizing glimpse of the author, labeling her “glamorous” (attractive enough to catch the lustful eyes of Anthony Berkeley and John Dickson Carr) and “frank to the point of rudeness.” For a more complete portrait of Brand, one need only turn to Tony Medawar, who in 2002 compiled a wonderful collection of Brand’s short stories (including a full-length play) called The Spotted Cat and Other Mysteries from Inspector Cockrill’s Casebook for Crippen and Landru. (News that Medawar is putting together another Brand collection of some previously unavailable stories and novellas is just about the most exciting news I have heard in a long while!)
Although Brand dabbled in various genres, including historical novels, romance, non-fiction, and the popular children’s series featuring Nurse Matilda that became the basis for the Nanny McPhee films, Medawar has no doubt, however, what her first love was:
“. . . (her) childhood ambition had always been to write detective fiction – ‘as a girl I became fascinated by the detective story with its enormous ingenuity and curious element of honesty – its obligation to tell the truth, the whole truth even while he concealed from the reader the significance of that truth.’”
My plan is to re-read and discuss all ten of the published novels and, perhaps, the short stories as well. I know many of my blogging buddies would encourage me to approach this task in chronological order. But I’m a rebel, damn it! And I have decided to begin with the book that many have labeled Brand’s classic: 1944’s Green for Danger. Its status was cemented by the film adaptation that followed in 1946, so it behooves me to include the film in our discussion. And since we’re inaugurating a project that is of some importance to me, I am honored to be joined here by not one, but two, fantastic fellow bloggers: John from the Pretty Sinister Blog and Ben from The Green Capsule. (I have linked you directly to Ben’s recent review of the book.) Believe me, I wish we were podcasting like JJ and Dan, The Men Who Explain Miracles. (We could be The Dudes Who Disseminate Danger!) But for now, you’re going to have to settle for the print version.
In case you have not heard of or read the novel, here is a brief, spoiler-free, synopsis: Set against the backdrop of the WWII blitz, Green for Danger takes place in the Kentish country town of Heronsford, specifically in Heron’s Park, a military hospital that has been constructed out of an old children’s sanitarium a few miles outside of town. An old man, a victim of a recent bombing, is rushed in for medical care but dies on the operating table. There is no reason to believe this was murder, or that the three doctors, the nurse, or the three female VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachment) in attendance had any motive for the old man’s death.
Still, local police Inspector Cockrill is called in to clear up any loose ends. He examines the scene, and finds no reason to suspect foul play. But . . . soon after this, one of the operating team members dies, stabbed late one night in the same operating theatre and laid out in ceremonial fashion on the table. There’s no doubt that this is murder, and before dying the victim had mentioned having proof that the old man’s death was not natural. Thus we have a classic scenario: a closed circle of suspects, none of whom initially seem to have had a motive, and a suspicious death without any clear method.
John, Ben, and I looked closely at three elements: Brand’s tricks of the trade, her world-building and connection to the real world, and the film adaptation, which John and I rewatched for this post and Ben watched for the first time. Tread warily: enough comments follow of a spoiler-ish variety that the book could be ruined for those who have not yet read it.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
Brad: From the first chapter of this, only her third novel, Brand demonstrates her command for the tropes of the Golden Age, describing with rich economy the setting and introducing her closed circle of suspects. The trick of having this all done through the circuit of the elderly postman, Joseph Higgins, delivering mail from our suspects to the hospital where murder will occur is lovely; what ultimately makes it even more compelling is that Higgins becomes the first victim.
Ben: As strong as Brand is at mysteries, it’s her ability to create a real character that I love. Her flippant commentary exposes all of the thoughts and follies of her cast, and somehow– 80 years later– it feels surprisingly contemporary. I can relate with these people across that gulf of time. I understand them, not only as individuals, but as the sort of family unit into which the war has thrust them.
John:Compared to Brand’s other detective novels this one is less satiric and a bit heavier in the melodrama department. Because it is set in wartime I think she added more gravitas to the atmosphere. I wasn’t aware of her usual trenchant humor and characters who have obviously been created to poke fun at the British class system. These people were well defined characters, and their relationships were more the focus. Their behavior grew out of how they admired, loved, or despised one another. For example, the love triangle between Sister Bates, Frederica and Gervase Eden along with the complication of Barnes simultaneously pursuing Freddi serves as a framework for some volatile emotions and intriguing dalliances.
Brad: I love how their interrelations reflect how intense relationships must have been in such a stressful setting. Major Moon, Barnes and Esther are locals and knew each other beforehand; other than that, they begin as strangers. Moon has a fatherly relationship to both, yet by the end his feelings for Esther have evolved into something a bit . . . creepy? Nurse Wood is protective of her cottage-mates and goes after Eden to save Freddi and Barnes. They’re playing romantic games as anyone would in these circumstances – and then murder intrudes. By then, we like these people and want them to be happy. One of them is a ruthless killer, and their likeability to us and toward each other is one of Brand’s greatest tricks toward masking the killer’s identity!
Ben: It amazes me how almost everything unfolds in plain view. If you simply knew the identity of the killer, you could almost consider this to be an inverted mystery. The reader pretty much sees everything happen, but they just don’t have the context to correctly interpret seemingly innocent actions and the background details. Granted, that’s the hallmark of a good mystery writer in theory, but I think this book is a stellar example of how to apply it in practice.
John: Brand’s trademark is the use of multiple accusations and, as a by-product of those pointing fingers, multiple solutions. In Green for Danger we have one of the most interesting variations of that trademark when Jane Woods presents herself as a suspect then outlines exactly how she might have done the murder of Mr. Higgins. I don’t recall this happening before in any of Brand’s books. I only have only twice encountered this in detective novels by other writers. In one case the character who discusses his guilt with the detective and tells how he might have committed the crime actually turned out to be the killer; it was thus sort of a double bluff on the writer’s part. In the other book, the character does exactly what Jane does: he discusses how he might have committed the crime but does so only to prove how utterly innocent he is. The detective is impressed by the man’s honesty, he is dismissed from the list of suspects and they continue to search for the real culprit. That’s almost exactly what happens with Jane.
Brad: I like the relegation of motive in this novel. Woods has one of the best ones, which is expertly hinted at (“That voice! Where have I heard that voice before?”) but not clarified till the very end. Moon is such a nice man that we forget about the tragedies of his life until the story of the man on the bike. Barnes has the obvious motive, since Higgins actually bad-mouthed him before the surgery. But the others? It’s realistic that not everybody involved would have an apparent motive. Yet the real motive is one of the best I’ve ever encountered: it’s hidden yet obvious. To me, this classifies Green for Danger as one of the best whydunits I’ve ever read.
Ben: Inspector Cockrill is a refreshing change from the mastermind detective who knows the killer all along but just lacks that final piece of evidence. In fact, he makes a key mistake with dire conse-quences in this book (along with several other novels that I won’t spoil.) That in itself is surprising and somewhat throws off the reader’s ability to judge where this story is headed towards the conclusion.
John: I like how the characters do their best to figure out the various puzzling aspects of the two murders and one attempted murder. It’s handled much better than Brand’s usual histrionic displays of characters pointing the finger at one another as in Suddenly at his Residence and Death of Jezebel (which has probably her most operatic display of multiple accusations). A good example of this is the section where the nurses are discussing the reason for why Sister Bates was dressed in the gown after she was killed. Also there is some discussion about the look on Marion Bates’ face that seems to indicate utter surprise when she saw who came into the operating theater
Brad: This, to me, is an example of how mysteries changed in the 1940’s from detective-centered to suspect-centered. We get a lot of theorizing by the suspects throughout the novel. Compare this to Carter Dickson’s The Merry Widow Murders, where Sir Henry Merrivale, Inspector Masterson, and the two innocent male guests conduct conversation after conversation as the case progresses. There is such a clear divide between the detective team and the suspicious houseguests. Here, Brand doubles down on our sympathies for the suspects. They know one of their own is guilty, yet they all continue to discuss the possibilities together. Maybe the theorizing holds back the real emotions of feeling fear toward one of their own.
John: Brand’s planting of clues in this book is expertly done. It may include her finest examples of both red herrings and genuine clues . The repetition of both Higgins and “William” asking “Where have I heard that voice before?” is very sly. The discussion of the bicyclist who killed Moon’s child is something that most detective story readers would see as a fine point to remember, but probably for all the wrong reasons. It reminded me of the way clues were planted in Withering Murder by the Shaffer brothers. Something is so jarringly odd you know it must be pertinent to the solution, but the actual reasons it exists requires real out of the box thinking or the most inconsequential part of that incident must be paid attention while all the rest of it is discarded. In the case of the bicycle anecdote it’s a passing remark that is the real clue to help solving the murder.
Brad: In terms of the real solution, all that you say about clueing is especially true, John. We are constantly shown the killer’s psychological state. We are given the reason for their sense of guilt. If Higgins’ and William’s connection to this isn’t explicitly stated, we are given all the facts to support the solution. Do we have to work more than the average mystery writer makes us work? Perhaps just a little bit – but I don’t mind at all. The reveal of the killer’s motive is as surprising as their identity when it comes. And how about the impact of that climax when Cockie fully understands the lengths to which this group will go to protect their own? Beautiful!
Ben: Of course, that’s what makes the ending so great. You don’t want any of these people to be the killer– not just for their own individual sake, but because of the inevitable impact on the others. Still, the clock ticks down on the impending exposure, and it creates a crawling tension. And the actual identity of the killer breaks your heart!
WORLD-BUILDING AND REAL WORLD CONNECTIONS
Brad: Anyone who studies their 20thcentury European history knows that the English bore the brunt of it in both wars, losing a tragically huge percentage of their youthful population. By the end of this novel, four major characters will be dead. And although we are focused on their involvement in a murder mystery, I can’t recall another detective story that so powerfully merged the classic elements of crime with the exigencies of real life at the time, illustrating the very reason that reading murder mysteries was such a popular pastime and brought about a Golden Age!
Ben: World War II plays an interesting role in the novel because you almost feel like you’re thrust onto the frontlines. Many contemporary mysteries have included references to blackout shades, rationing, and to characters heading off to, or returning from, war. This is one of the few that I can think of where you really feel that war is a core part of it. It’s an interesting puzzle –in the face of such an enemy, why is someone killing one of their own?
Brad: The situation in Heronsford not only supplies a perfect “closed circle” setting – the hospital’s operating theatre – it gives us a chance to observe people joining up out of duty, boredom, even a chance at romance. These are all brave people, saving lives as the bombs fall around them, which makes Jane Woods’ thoughts about the emotional impact of murder on their lives after half of year of war work so convincing:
“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 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 . . . 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. She smiled right this time, and said with a lift of her strong black eyebrow: ‘Oh yes, we’re terrible cowards, there’s no doubt of that.’
“Cockie had followed her glance, but he remains unimpressed. ‘You can take the blitz in your stride; but a couple of unexplained deaths, and you all get the jitters.’
“’Unexplained is the operative word,’ said Woody coolly. ‘Personally, I’m much more petrified of the blitz on the nights that it DOESN’T come; once it’s there, it’s there, but I don’t like the uneasy waiting for it to begin, and I don’t like waiting to be murdered – or to have my friends murdered.’”
John: Early in the book there is an unusual bonus, a sort of cameo and Brand trivia piece all in one. We learn that Jane Woods is amateur dress designer and posted off some sketches to Mr. Cecil who then claimed them as his own giving her no credit at all. Brand fans will know that Mr. Cecil, a flamboyantly gay fashion designer, appears in her debut mystery novel Death in High Heels. He is also featured in Tour de Force. He’s the only series character apart from her two detectives (Inspectors Cockerill and Charlesworth) who appears in more than one book. I may be wrong and any other Brand expert can correct if I’m wrong. Regardless, I liked the sly insert of Mr. Cecil as a cameo.
Brad: I had completely disregarded this when I first read the novel, and absolutely loved it when I came upon it this time. It provides a compelling argument for reading books in order. I first met Mr. Cecil in Tour de Force, where he figures as a major suspect. It’s nice to think that Brand thought of him as an old friend worth sharing with us again and again.
Brad: In his 1972 book, The Detective in Film, William K. Everson cites Green for Dangeras one of the three best classic mystery movies in his estimation. (The other two are The Kennel Murder Caseand The Maltese Falcon.) The story was adapted for the screen by Brand herself, along with director Sidney Gilliat and Claud Gurney. The plot is much simplified, with one suspect eliminated entirely and the motivations of, and relationships between, the other characters drastically simplified. Unfortunately, this most affects our view of the murderer, whose actions and reactions throughout the novel go far toward hiding the motive and misdirecting the reader.
Ben: I watched the film soon after I read the book, and I couldn’t get over all those delicious little clues Brand waves in your face. It’s like every single scene is basically tying directly to the who and how and why, but again it all comes across as so innocent. Where Brand really impressed is how she brought it all together at the end. She executes this last second fake, and I have to think every reader is convinced she has revealed the killer. And then, BAM, nope! It’s after that point, though, that everything falls together beautifully.
Brad: I think the first part of the movie is beautifully filmed: although the whole thing is clearly put together on studio sets, we do get a nice sense of an English village undergoing a blitz attack. The lighting in the hospital is wonderfully eerie – lots of German Expressionist shadows for a British film that hits the theatres just as film noir is starting to take off in America. I do think that the cast, while all very talented, are too “stiff upper lip” here, with the exception of Judy Campbell, who does a fine job capturing Nurse Bates’ emotional breakdown.
John: On second viewing I was struck that the story is much better understood if one has read the novel. Though the screenwriters do an admirable job of adding some brilliant visual clues (how the characters walk by the paint cans, for example) most of those clues are lost on someone not completely familiar with the novel. The paint cans are never explained. One has to be a very astute movie watcher to remember the character who talks about having the garbage cans renamed and repainted and then see those cans and think “Aha! Paint cans.” It’s a black and white film, so something is lost without us having seen black, white and GREEN on the various canisters that prove to be the actual murder means. Simply talking about the colors doesn’t really work. I did like the way the camera goes in for a close up on Sister Bates’ hand on the glass cabinet. Yet that entire scene had to be rewritten to capitalize on that very visual clue.
Brad: I agree with you, and watching it again with the book really fresh in my mind, I was struck with how truncated it all felt. I totally get that a 90-minute film has to cut, cut, cut! Yet I think that Woods and Esther especially were very much short-changed here. Everything Jane Woods does in the novel that weaves her into the romantic subplots was cut. What happens to Esther, though, is the real crime because her storyline in the novel leads us beautifully down the garden path. Without it, this ceases to approach a “fair play” mystery with the same complexity that Brand showed.
John: Sadly, there is a long section when the movie delves into the weird love quadrangle. It all gets very talky; and frankly that makes the movie dull. Plus, the actor who plays Eden is hardly a drop-dead gorgeous guy who’d drive all the ladies wild. I think Brand talked about how it was really his charm that did all the work and that he wasn’t supposed to be all that attractive. Still, a movie relies heavily on visuals, and I think Eden ought to have been played by an actor who had a modicum of good looks. The worst part of it is that the actress who played Esther was directed to be a bit of a hysteric. They robbed her of the delicacy and complexity of her emotional state. Having her freak out and scream in that one scene early in the movie is a giveaway and ruins the shock of the real motive for all the murders.
Brad: I don’t think I ever loved Alistair Sim as Cockrill. He played it almost completely for laughs, flinging himself in a cowardly fashion to the ground as if every sound he hears is the harbinger for a bomb. He is a large part of the reason that the section you mention in the middle, John, slows down. One thing I’m grateful for is that they kept the book’s final twist where Cockie thinks he’s protecting a victim when he has actually assisted in a killer’s suicide. Having Sim react to this as if he were Ebenezer Scrooge eying The Ghost of Christmas Present robs the moment of the dramatic impact it delivers in the novel.
I want to thank Ben and John for contributing to a stimulating sharing of ideas about this remarkable book. It isn’t perfect: the dialogue is perhaps a bit too stylized, considering the work these people are doing. One could argue that hiding any possibility of figuring out what Bates knew until the end is a deficit to all who look for more fair play. I may certainly find in my future reads that another Brand grips me even more.
But there is no doubt that the author creates a vibrant setting, adheres to the rules of classic puzzle-making, and creates a memorable cast of characters. Rereading this fully aware of the killer’s identity, I was struck by how well Brand deflected our suspicion throughout. I’m sorry most of that never made it on the screen.
I can’t promise when, but at some point in the future, I will return with a re-read of . . . oh, I know my audience! Let’s make it . . .