Tag Archives: closed circle of suspects

Green for Danger: Christianna Brand (1944)

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.

My copy courtesy of the publisher, Mysterious Press and Open Road Media.

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Filed under Brand Christianna, Fiction

1222 by Anne Holt

2011 brought a new-found appreciation for Icelandic literature in the form of Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets and The Ambassador, so fast forward to December 2011 and me thinking it would be a good idea to read something seasonal. No Xmas cosy for me. Instead I read 1222 by Norwegian crime author Anne Holt. It’s the sort of novel that makes you glad you’re inside with the doors locked and not stuck in a snowstorm somewhere freezing in Norway.

The action starts immediately with a dramatic train derailment at Finse 1222. We’re in Northern Norway on a trip from Oslo to Bergen in the middle of the worst blizzard recorded in over 100 years. The story is told by passenger, Hanne Wilhelmsen, a  former police officer who left the force after being paralyzed by a bullet still lodged in the spine. Hanne probably never had the best personality, and now she’s even more prickly.  More of that later.

The stunned passengers are rescued and removed from the train and taken to a nearby centuries old hotel. There’s plenty of food, and it’s warm, so all the 268 people have to do is wait out the storm. They should feel fortunate as only one person died in the derailment. Yes there are an assortment of sundry injuries, but it could have been worse, and since a number of doctors were on board the train to attend a conference, at least there’s medical help available. That’s just as well as the passengers and train crew are completely stranded and isolated. Finse 1222 is only accessible by train.  Due to the snow storm,  the televisions in the hotel aren’t working and snowploughs cannot get to the hotel.  

Right after the rescue, it becomes obvious to Hanne that there’s something fishy going on. The train held some anonymous VIP who stayed in a separate carriage surrounded by armed guards, and this person now occupies the top floor of the hotel. Any attempt to connect with the mysterious guest ends up with threats of violence. Nice.

Within just a few short hours, an execution-style murder takes place, and while Hanne and a few other people at the hotel are in on the fact that one of the guests was shot at point-blank range, the truth is, at first, kept from the general hotel population in order to avoid panic. Think stampede.

Since Hanne is a retired police officer, and a famous one at that, she’s expected to take over the investigation by the hotel management. At first she tries to shove the responsibility over to someone else, but when the body count rises and there’s no contact with the outside world in sight, Hanne reluctantly finds herself being dragged back into the world of criminal investigation. Here’s Hanne’s thoughts on the matter:

When it comes to the actual murder, that can wait. There’s no point in starting an investigation here and now. Wait for better weather. Wait for the police. Let them do what they can and this will all be cleared up in no time.

At least that’s what she tells solicitor Geir Rugholmen and hotel manager, Berit Tverre. The few guests who know about the murder can’t understand why Hanne refuses the responsibility of the investigation, but Hanne is one step ahead of everyone else. She reasons that the murderer walks amongst the guests. An overt investigation will provoke panic and paranoia, so she clings to that reason while silently ruminating that an investigation will make the killer nervous.

In the meantime, I thought, there’s a murderer with a heavy calibre weapon wandering around amongst us. In the meantime we can only hope that the intention of the person in question was to murder ** [no spoilers], and that he or she would not dream of harming anyone else. While we are waiting for the police, I thought without saying anything, we could pray to the gods every one of us must believe in that the perpetrator was rational, focused, and did not suspect any of us of knowing who he or she was. And that he or she would have no reason to suspect that anyone might be starting to investigate the case here and now.

The situation in the hotel begins to unravel fast, and Hanne finds that she must use her old skills to whether or not she wants to….

I’ve read some reviews that compare this to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and obviously there are some similarities between these two  “closed circle of suspect” mysteries. In fact the narrator doesn’t fail to make the connection:

I thought about Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. I immediately tried to dismiss the thought. And Then There Were None is a story that doesn’t exactly have a happy ending.

The similarities to Agatha Christie must be acknowledged, but those similarities reside in the set-up, and 1222 is refreshingly bitter thanks to its edgy narrator, Hanne, a woman who’s become anti-social almost to the point of pathology. Hanne doesn’t exactly shine in the personality department. In fact she actively tries to keep people away from her by her taciturn comments. Not that I blame her. Here she is with Geir Rugholmen:

He placed his hands on his hips and looked down his nose at me. That look from those who are standing up, the tall ones, the ones whose bodies work perfectly. Strictly speaking, I think it’s perfectly ok to have mobility problems. I want to be immobile; that’s the way I’ve chosen to live. The chair doesn’t really hamper me significantly in my everyday life. It can be weeks before between the occasions on which I leave my apartment. The problems arise when I am forced to go out. People are just desperate to help me all the time. Lifting, pushing, carrying. That’s why I chose the train. Flying is a complete nightmare, I have to say. The train is simpler. Less touching. Fewer strange hands. The train offers at least some degree of independence.

Until it crashed….

 Added to the tension at the hotel is a anti-muslim nut who manages to whip up fear and paranoia amongst the guests. 1222 is apparently number 8 in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series. The fact that I’m jumping late on board didn’t seem to matter; Hanne’s life was fully explained, so no pieces of the puzzle were missing.

Review copy from the publisher via netgalley.

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Filed under Fiction, Holt Anne