Saturday, 29 January 2011

Penguin no. 1581: Green for Danger
by Christianna Brand

"Joseph Higgins, postman, pushed his battered old red bicycle up the long ascent that leads to Heron's Park, three miles out of Heronsford, in Kent. It had been a child's sanatorium before the war, and now was hurriedly scrambled into shape as a military hospital. Its buildings stood out big and grey and bleak among the naked winter trees and he cursed them heartily as he toiled up the hill, his bicycle tacking groggily from side to side of the country road. All this for a mere seven letters!"

The opening paragraph of this book is perfect; it neatly introduces the reader to the setting, the victim and the suspects in this classic mystery novel. For Joseph Higgins, postman, is also an air raid warden during the blitz. And when he is injured in a bomb blast later that year he is admitted to the military hospital at Heron's Park, but dies during an operation to fix his fractured leg. No one seriously suspects murder, but Inspector Cockrill is called in to remove any suspicion and to quieten Higgins' histrionic wife. Only seven people knew of his admittance to the hospital, and they were coincidentally the writers of the seven letters he had reluctantly carried up the hill that day. One of them was responsible for his death.

This book is completely faithful to the classic conception of the detective novel: an isolated location, a small cast of possible suspects, a complex network of relationships amongst the suspects, clues that point in many directions, and some purposefully placed red-herrings. The author plays a game; she directs your attention first one way and then another. The tension continues to build, and it is directly related to how appealing this group of suspects is. Six of them are friends, and they are presented as warm, likeable people. The seventh is soon removed from the action by becoming the second murder victim. But it seems inconcievable that any of the remaining six could have committed these murders or any murders:

"They knew it; and yet their minds would not accept it; reason told them that one of themselves was a killer but sentiment rebelled against reason. For, after all, who?"

They feel it, and the reader feels it too; it is very well done. But the murderer is one of the six. Inspector Cockrill puts them all under pressure by confining them to each other's company and having them watched and followed, until their solidarity begins to fracture. The story inevitably moves towards the closed room scene in which the murderer's identity is revealed.

The story takes place against the backdrop of the Second World War and the blitz, detailing life during the war, during bombing raids, and as lived within the confines of the military hospital. It is a life Christianna Brand reveals she has experienced at first hand, and she paints a far more compelling picture of it than was achieved by Monica Dickens in her uninteresting reminiscence One Pair of Feet, which also dealt with life in a military hospital.  And as it was first published in 1945 this must have been a world very familiar to her intended audience. For a novel written to comply with the constraints the mystery format imposes, it seems almost perfect. But I think this book is also worth reading for its description of life during the war.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds great. I've also enjoyed the film version starring Alastair Sim.



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