My plan of re-reading two books a month somewhat went off the rails after January this year. I have been reading a lot less so staying on top of my TBR pile seemed more important. I’m not sure when I am going to get back into regularly re-reading, but today is one such foray.
This is something of a divisive book it seems, based on the reviews I have seen of it online and their comments. Some believe it to be a classic of the genre, whilst others cannot see what all the fuss is about. I have to admit my foggy memories of this book did place me nearer this latter group. But would my re-read alter this?
Brand’s tale is set in a military hospital, Heron Park, in Kent. A postman’s delivery of letters introduces us to the key 7 characters who would soon become suspects. There is Gervase Eden, a Harley Street surgeon who has half-heartedly joined up due to social pressures. He is not looking forward to the reduced pay and despite his lack of good looks it seems he is something of an unintentional ladies’ man: ‘For the thousandth time he looked at himself in the mirror, looked at his ugly face and greying hair, at his thin angular body and restless hands – and wondered what on earth women saw in him, and wished they wouldn’t.’ But yeah don’t feel sorry for him. This woman-weary attitude lasts literally 0.5 seconds…
There are also three VADs signing up: Jane Woods, who seems to be doing so out of some kind of misplaced atonement, Esther Sanson who has to go against her hypochondriac mother’s wishes and Frederica Linley, who wanted to get away from her new stepmother, (‘I think she’s too frightful, Daddy […] but it’s you that’s got to sleep with her, not me.’) Dr Barnes is eager to join the team, as whilst administering anaesthetic recently, a patient died and local opinion is against him. Then there is another surgeon, Major Moon, (whose son died years ago in an accident) and Sister Marion Bates. This introduction is concluded with this statement about the postman, Joseph Higgins: ‘He could not know that, just a year later, one of the writers would die, self-confessed a murderer.’
A year later reveals a lovesick Sister Bates whose love for Eden goes unrequited, whilst Frederica Linley is engaged to Barnes, yet making eyes at Eden. Meanwhile Esther has lost her mother in an air raid. The pair of them were buried under the rubble of their former home, but only Esther survived. Hospital entertainments are curtailed one night by an air raid, as the staff take on additional patients. The postman is one of these causalities, having fractured his pelvis. He is due for a routine operation, yet under the anaesthetic he quickly and unexpectedly dies. Inspector Cockrill presumes he is there to do an ordinary inspection before the death is signed off. Nevertheless, by the end of the day a second death confirms the reader’s suspicion that the postman’s death was neither natural nor accidental…
But who wanted to kill him? And how did they even manage it?
Lindsey Davis in the introduction to the Pan Classic Crime edition of this book writes that:
‘Tackling the period today, a historical novelist might think carefully about using that terrible background for pure entertainment; the choice now is either to write a frivolous kind of nostalgic comedy or to address the nature of evil and the sorrows of the human condition with reverent seriousness. This novel reminds us that the writing and reading of popular fiction did not go into limbo, despite the shortage of paper and ink for ‘non-essential’ printing. Nor did authors have to resort to an invented fantasy world to give readers relaxation from the falling bombs. Contemporary writers went about their business, using everyday wartime life as basis material. Most salutary is that they managed to do so without knowing how or when the conflict was going to end.’
This was an idea which stayed with me during my re-read, as Brand does not shy away from the harsher and harder aspects of living and working during a war. Air raids, loss of loved ones, less than ideal rations and accommodation and long working hours all factor in this mystery. Moreover, whilst that loss is not given pages and pages of emotional outpourings, it never comes across as artificial, nor it is not brushed aside by the narrative. Brand would go on to use the war in later books in the same devastating manner. Yet because this is a contemporary setting, the way it is written about feels quite refreshing and I found the characters tended to get on with things rather than have long internal monologues on why they disliked war life. In fact, the female nurses and VADs talk in a way which is surprisingly blunt and self-aware. For example, when the female suspects discuss their first encounter with Inspector Cockrill one of them says: ‘He took one look at us, sized us up quite correctly as a horde of sex-starved women, and exerted his doddering masculine appeal to lull us into a false security.’
I felt the way Brand introduces us to the characters, and via a future victim no less, was well-conceived and it reminded me of other contemporary mystery titles, such as Ngaio Marsh’s Scales of Justice (1955), in which we find out about the characters through a district nurse’s rounds. Yet I would say Brand does much more with her opening descriptions. The love triangle, (or is it a square?), is equally utilised effectively, with its toxicity becoming quite deadly in its insinuations at points. A second death also originates from this quartet and I love how Brand builds up the tension, so you think someone is going to be bumped off, but then that tension is burst, only then for death to spring its trap. This sequence of events was put together well in my opinion. The second death also has some unusual factors attached to it, which will appeal to puzzle-interested fans. It put me in mind of Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934).
Although a closed set of suspects in a hospital setting was not new by the time Brand wrote this book, I think she used the milieu very successfully, with the increasing tensions within the group well portrayed. The way these suspects begin to be ostracised by their colleagues was also interesting to see. I found this mystery to be unusually structured, as the possible motives for killing the postman are not immediately forthcoming, though the reader may anticipate some of them. Furthermore, the motives are not Cockrill’s primary interest; perhaps because a straight interview would not have elicited them. That and if the narrative had overtly focused on them then the identity of the killer may have been revealed too soon, not least because Cockerill’s biggest problem is trying to figure out how the postman was killed and then prove that someone had done it that way.
The final solution is delivered in the two parts, with the how being demonstrated before the who is unveiled. Yet I think the final third/quarter drags a lot as a consequence. Cockrill cannot seem to find a way of proving the killer’s guilt, so instead there is a period of breaking down his suspects.
The ending is far from neat and clean cut. It is morally ambiguous and emotionally messy. It is a solution which has a real note of pain attached to it and as usual Brand provides a strong kick in her denouement. Brand does not deliver on the stereotype that traditional mysteries always end with a happily ever after either. Her characters are far more three dimensional than that. Whilst I don’t think this was my absolute favourite by Brand, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I did. I am wondering whether my memories of not enjoying it are to do with having watched the film adaptation, which I found incredibly dull. And on that heretical note I am off to my bunker…
See also: Ben at The Green Capsule, Fiction Fan, Sergio at Tipping my Fedora, the Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, Reading 1900-1950, Jose at A Crime is Afoot and Nick at The Grandest Game in the World have reviewed this title.