This mystery, originally published in 1944 and set in a military hospital during the Blitz, is a fun and fiendish puzzle with a soapy hospital drama feel!
Book: Green for Danger by Christianna Brand
Publication date: 10th April 2022 (originally published 1944)
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by British Library Publishing. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: murder (obviously); medical scenes including descriptions of injury, surgery, injections, anaesthesia, and general recovery (this includes medical things going wrong, sometimes to the point of death, and a couple of surprisingly graphic surgical scenes); air raids and bombing; death of parents, children, and other family members mentioned; dated racial remarks (not in a hostile context but no longer acceptable).
Set in a military hospital during the blitz, this novel is one of Brand’s most intricately plotted detection puzzles, executed with her characteristic cleverness and gusto. When a patient dies under the anesthetic and later the presiding nurse is murdered, Inspector Cockrill finds himself with six suspects–three doctors and three nurses–and not a discernible motive among them.
Oh, this was good fun! Christianna Brand is a very entertaining writer, and even before any actual plot happened, I found myself caught up in the lives of the doctors and nurses at Heron’s Park. The writing is very much of its time, which I found delightful – it’s very British, with a chipper, matter of fact approach to describing people’s foibles, and the atmosphere of the military hospital in the Blitz is perfect. I loved seeing the little details of daily life: the dances interrupted by air raids, the dark humour, the general feel of getting on with life even while under threat. The medical scenes struck a good balance between technical enough to feel realistic, and explained enough that I knew what was going on. I wasn’t expecting quite so much detail of some of the surgeries, but again this is treated in quite a matter of fact way (and quite easily skippable if you’re squeamish!).
The mystery is a really fun one to try and work out, and I’m happy to say that I completely failed to guess what was going on, despite being absolutely sure – obviously I can’t say too much about the plot, but there are red herrings and hidden motives galore, and the way it all comes together is hugely satsifying. I’m not convinced that Inspector Cockrill is the world’s most efficient (or ethical!) detective, but it really is fun to see how he works, and leads to a very exciting denouement.
You could certainly argue that this is a bit too soapy – most of the doctors and nurses are more concerned with coupling up than anything else – but I really enjoyed that, as it felt very much like a Sunday afternoon drama. I can see why this made a good film! It is certainly a little dated in some attitudes, though. As mentioned in the content warnings, there are a couple of comments on race that, while not slurs or meant offensively, are no longer acceptable, and the women can sometimes be a little silly, airheaded and romance-obsessed. For the most part, they do have other things going on which saves the book from feeling sexist, but I think ‘dated’ is probably the right word – if you go into this with your expectations right, you’ll have a great time.
I’m pretty sure I would have loved this book even if there had never been a murder – it’s just such a fascinating glimpse into these characters’ lives. I loved the note from the author that of course she “had some experience with the inside workings of a military hospital”, even as she asks readers not to assume that the characters are based on real life acquaintances – not only is the accuracy of hospital life clear from the immersive depiction, but her phrasing in the note shows a dry sense of humour that is echoed throughout the book. I’m going to be actively seeking out more of her work – there’s a second of her books, Death of Jezebel, being published as a British Library Crime Classic this month, which I can’t wait to read! Five out of five cats!