(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

An author who, like Christianna Brand, has achieved a reputation for the ability to surprise her readers faces a difficult task. Her readers, once forewarned, will be expecting deception and hence will be on their guard. Nevertheless, Brand managed to pull off one surprise after another in each of her most famous mysteries. In her stress on bafflement, she was hardly original, but the seemingly impossible culprits she produced made her achievement in this area virtually unequaled.

There is much more to Brand than surprise. There is almost always in her work a romance, an idealistic love affair whose sexual elements are minimal. In her work, heroines at once fall in love with the man whom they will eventually marry, although only after overcoming numerous obstacles. Remarkably, in Brand’s novels this approach to romance is carried to such lengths that it does not seem at all cloying or stereotypical. Rather, it is yet another manifestation of her unusually pronounced sense of humor.

Brand, whatever one may think of her, is certainly no unalloyed optimist. Often, her characters must realize a bitter truth about close friends. In Green for Danger, for example, the overriding ambition of many of the nurses makes them petty and nasty. In Brand’s view of things, even “ordinary” people may harbor serious failings. Her murderers are not obvious villains but characters undistinguishable from anyone else in the novel, until their bitter secret is exposed.

Here, the element of romance often reappears, although this time more somberly. The murderer’s secret usually involves either a disgruntled lover or someone whose ambition consumes all ordinary restraint. The motives of ambition and unrequited love, like the heroine’s experience of falling in love, operate in an absolute fashion. Idealism and an awareness of evil thus work to balance each other, making Brand’s stories less unrealistic than a first encounter with one of her romantic heroines would lead one to suspect. All of this, further, is overlaid with a veneer of humor, making up in high spirits for what it lacks in sophistication.

Green for Danger

As just presented, the characteristics of Brand’s novels hardly seem a program for success. She managed, however, to put all the diverse pieces together in an effective way, as a closer look at Green for Danger illustrates. In this work, sometimes regarded as her best, a patient in a military hospital for bombing victims dies on the operating table. At first, his death hardly attracts notice, being regarded as an accident (by some mischance, the man’s anesthetic had been contaminated). It soon develops, however, that more than accident is involved. Testimony of several student nurses who were present at the scene shows indisputably that foul play has occurred. The murderer can only have been one of the seven people present in the operating room theater, but not even the ingenious probing of Inspector Cockrill suffices to reveal the culprit. Still, the inspector is far from giving up.

Cockrill devises a characteristically subtle plan to trap the murderer into attempting another killing during surgery. His plan almost backfires, as the culprit possesses an ingenuity that, however twisted by malign ambition, almost matches that of Cockrill himself.

When the method of the murderer at last is revealed, even the experienced mystery reader will be forced to gasp in astonishment. Although dominant in Green for Danger, this element of surprise does not stand alone. A young nurse who has aroused suspicion is the person responsible for bringing Cockrill into the case. She is in love with a young doctor; although her romantic feelings do not receive detailed attention, they are unmistakably present. Although the reader will hardly take this nurse seriously as a suspect, since otherwise the romance would face utter ruin, this fact provides little or no aid in stealing a march on...

(The entire section is 1632 words.)