Inspector Cockrill, by Christianna Brand

Shrewd and acerbic, the aging and birdlike inspector of the Kent County Police is one of the kindest and gentlest of detectives. His irascibility tends to conceal a genuine humanitarianism.

Cockrill has not appeared in many books, and in no recent novels, but his cases have been unfailingly memorable. Curiously, the popularity of both the detective and the author have lagged behind critical acclaim. Erik Routley, in The Puritan Pleasures of the Detective Story, describes Green for Danger as “one of the really great detective novels of all time.”A motion picture was made from the book a year after its publication, and noted film authority William K. Everson wrote, in The Detective on Film, “Despite the admitted entertainment value of literally thousands of movie mysteries, barely a handful have really matched the skill, cunning, and meticulous construction of their source novels. The British Green for Danger was one that did.” The demanding Everson listed only two others. And the dean of American mystery critics, Anthony Boucher wrote, “You have to reach for the greatest of the Great Names (Agatha Christie, John Dickinson Carr, Ellery Queen) to find Brand’s rivals in the subtleties of the trade....”

Mary Christianna Milne was born in Malaya in 1907 and lived there and in India before attending an English convent school. She worked as a governess, dress packer, receptionist in a nightclub, professional ballroom dancer, model, secretary, salesgirl, interior decorator, demonstrator of gadgets at trade fairs, and ran a club for working girls. Married to a surgeon, she makes her home in London, and has resumed writing mysteries after a twenty-one year hiatus.

Inspector Cockrill

By Christianna Brand

Two thousand words, he says—“or thereabouts.” Am I, then, to squeeze this important biography into a mere two thousand words? Is Inspector Cockrill, with all my devotion to him, to be crammed hugger-mugger into so narrow a pint pot?

Well—none better, you may think: for Cockie, it must be admitted, is a little man—unique in being several inches below the minimum height for a British policeman. He came into being in the fine, free, carless days before I became hagridden by the necessity for accuracy in detail. At intervals during his literary career, I have tried to add a bit to his stature, he “looks shorter than he actually is,” and so on; but for the most part we find him described as a sparrow, a small, dusty brown sparrow—“soon he was, sparrow-like, hopping and darting this way and that in search of crumbs of information.” “What a funny little man!” thinks Louli, in Tour de Force, and “A little man, he is,” says one of the twins in a short story, “Blood Brothers.” He adds, I’m sorry to say: “And near retiring age, he must be. He looks like a grandfather.”

For not only is Inspector Cockrill too short to have been in the force; he does also seem to be a bit too old.

True, in Fog of Doubt (British title: London Particular), his hair is said to be gray, but, were it not so entirely out of character, we might here suspect him of having taken a leaf out of Mr. Poirot’s book. For elsewhere, it is indubitably white: “a little brown man with bright brown, bird-like eyes deep-set beneath a fine broad brow, with an aquiline nose and a mop of fluffy white hair fringing a magnificent head.” “Fringing” does even suggest a touch of baldness but this, I swear, is no more than a thinness on top. He is old enough, at any rate, to be wondering rather anxiously whether he may not be in danger of becoming a dirty old man—dearly loving, as he does, a pretty girl. Nothing could be further from the truth—Venetia and Fran, the loving and confiding sisters, sad, gentle Esther Sanson, enchanting Louli, so comic and so vulnerable, even the bouncy little sexpot Rosie—they were all safe enough with him; and when the dreadful Grace Morland sets her cap at him, “though half-heartedly, for he was not to be considered her equal in education or birth,” he thinks of her without rancor merely as a sentimental goat. I mention it only to suggest that he is old enough to be already a little in dread of the approach of senility. There is even a terrible moment in Tour de Force when the local police chief of the island of San Juan el Pirata refuses to believe he can be in the British police. The tourist guide is forced into apprehensive explanation: “Inspector, he says—he says that you are too old.”

Too old?” said Cockie in a voice of doom.

If he is elderly, however, the inspector has made up for it by remaining, like the matinee idols of his youth, at the same age for something like thirty years. Any further comparison would hardly stand up; one could by no means describe his attire as the pink of sartorial perfection. He has a habit of picking up the first hat to hand; “Well, never mind—it’s quite a good fit,” he will say. Any hat that does not deafen and blind him is quite a good fit to Inspector Cockrill. “ ‘I must have picked up my sergeant’s by mistake,’ he said irritably, pushing the enormous hat up from over his eyes for the fifth time. ‘I’m always doing it.’ He seemed perfectly indifferent to anything but the discomfort involved by this accident.” The hat will be crammed sideways on to his head as though he might at any moment break out into an amateur rendering of Napoleon’s Farewell to his Troops. True, on his one visit abroad—Cockie simply hates Abroad!—he does acquire a rather splendid straw, but “contrary to custom, he had bough it, not two sizes too large for him, but considerably too small, and it sat on his splendid head like a paper boat, breasting the fine spray of his graying hair.” He wears a rather rumpled gray suit and, far ahead of his time, a disreputable old mac trailing over his shoulder. He smokes incessantly, rolling his own shaggy cigarettes, holding them cupped in the palm of his right hand so that his fingers are so stained with nicotine as to appear to be tipped with mahogany.

But by no means suppose my hero to be a figure of fun. “I hadn’t counted on its being Inspector Cockrill,” says the young villain in “Blood Brothers,” “and to be honest it struck a bit of a chill to the heart of me. His eyes are as bright as bird’s and they seem to look right down into you…”

He came into beign when, having set my first book in London, I wanted a county background—which necessitated a detective from the local force. He is attached, therefore, to the Kent County Police: a tricky job for this author, getting him to London when a crime must be set there—he is obliged to interfere only in an unofficial character, as personal friend of one or another suspect. As he disapproves strongly of the innocently brash young Chief Inspector Charlesworth of New Scotland Yard, it makes for some difficulty all around, not to say an occasional unseemly touch of triumph. “Et avec un clin d’oeil satisfait, l’Inspecteur Cockrill s’en alla, clopin-clopant dans la nuit,” says the French translation, rounding off Death of Jezebel; and clopin-clopant does seem to just about sum it up.  

But at home in Heronsford, matters are very different. “Cockie was sitting with his feet up on the mantelpiece—which fortunately was a low one or his short legs would have been practically vertical and his behind in the fire,” musing on the horrors of eventual retirement. He’ll have to buy a couple of disguises, that’s all, and set up as a private detective, to stave off boredom. But it had better be elsewhere. “Here in Heronsford, no such attempt would be of the smallest use; no density or beard or whisker could long conceal him from the sheep, black and white, among whom he had moved, the Terror of Kent, for so  long….”

And indeed he can be pretty fierce. “He was widely advertised as having a heart of gold beneath his irascible exterior but there were those who said bitterly that the heart was so infinitesimal and you had to dig so far down to get at it, that it was hardly worth the effort.” Long ago, his wife had died, as had their only child; and with them had died also “all his hope and much of his faith and charity.” The heart is there, nevertheless, however deeply buried. He can be very tender and kind, very understanding with all those pretty girls caught up, innocent, in the ugly toils of murder with the enchanting old grandmother in her room on the top floor of the house in Maida Vale, enlivening her boredom by pretending to be a good deal more dotty than she actually is. And he will have compassion for the guilty, drawn by inner compulsions to the committing of a single crime. On the other hand, he can be forthright and stern. “He though it unwise and unhealthy that, because she had died for her sins, she should be allowed to grow into a martyr in the family’s eyes. He though they should face the facts. ‘She made up her mind to do this thing and she worked it all out thoroughly, and acted quickly and cleverly….’ ” There is no false sentiment about Chief Inspector Cockrill, none at all.

The secret of his success?—which, strange to say, is unfailing—well, I wonder. He is not a great one for the physical details of an investigation: “meanwhile his henchmen pursued their ceaseless activities” writes his creator, not too sure herself exactly what those would be; and he is content to leave fingerprint powder and magnifying glass to the experts, using their findings in a process of elimination, to get down to the nitty-gritty from there on. He has acute powers of observation, certainly; a considerable  understanding of human nature, a total integrity and commitment, much wisdom; and as we know a perhaps overlong experience of the criminal world. (“And buns in the oven is the net result,” says naughty little Rosie, confessing, in Fog of Doubt [British title: London Particular] to conduct unbecoming a young maiden, on a recent visit to the continent. She adds that now she supposes he will be shocked, “My dear child,” says Cockie, “you should come to the Heronsford police court some time!”)

Above all—he has patience.  

And spell it another way, and you have his biography, not only in pint pot, but reduced right down to a nutshell. For Detective Chief Inspector Cockrill is the dead spittin’ image of my father-in-law; and my father-in-law was for over fifty years a medical practitioner in a Welsh mining town about the same size as Heronsford.

Above all, therefore—Cockie’s progenitor had patients. And what does a doctor bring to the study of his patients, but those very qualities that we claim for the chief inspector? Observation, understanding, the ability to cleave through the irrelevant to the right and only diagnosis; a keen appreciation of cause and effect, an ever-increasing experience; integrity; wisdom…

Shrewd and wise he was, my father-in-law, and so is Inspector Cockrill shrewd and wise. Like a good doctor, he inquires into every detail. A young man confesses to the murder of a girl. He has laid upon her breast a brooch in the form of a cross, “to show I was sorry, like.”

“You’re telling lies,” says Cockrill. “The brooch was lying there crooked with the pin upwards. That doesn’t sound much like reverence, does it?” But later, someone disclose that, finding the body, he has picked up the brooch and just dropped it back again. When he had first seen it, it had been the right way up. “I thought it could have been placed there—well, because it was a cross.” He added, “Is it important?”

“It depends on what you call important,” says Cockie in his acerbic way. “It’s going to hang a man.”

But in fact he was wrong that time; and often he is wrong—till the last hour. He is by no means cocksure—surely the greatest weakness in detective or doctor alike? In Green for Danger, out of his depth in the world of anesthetics and operating theaters, he has some bad moments. “Cockrill could not bear to look. His mind, usually so keen and clear, was a dark confusion of terror and self-questioning and a hideous anxiety. He had made an experiment, thinking it all so safe: had taken a terrible gamble with a man’s life and suddenly everything was going wrong.” He wipes his damp hands down the sides of the theater gown, fighting off a black panic.

He is sufficiently sure, however, to work without the somewhat inevitable sergeant, a uniformed Dr. Watson to whom he can confide, as he goes along, the workings of his mind—that is, perhaps, why we know so comparatively little of them, until at the end he makes them clear. No doubt some splendid, reliable chap will be at his beck and call in the regular way, to take instructions and see things carried out; but no complacent underling sits at Inspector Cockrill’s side, interpreting interrogations with chirpy questions of his own. (I once asked a way-up policeman if a sergeant would really act like this when his superior was present. He replied in a deep voice; “Not if he ever hoped for promotion.”)

With Mr. Charlesworth, when he becomes involved in cases where the young gentleman is in charge, the inspector maintains an armed neutrality. “Oh, yes!” Charlesworth remarked in his guileless way on their first introduction, “You’re the chap that made such a much of that hospital case down in Kent?” Infiltrating into his cases on behalf of his friends (always with the most generous welcome—Cockie is scrupulous in sharing information and deduction, only very, very slightly obscuring this little point or that—if the silly young fool can’t take a hint, too bad!) he pursues his own somewhat Machiavellian way. And Charlesworth is a little inclined to Kindly Pity. He can hardly keep back a grin as he listens to the inspector’s great build-up of a highly elaborate case—against the wrong suspect—at the end of the Jezebel affair. A bit past it, poor old boy—these dear old duffers are all the same! Cockie observes the grin and his blood boils; but—“You’re a clever little man,” says the real murderer, inveigled by the fantasy into confession at last. And with a single look into Mr. Charlesworth’s face, off goes the inspector, clopin-clopant into the night.

My father-in-law was a small man, white haired already when I knew him. An old mac trailed over his shoulder as he stumped off on his short legs into the veil of fine rain that hangs incessantly over the valleys of South Wales; visiting twenty or thirty patients in a day, he had a rich choice of hats. But nobody though of him as a figure of fun! His mind was keen, his glance was bright with a sort of mischievous glee. His surgery was an old converted stable; from it he dispensed a little medicine and a great deal of down-to-earth advice, and patients have seriously told me that he could raise the dead. To me, when I write about Inspector Cockrill, it seems that I also for a little while raise the dead, and live again a few hours in the company of one whom I deeply admired and respected and deeply loved. Louli was wrong when she though of my inspector as a funny little man. “Do you think that the truth really mattered so much?” asks the saddest and best—in the sense of intrinsic goodness—of my murderers; and, “Yes,” says Cockie. “It’s something sacred. If you’re a policeman, ditto—to preserve the truth.” Nothing small or funny, it seems to me—about that?

Two-thousand words, he said. Or thereabouts. 

Originally published in The Great Detectives: A Host of the World's Most Celebrated Sleuths Are Unmasked by Their Authors


Christianna Brand

Christianna Brand (1907-1988) was one of the most popular authors of the Golden Age of British mystery writing. Six of her books are currently available through MysteriousPress.com, including Green for Danger, Tour de Force and The Three-Cornered Halo, all featuring Inspector Cockrill. 

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