Has anyone ever crafted a murder mystery that more tightly integrates plot and setting than does this engaging look at life—and, of course, death—in a military hospital on the Kentish Downs during the Blitz of 1940? It’s doubtful. Brand captures the giddy strangeness, the near-claustrophobic anxiety, felt by the doctors and nurses who staff a medical compound of this kind (it resembles an American MASH unit), a place where men and women from diverse walks of life gather into a close-knit if not altogether chummy crew, and where each morning they encounter in their operating rooms the human fallout of the battles that raged overhead the previous night.
One morning, in one of those operating rooms, a village postman who had survived an air raid succumbs to a different sort of attack while under anesthesia. As will soon become apparent, one of the six medical staffers in that room must have fiddled with the gas tanks that are used to put patients to sleep during surgery, thereby causing this unfortunate patient to “go under” for good. Since no member of the surgical team had any known connection to the man, his murder at first seems almost as random as the deaths caused by nightly visits from the Luftwaffe. And yet, upon arriving at the scene, the cantankerous yet wily Inspector Cockrill discovers several possible motives, each of them lying submerged in the rubble of the recent past. As with the wreckage left by aerial bombing, the only way to see what lurks beneath a pile of schemes and lies is to dig, dig, dig. And that’s what Cockrill does, until at last he spots and exposes a killer.
[ADDENDUM: Far better known than this book is the 1946 movie adaptation of it, starring Alastair Sim as Cockrill and Trevor Howard as one of the surgeon-suspects. It’s a justly heralded classic, notable for succeeding where so many films in the same genre fail: While honoring the clue- and suspect-driven spirit of the whodunit form, it never wavers in focusing mainly on scene and character—the stuff of which movies, unlike novels, are necessarily made. Still, except for the nonpareil acting of Sim, everything in the movie has its source in the book, which deserves its own Criterion Collection–level treatment.]