Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Christianna Brand may not be the "household name" that some other crime fiction authors have been, but her Inspector Cockrill novels were well received. Green For Danger is considered her finest work, so I was pleased to get a suggestion to spotlight that novel. Today, let's take a closer look at Green For Danger.
Brand introduces the characters in a very interesting way. At the beginning of the story, postman Joseph Higgins is carrying a sheaf of letters. As he considers each letter, we meet its writer. The seven characters we meet this way - plus Higgins himself - will soon be caught up in a murder mystery. It's wartime, and all seven characters have either been called up to service, or have volunteered to serve, at Heron's Park military hospital. Dr. Gervase Eden, Dr. Barnes and Mr. Moon will all serve as military doctors. Sister Marion Bates will serve as a military nurse and Esther Sanson, Frederica "Freddi" Linley and Jane Woods will serve with the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment). They all take up their duties and soon become accustomed to their routines, despite the realities of blackouts, bombing raids and casualties.
Then one night, Joseph Higgins himself is rushed into the hospital. He's sustained a fractured femur and although his injury is not life-threatening, arrangements are made for him to be operated on the next day. Tragically, Higgins dies during the operation, and at first, his death is put down to accident. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent County Police is sent to the hospital to do what seems at first to be a routine investigation of the events that led to Higgins' death. Very soon, though, there are hints that Higgins might have been murdered. First his wife suggests it. Then, Sister Bates has too much to drink one night at a party and blurts out that she knows who Higgins' murderer is, and she has proof. Later that night, she's stabbed to death and her body is found stretched out on an operating table in the same room where Higgins died.
Only a limited number of people could have killed both Higgins and Bates, so Inspector Cockrill soon focuses his suspicions on Eden, Barnes, Moon, Sanson, Linley and Woods. As we get to know each character, we learn of the connection that each had to both victims, and we learn what each character's motive is. In the end, and after an unexpected discovery, Cockrill learns which of his suspects is the killer.
One of the elements we see in this story is the slow unfolding of the characters and their histories. When the novel begins, we don't know very much about any of the suspects, although we do get little "snapshots" of them as we meet them. As the story continues, we gradually learn more and more about each person's past. For instance, we learn Jane Woods is hiding a family secret that makes her ashamed. Dr. Barnes is coping with his guilt about losing a patient. There are other pieces of background information, too, that are revealed as the reader gets to know the suspects, and they get to know one another.
There's also a network of relationships among these characters that adds to the tension. For example, Marion Bates and Gervase Eden once dated, but he's moved on, although she is still in love with him. Eden finds himself attracted to Freddi Linley, although she's engaged to Barnes. Mr. Moon finds himself falling in love with Esther Sanson, but she's become engaged to someone else. Besides those complications, there are also the inevitable conflicts that arise when disparate people have to be at close quarters. For instance, Sanson, Linley and Woods share a small place; they're very different personalities, and although they get along well enough, there is a sense of tension.
There's also the character of Cockrill himself. He's described as
"…small and brown and irascible, his shabby old felt hat crammed sideways on his head in the familiar, Napoleonic fashion…"
He's quite a human character. He's annoyed at first to be called out on a case that's so clearly (or at least, so it seems) an accident. But then, when it's clear that there's been murder, he's determined to catch the killer. He's observant, shrewd and a clever judge of character, and it's easy to underestimate him.
There's a sense of creeping paranoia, too, as the story moves on. After Barnes is found dead, and it's clear that there's a murderer on the staff, the remaining suspects begin to doubt one another, and Cockrill encourages this. That's because although he knows who the killer is, he has no direct evidence to really prove that he's right - no evidence, anyway, that would stand up in court. So he decides to break the killer down by making sure the six suspects are monitored at all times, the idea being that that sense of being confined will fray their nerves and weaken the killer. The other staff members at the hospital don't help matters much as it's well-known who the suspects are, and everyone else is uncomfortable around them. That confinement affects all of the suspects, and their unraveling nerves add to the suspense:
"It was now getting seriously on their nerves. You might treat it as a joke, but after all, it was not a joke. The men ate wretchedly in their Mess, conscious of the strenuous efforts of their comrades to 'behave as though nothing were wrong;' the girls lived on top of one another in the close little house, making occasional sorties to their own Mess for their rations…"
There are some interesting larger questions woven throughout this novel, too. For instance, when we find out who the killer is, we also find out that at least one of the other characters acted to protect the killer and the question becomes: Was that the right thing to do? On one hand, protecting a killer is, by most people's estimation, wrong. On the other, we learn why that happened, and although that doesn't change things, it certainly makes the case less "black and white." We also learn why the killer committed the crimes. Interestingly enough, it wasn't for gain or greed. So although the guilty person is a murderer, it's not enough to simply say that person's evil. It's more complex than that. There are other examples, too, throughout the novel, of characters who act in ethically ambiguous ways.
There's humour in this novel, too. However, it's not the comic/caper humour that one sometimes finds in murder mysteries. Instead, it's the sort of humour one sees from people who are desperately trying to deal with an untenable situation and are doing whatever they can to cope. For example, once the six suspects are under surveillance, Cockrill assigns police officers to monitor everything they do. One night, Esther Sanson gets up to get some aspirin and instead of allowing her to get the medicine herself, the police officer guarding them gets it for her. Freddi Linley sees this and quips:
"You have to commit murder to get waited on in the VAD."
Freddi's comment highlights another element in this novel: the hospital "pecking order." At the top of it are surgeons and other doctors, and that's clear throughout the story. Then come the nurses. The "VAD girls" are much lower down on the "pecking order," and that social structure is hinted at in several places.
The interplay of characters, the sense of suspense and tension and the black humour all play out against the backdrop of World War II air attacks and the realities of a military hospital under stress. But what's your view? Have you read Green For Danger? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight:
Monday 24 January/Tuesday 25 January - An Advancement of Learning - Reginald Hill
Monday 31 January/Tuesday 1 February - Readers' Choice! If you haven't already done so, check the poll on my sidebar and vote for the novel you would like me to put in the spotlight. The novel with the most votes by Monday 24 January gets the spotlight!
Monday 7 February/Tuesday 8 February - A Red Death - Walter Mosley