Although the murder that takes place at Heron’s Park Hospital could, in theory, offer any number of suspects, the crime novel, Green for Danger, set in WWII, qualifies as a classic ‘closed-circle of suspects’ mystery. The book begins by lining up the main characters and exactly how they find themselves at Heron’s Park in Kent. Heron’s Park, a former children’s sanitorium, now serves as a military hospital, and our motley cast of characters are posted there for the war.
One of the main characters, Gervase Eden has a lucrative practice in Harley Street where his patients are mostly lonely, wealthy women. He’s a bit of a playboy and is not averse to injecting a patient with water and charging steeply for it. Eden is married, but this relationship has faded into the background–only to be conveniently recalled when a recently-ditched inamorata becomes too pushy. Dr. Moon is an older well-loved local surgeon. A long-time widower whose only child died, Moon doesn’t mind being wrenched away from his lonely home and sent to Heron’s Park. Mr Barnes is the local anesthesiologist who attended a child who subsequently died during a surgery. He’s received anonymous letters that blame him for the death, and he looks forward to his time in the army as a chance to escape the scandal and the parents’ accusations.
Three of the other possible suspects are V.A.Ds. (Volunteer Aid Detachment–civilian women who volunteered for the war effort.) In this case, the V.A.Ds are given a little nursing training and set loose in Heron’s Park Hospital. These young women are: Jane Woods, known as Woody, Esther Sanson, who becomes a V.A.D. partly to escape from her overbearing parent, and Frederica Linley, who volunteered to be a V.A.D to escape from her new stepmother. There’s also a Sister Marion Bates, a civilian nurse who looks forward to working in a military hospital as a way to possibly meet “some nice officers.”
Britain is at war, and there may be bombs hailing down from the skies, but still regular life goes on, and the hospital–a place where a diverse set of characters are cast together–is a hotbed of passion and jealousy. Marion Bates had a fling with Gervase, and she’s still besotted with him even though he ended the relationship and is now chasing after Woody. Barnes and Frederica Linley are planning to marry, but recently Frederica’s eyes have been wandering off towards Gervase, and the attraction is mutual. Strange little emotional encounters between doctors and nurses take place next to sedated, injured patients. There’s a lot going on at Heron’s Park….
One night, after a particularly bad air-raid, local postman, Joseph Higgins, who was part of a rescue squad, is brought in with a fractured femur. He’s scheduled the next day for what should be a fairly routine operation, but inside the operating room something goes horribly wrong. What at first appears to be an anesthetic death inquiry turns into a murder case. Inspector Cockrill, wearing a “disreputable old mackintosh,” is summoned to Heron’s Park and so begins his investigation. Cockrill, an easy man to underestimate, knows that another murder will soon follow the first….
Green for Danger which hails from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction should appeal to fans of Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Although murders are committed, the violence, such as it is, is rather clinical, and the novel rests on Cockrill’s detection skills. It’s impossible to read the book without joining in with the investigation, and I’ll admit I didn’t guess the identity of the murderer. While the characters are drawn nicely, they are mostly types–and for this reason, in spite of the fact that this is WWII with bombs dropping from the sky, the plot has the flavour of a British country house mystery–and perhaps this is partly because the characters are largely from the upper classes with a slightly condescending peek towards the working classes.
Although the characters are types rather than fully-fleshed characters, Green for Danger reflects the times. At one point, Dr Moon makes a poignant observation to Barnes about his son who was killed in an accident years earlier:
Well, well–I can find it in my heart now to be grateful, I suppose; now that the war’s come, I mean. He’d have been of age, you know; I’d have had to send him off, to see him go off to France or the East or somewhere… I’d have had to wait and hunger for news of him; he might have been posted missing, perhaps or killed, and without any news of what had really happened. It’s that telegram business…. I don’t think I could have borne it, if she’d been alive. The gods act in their own mysterious ways, don’t they, Barney? Who would have thought in all these years that I could ever have found it in my heart to say that I was glad that my boy had been killed?
In the Introduction Marion Babson explains that Green for Danger was one of the “foremost” books of the period which depicted “ordinary life under the blitz.” The Introduction includes some biographical information about the author along with some wonderful quotes about life working and living during the blitz. Christianna Brand’s first novel, Death in High Heels was a best seller in its time after which she was “informed by the authorities” (sounds ominous) that the most valuable war effort she could contribute was to keep writing books as she was “bringing desperately needed foreign currency into the country.” For those interested, Green for Danger was made into a film starring Alastair Sim as the imitable Inspector Cockrill.