GREEN FOR DANGER (1944) by Christianna Brand

Easily he best-known of Brand’s Inspector Cockrill mysteries, this clever and funny book was turned into a clever and funny film that is also one of the most atmospheric whodunits you will ever see. The setting is a secluded hospital now seconded to the war effort at the time of the Blitz.

“You think there wasn’t any murder, but there was, and I know who did it and how it was done and everything …”

I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

The local postman, Joseph Higgins, is brought in to the hospital late one night and dies while under anaesthetic. Chief Inspector “Cockie” Cockrill is called in just for form’s sake as the death seems to have been natural, though doubt remains because no one understands quite why the man died. Only seven doctors and nurses knew he was in the hospital due to the late hour, so if it was murder only they could have committed it. Was it Barnes, who administered the anaesthetic? Was it the surgeon, Eden, catnip to all the ladies? What about the administrator, Moon? And what about the nurses? Woods, Sanson and Linley, they all seem to have something to hide? Everything changes when one of those nurses, who claimed she knew it was murder, is found laid out on the table in the operating theatre, dressed post mortem in her gown and stabbed several times. But are the two deaths connected? Then there is another murder attempt on one of the nurses …

A figure, gowned and masked in green, stood in the doorway, watching her; with something gleaming evilly in its gloved right hand.

The plot has a great central gimmick to explain how a seemingly impossible murder was engineered but it is Brand’s humour and waspish take on the characters that really gets your attention. As does the evocation of the war and the strange contrast this inevitably puts on investigating deliberate murder at a time when thousands died every day for years and years. Some of it may seem dated beyond its mere specific time set (for instances, the nurses really do seem to call each other “darling” an awful lot), but Brand was a superior author and this book deserves to be read and re-read and not just by fans of Golden Age Detection, not least because the author knows how to have a little fun along the way without actually breaking any rules or conventions of the genre.

“If this were a detective story, he’d be the murderer for a certainty …”

The Inspector Cockrill mysteries

  • Heads You Lose (1941)
  • Green for Danger (1944)
  • Suddenly at His Residence (US title: The Crooked Wreath) (1946)
  • Death of Jezebel (1948)
  • London Particular (US title: Fog of Doubt) (1952)
  • Tour de Force (1955)
  • The Spotted Cat and Other Mysteries from Inspector Cockrill’s Casebook (short stories, Crippen & Landru, 2002)

I have previously written about the film elsewhere, so will limit myself by saying that the film is cast perfectly, with a leaning towards comedy as evidenced by having the wonderful Alastair Sim as Cockie. Here for instance is a hilarious exchange that takes place when Barney explains how so-called “laughing gas” works:

Barnes: “I gave nitrous oxide at first, to get him under.”
Cockrill: Oh yes, stuff the dentist gives you, hmmm — commonly known as “laughing gas.”
Barnes: “Used to be — actually the impurities cause the laughs.”
Cockrill: “Oh, just the same as in our music halls.”

Sidney Gilliat sensibly keeps all the plot and major set-pieces, such as the atmospheric stalking at night round the hospital but most of the dialogue is new, as is the updating from the blitz to the doddlebug campaign. Beautifully shot with bags of gothic atmosphere by Wilkie Cooper, this is a true classic that manages to combine humour, really solid detection, a terrific cast and some genuinely suspenseful and scary sequences. It not only honours the book, it actually improves upon it – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

DVD Availability: Available on a decent DVD from Criterion in the US (with an audio commentary ported over from their old LaserDisc) and a frills-free version from Network in the UK.  

Green for Danger (1946)
Director: Sidney Gilliat
Producer: Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder
Screenplay: Sidney Gilliat, Claude Guerney
Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Art Direction: Peter Proud
Music: William Alwyn
Cast: Alastair Sim (Inspector Cockrill); Trevor Howard (Dr ‘Barney’ Barnes); Rosamund John (Nurse Esther Sanson); Leo Genn (Mr Eden); Sally Gray (Nurse Freddi Linley); Megs Jenkins (Nurse Woods), Moore Marriott (Joseph Higgins)

I submit this review for Bev’s 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘doctor’ category:

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5 for the film)

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This entry was posted in 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt, England, Five Star review, Kent, World War II and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to GREEN FOR DANGER (1944) by Christianna Brand

  1. Patti Abbott says:

    Would love to see this one. Hope it turns up on TCM.

  2. Array says:

    I’ve always loved Brand’s skill at creating that eerie sense of claustrophobia with this one, Sergio. And what a clever trick to have the main characters all meet Higgins and interact with him – I like that very much, too. So glad you reminded me of this one.

  3. Justjack says:

    I adore the movie. It never occurred to me that it might be based on a book!

  4. Brad says:

    Love love love this book and this movie. The killing of the nurse is brilliantly filmed! It is deservedly considered one of the best filmed whodunits of all time! Thanks for reminding folks about it, Sergio!

  5. tracybham says:

    I am planning to reread this book in 2018 and we will watch the movie again. I loved the book and the movie. And I have already forgotten who did it, although I might remember while reading it. Great post, and thanks for the reminder.

  6. Colin says:

    One of those fairly rare cases where both book and film are excellent and, I would argue, remain every bit as enjoyable even when you know how it was all done.
    Sim is, as always, a real delight in the movie.

    • Yes, thanks for that, it is crucial to pint that out – the whodunit is very well handled, but the film and book work just as well even when you know, which is just incredibly rare. What I wouldn’t give for a really good Blu-ray of this movie! I remember buying the Laser Disc (Criterion) and actually sending it back as I considered the print sub-standard. I really was a very stuck up 24-year old …

      • Colin says:

        The current Criterion DVD has that black outline all round the image doesn’t it? I’d forgotten about that, annoying. I’d expect it to be revisited at some point though.
        I must get back to reading some Brand – this post and the image of the Pan edition which I also have reminded me I still have a few unread titles lurking on the shelves: Suddenly At His Residence and Death of Jezebel.

        • Yes, it’s window boxed, which was a bit of a phase they went through but is damn irritating! I remember liking Cat and Mouse (more of a Gothic than a whodunit) and Heads You Lose, from its title on down, is very droll. I have not read Tour De Force because a review spoiled the ending and I keep hoping I’ll forget it 🙂

          • Colin says:

            Yes, I thought Heads You Lose was OK too but it seems to have a bit of a lowly reputation with lots of people. And I completely forgot about Cat and Mouse, which I do have an unread copy of – and I’m partial to bit of Gothic from time to time.

          • Julian Symons thought CAT was her best book; not sure that many would agree actually …

  7. TomCat says:

    I agree with Colin that Green for Danger is that rare instance of a great book with an equally great movie adaptation. It definitely helped that the movie remained fairly faithful to its source material. Both of them can’t be recommended enough.

    By the way, Death of Jezebel is a grand locked room mystery with a very complex and tricky solution, but Brand, as always, handled the plot expertly. And that makes it an admirable job.

    • I ned to read that one still – thanks as ever TomCat. And thanks as always for stopping by – Fedora will be going on a very long term hiatus shortly and it’s always been great to have you commenting here.

  8. Lovely – I have the film on DVD somewhere and possibly the book – time for a little atmospheric crime methinks!

  9. I agree on all counts about the excellence of both book and film. I’m a great, though not uncritical, admirer of Brand’s other books, and she was very good at short stories. It’s also clear from what I’ve been told by those who knew her well that in person she was extremely good company. I wish I’d met her.

  10. rthepotter says:

    NOW see what you did: made me buy the book on spec! Good review 🙂

  11. I loved the book even more than the movie and I LOVED the movie. I’m a big fan of Christianna Brand’s books, Sergio. I’ve read most of ’em and enjoyed several besides GREEN IS FOR DANGER. My second favorite would be SUDDENLY AT HIS RESIDENCE followed by TOUR DE FORCE. Wonderful stuff. The Jezebel one is good too and rather heart-breaking. I wish she’d written more.

  12. I’ve read this one – and seen the film a couple of times – both really superb. I also read THE SPOTTED CAT ( not as good), but none of the others. After seeing TomCat’s comment, I’m going to track down Death of Jezebel.

  13. Matt Paust says:

    Wow, five out of five! Can’t pass this up–book or movie. The humor sounds right up–or down–my alley.

  14. Sergio – Thanks for the review. The book is at the bottom of my TBR pile, and has been there for years because I have seen the movie several times. Now, I will have to move it up to the top. BTW, didn’t Sally Gray have a great voice?

  15. Anne H says:

    May I sneak in a comment on your Off the Shelf? That’s a wonderful book, and the TV version (I bought the DVD) is just as fine, though different. Frances McDormand (Fargo movie) is wonderful as Olive.
    BTW have seen the movie of Green for Danger and read the book, two more classics.

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