Published by The British Library
Publication date – 10 April 2022
Source – review copy
It is 1942, and struggling up the hill to the new military hospital, Heron’s Park, Kent, postman Higgins has no idea that the sender of one of the seven letters of application he is delivering will turn out to be a murderer in a year’s time. When Higgins is brought in following injuries from a bombing raid in 1943, his inexplicable death from asphyxiation at the operating table casts four nurses and three doctors under suspicion, and a second death in quick succession invites the presence of the irascible – yet uncommonly shrewd – Inspector Cockrill to the scene.
As the prospect of driving back across Kent amid falling bombs detains the inspector for the night, a tense and claustrophobic investigation begins to determine who committed the foul deeds, and how it was possible to kill with no evidence left behind.
Higgins the postman grumbles as he makes his way up the hill to the new hospital. He has to deliver seven letters, all from different people who will one day work at the hospital. One of them will also murder Higgins one year on…
When Higgins dies on the operating table it appears to be a tragic and unforeseen, yet natural, death. To ensure that everything is above board Inspector Cockerill attends the hospital. He too appears to be satisfied that the death wasn’t suspicious. An air raid stops him from going home, which turns out to be a good thing when another body is found, and this time murder is clearly the cause of death.
As more suspicious incidents occur each of the characters becomes the focus of the investigation. There appears to be no motive, each character had limited interaction with Higgins and so little opportunity to do anything to him unobserved. Cockerill soon becomes aware of who the culprit is, there’s just the pesky lack of evidence stopping him from making an arrest.
This is a closed room, or rather closed hospital mystery. Whilst there are other staff and patients it soon becomes clear it can be only one of seven suspects. The idea of setting it in a hospital, a supposed safe space, is a great one. There is the sense of business, of brisk, no nonsense care from the staff, and of respite and restlessness from the patients, who have either been injured in the war or know they will have to return after they are cured. There’s a great sense of time and place. It is easy to imagine the corridors and operating theatres, the dark night time wards and the rushing to the air raid shelters when the siren sounds.
There are a range of characters to be found in the suspects from an egotistical doctor to a fatherly one, a soft and gentle nurse to a bitter sister who is lovelorn and jealous. Yet none of them seems to have any connection to the postman, and indeed his identity wasn’t even known until the morning after his admittance to hospital.
Little clues are dropped for the reader, as we follow Cockerill on his endeavours. We see more to the characters as we are introduced to each as Higgins looks at their respective letters on his walk up to the hospital and we see how they interact before and just after the death.
This is the first book by Christianna Brand I’ve read and I hope that I can find others by her. She was popular and well-regarded, in fact Green for Danger was made into a film in 1946 staring Alistair Sim and Trevor Howard, and it’s easy to see why she was so popular. The story is tightly plotted, has a great sense of place and doesn’t drag. The reader isn’t left feeling short-changed by a rushed or ridiculous ending. When it arrives, it does so cleverly and with impact.
Another great addition to the Crime Classics series. An entertaining, imaginative locked hospital room mystery with a dénouement that doesn’t disappoint.