Saturday, November 26, 2016

Factory Nurse

By Hilary Neal, ©1961
Cover illustration by Paul Anna Soik

Brigid didn’t really want to give up hospital nursing to work in a factory, but her father had a particular reason for wishing her to. Robert Bairnsdale, on the other hand, hoped she would give up nursing altogether and marry him. Only Morley Scott was completely undemanding, wanting only the right to love her. If only Brigid would make up her mind how she felt about him! Perhaps, she felt, getting away from the hospital would help her to sort things out. But when she met Guy Wisden, the immensely attractive factory manager, it looked as if she had only exchanged one set of complications for another.


“Marriage was the last resort of the inept.”

“All experience being valuable, as my grandmother constantly reminds me. Usually when she wants a fire lit, or some such chore, I may say.”

“What men call feminine intuition is really an extremely rapid reasoning process. Men won’t admit that women can indulge in such swift logic, so they label it intuition, and tell themselves it’s a kind of magic. They don’t mind being beaten by magic, but they can’t bear to have women beating them at their own logical game.”

You should not be surprised to learn that as this book opens, Brigid Flinders is leaving her post at the hospital to go work in a factory. The factory in question is owned by her father, but this is to be one of many secrets in this book: The factory has been making parts for a top secret government contract to build space vehicles, but for some reason the parts are all having to be scrapped for poor quality, too great a coincidence, and Brigid’s aging father suspects sabotage and asks her to go snoop around on site to see if she can figure out what’s going on. In addition to her job, Brigid is also leaving behind a few young men, of course: Dr. Morley Scott, who has been sweet on her for several years and who is constantly rubbing her arm but has never declared himself; and Robert Bairnsdale, a wealthy businessman whose father is her father’s partner and who never has time for her, but constantly pressures her to marry him.

Why stop at two young men when you can have three? Brigid is soon entwined with the factory manager, Guy Wisden, who lives downstairs from her. He starts out with a hard mouth, cold eyes, and a rude manner, but she soon tells him off. He takes this surprisingly well and they part with an “electric” handshake. Before long he’s kissing her; it’s actually a well-written passage that’s not at all hokey and simply evokes her passion.

As the mystery of who is sabotaging the plant’s production escalates, someone breaks into Brigid’s flat and Guy’s cat is murdered. Then Brigid’s father dies unexpectedly, and in a confusing bit of business, there is some buying and selling of the factory’s stock in a takeover bid that’s intended to depress the value of the factory so it can be acquired by a secret buyer, all of which was rather difficult to follow. There are several more attempts to injure Brigid, even kill her with cyanide-laced salmon, and Brigid and one of her friends at the factory figure out how the sabotage is occurring, but not quite who’s behind it. In the midst of all this, Guy runs hot and cold, Morley visits with middling success, and Robert becomes increasingly domineering as he tries to run Brigid’s business interests for her, now that her father has died. 

Really, there’s an awful lot of plot here in 191 pages, more than in most VNRNs, and apart from the confusing business machinations, it’s largely managed with skill. The writing is clever in places, with well-drawn characters, and Brigid is a feisty gal who does her best to tell off Robert and his meddling family; the fact that it takes her several tries to put the message across strikes me as more realistic than irritating. The ending has a rather sexist twist involving Brigid’s inheritance, but the book is in fact 55 years old, so that can be forgiven. Factory Nurse is unusual in that the author clearly put a lot of effort into it, and fortunately for us readers, she has the chops to pull of an ambitious story that’s as action-packed as it is sweet.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Nurse Gina

By Joanne Holden, ©1963

“This is a wonderful piece of writing!” Ripley Crawford hugged Nurse Gina. “Your father would be proud of you, honey, and I am, too!” Gina’s father had been a famous writer and she, too, felt the need to create. But her duties at Butler Pavilion and her devotion to Doctor Alex had kept her from taking her writing too seriously before. Now she had a chance to write professionally. Could she leave her nursing and Alex for the glamour of the TV world?


“I don’t hire them unless they look good enough to get married right away.”

“The TV world is one of hypertension.”

“Oh, oh, oh! I’ve got an awful pain, Nurse. Will you hold my hand?”

“I hope I don’t have to work in there—they don’t put any clothes on the patients.”

“Mary Lou, I am really delighted with the formation of the protective eschar on your cheek.”

Some books are just like nails on a chalkboard, and this, I am sorry to report, is just such a one. Nurse Gina is a sanctimonious pain who starts off the book in the most unusual fashion by proving herself to be a bitch: When she meets her patient Ripley Crawford, a movie star with a broken leg, he showers her with the usual compliments, to wit, “You don’t need to take my temperature. It just went up six points.” So she is furious to find that in fact his temperature—his pulse, too!—are completely normal!! Her outrage mounts as she learns that he broke his leg in a charity golf tournament, and she deliberately drops a vase of flowers that he has asked her to remove from the room. Called on the carpet by Dr. Alex Simmons, who has recommended her to the post, she is unrepentantly rude. When the doctor tells her that he was thinking of her secret desire to be a writer, and that Rip is looking for just such a being for his TV show, she humbles herself enough to send a phony letter of apology to Rip, which he accepts.

Rip takes her out and listens to her proposal for a documentary-like series following nurses through all the major wars of the last few centuries, and though it sounds like a complete bore, he inexplicably goes for it. He hires her to write the show, which involves tape recording conversations so as to use them for inspiration in her writing. I expected this pitiful gimmick to lead somewhere, like to an overheard secret, but no, it just means Gina goes to a lot of parties lugging a giant box around and doing a lot of transcribing afterward. This peculiar duty does not take up so much of her time, however, as to prevent her from helping out when one of the party guests contemplates suicide: After he tells her straight out he is going to kill himself, she compassionately replies, “I don’t think you ought to spoil the party. Linda went to a great deal of trouble planning it. She might be annoyed with you.” When he nevertheless gives it a shot, literally, Gina overturns a table onto him so the bullet only grazes a temple. Another meaningless plot twist, we soon find that the victim’s wife is pregnant and now he is blissfully happy.

Now that she’s a writer, Gina spends a lot of time typing. Rip stops by to kiss her now and then, though the most we learn about her feelings toward this potential sexual harassment are that she “accepted his kiss without emotion” and spends a lot of time darting out of his arms. More pointless scenes occur, such as the one in which Gina is photographed tending to Rip at a nightclub after he’s punched out, or when she visits the campus where her deceased father was a famous psychology professor, only to find that his textbook is considered out of date. She’s bawling on the quad when Rip turns up to tell her that his schmoozing of TV executives has paid off and they have a meeting to pitch their series to a major TV network. At the meeting, Gina is heckled by the assembled old men, and she snaps back, “I did not expect to find, in a business office, the childish viciousness that I have met in this room today.” Cowed, the execs sign the show and plan to start casting next week. I’m sure that’s how it happens in Hollywood all the time.

Out of the blue, Gina decides she’s in love with Rip. For his part, he’s about to propose when a ship in the East River blows up and Gina hurries off to the hospital. Two weeks later, she takes an afternoon off from the burn unit and drops by Rip’s office, where she puts off his attempts to propose, telling him that their worlds are too far apart, and besides, she’d rather be a nurse than a writer. He responds that she should keep being a nurse, if that’s what she wants to do, but she turns him down nonetheless. Then at the hospital Christmas party, we are treated to the lyrics of no less than seven carols before Dr. Alex, who has been a virtual ghost through most of the book, pops up to exchange some truly nauseating dialogue with Gina and bring the book to a close.

There is just too much wrong with this book. Gina’s behavior is often sanctimonious and annoying, and the TV series that we spend so much time watching her develop from a number of different angles comes across as just dull. I did not understand her choices, either to try writing in the beginning of the book or to give it up at the end. Gina’s decisions in regard to her men is no less bewildering: Her relationships with her two main men, Rip and Dr. Alex, are either nonexistent or shallow, and her alleged feelings of love toward them are inexplicable. I really did not care what happened to her TV show or her career, to say nothing of which man she decided to marry. Nurse Gina, the book and the character, are not worth your time.

Monday, October 31, 2016

My Love an Altar

By Joan Sargent, ©1963

To Roxanne Collier, Dr. Vance Collier had become a shadow-husband keeping up the façade of an empty marriage, so when Dr. Fritz Bascomb showed her that she was still a beautiful, desirable woman, she was grateful and flattered. Then tragedy struck in the form of an epidemic that threatened the lives of the town’s children. It was a time for some quick and deep soul-searching, for Vance and Roxanne faced not only the break-up of their marriage but the loss of their child.


“What’s he doing to Pomeroy that the rest of us wouldn’t if we got the chance?”

“He’s going to get better. He assures me that he won’t stay in such a place as this and that he hates me. You can’t down a man like that.”

“Miss Skipper, completely won over, was quite willing to try anything that went with that smile.”

“How do you like being an incurable disease, Beautiful?”

I’ve been on a roll lately, finding myself in some of the more interesting VNRNs I’ve met to date. My Love an Altar continues in this vein: The main characters are a decade older than most, are already married (even if only to each other), and are attracted to other people. Roxanne Collier is the perfect doctor’s wife, beautiful, stylish, a brilliant hostess—and she hates every minute of it. On the inside she is insecure, lonely, and contemplating a major change in life. Her husband, chief of staff Vince Collier, admittedly married young Roxanne for her money, and has built a successful career as the head of a major sanatorium for tuberculosis treatment. He’s not happy, either, however, because he is overwhelmingly guilt-ridden, feeling he has been handed everything on a silver platter belonging to his father-in-law, who has funded Vince’s education and the hospital itself.

Then, at a dinner party during which Roxanne is suffering a major migraine, she is seated next to psychiatrist Fritz Bascomb, who recognizes Roxanne’s ailment as springing from the deep-seated dissatisfaction in her life. He rescues her from the party, takes her home, gives her medication, and days later is taking her out for pie at the truck stop on the edge of town. He’s an incorrigible flirt and knows how to use his powers, and soon his attentions perk up the wilting Roxanne, giving her a confidence she had lacked when she felt overlooked and unappreciated. She secretly begins taking classes at the local university and plots a trip to Reno when the couple’s daughter, Susan, goes off to college next year.

Vance, meanwhile, has an office nurse, Mary Pendleton, who has long been in love with the doctor and with whom he shares a not entirely professional relationship. Nothing untoward happens, of course, but his demeanor toward her is more possessive and involved than it should be. After several years of this, Mary has decided she needs to put an end to the chaste affair and submits her resignation. Vance has a better idea, however, and offers her a post working for the new doctor in town, Tom Hazard. Soon Mary is looking at Tom with the same adoring eyes she once cast on Vance, and for some inexplicable reason Vance despises young Tom and his new-fangled ways of treating tuberculosis.

The climax of the book comes when Vance’s daughter—along with a good number of other children in town—becomes desperately ill with a tuberculosis-like disease that no one can diagnose, and it’s all hands on deck to save her life. The ending is exactly what you know it will be—even the mystery epidemic is foretold in the book’s opening chapter (and this is by no means a spoiler). We couldn’t actually have a VNRN solve its romantic dilemmas with divorce, but this book is unique in that it gives us characters who are preparing to take that ignoble route. The writing is quietly more than competent and honestly sincere, and I must confess I even shed a tear at one point. Though it lacks the camp I hope for in a VNRN, we do, however, have some sass in the Collier’s daughter, Susan, who is full of quips like, “I know the book says an adolescent gets a crush on a man much older, but don’t worry about me and Dr. Bascomb. I’m thinking of having my crush on Mr. Bates, who teaches physics at school. He’s more my type. Sort of plain and helpless.” If its ending is not as revolutionary as it hints it could be, this book has a lot more to offer than most of the herd. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

School Nurse

By Arlene Hale, ©1960

The terrible secret she harbored seemed far, far away to Glenda Lloyd, R.N., now that she was school nurse at Brentwood Academy for Girls. But the Academy soon began to present problems of its own, not the least of which was the handsome art teacher, Elliott Hunter, and the strong, silent Paul Fields. When Glenda found herself caught in the middle of school politics, her secrets suddenly were used as weapons for her affections and her loyalty.


“ ‘These crazy girls! What makes females so emotional?’
“Glenda laughed. ‘So that you strong males can protect us, of course!’ ”

Glenda Lloyd, R.N., has left her home and position in Pittsburgh and applied for a post in a Midwestern boarding school for girls, Brentwood Academy. Fortunately for her, she is hired on the spot, or she would have had to roam the countryside forever, because, you see, she is running away from a terrible past. What that is we do not know, but we are aware of her tortured soul by such sentences as, “Had he, perhaps, learned about— No, it wasn’t likely.” So we won’t learn about that terrible day in January, or the big empty house with the closed door, or Sara or Dr. Ted Hartford, until page 112, by which time the purported suspense will drop you about two inches and you will not at all care to learn the details of what you had suspected all along: that nurse Glenda had been accused of some terrible professional blunder that turns out to have been no crime at all, and at book’s end 16 pages later her guilt is completely resolved.

In the interim, however, Glenda makes friends with several students, curing them both body and soul, particularly Jeanie Fields, who is in a wheelchair after a car accident. She becomes so close to Jeanie that she begins dating Jeanie’s brother Paul, a quiet, hard-working man, who keeps house, cooks, and does the dishes, on top of caring for Jeanie, since the pair are orphans. Paul soon falls in love with Glenda, but she’s not sure, because when he touches her “there were no butterflies flitting about, no lightheadedness, no sudden need for air.” This is another literary saw that author Arlene Hale is fond of: The ordinary good guy would be a better husband than the hunky guy who makes your pulse race but who ultimately turns out to be shiftless and undependable. I, for one, don’t buy it.

The part of the hunky heartthrob in this case is played by Elliott Hunter, who is fond of smooching Glenda but “wouldn’t be caught dead doing anything more than making coffee. He had an idea it would make him a sissy.” Savvy readers know that this is a clue that Glenda should run! Except in the next paragraph he’s starting a fire and turning down the lights, so, all right, maybe we can stay a little bit longer.

Elliott is fond of making derogatory remarks about the school, the students, the headmaster, you name it, and soon we learn that he is conspiring with the sexy English teacher Sheila Conway to oust the headmaster and take over the place. Glenda learns of the plot, but for some mysterious reason feels she cannot divulge it to anyone because Elliott asked her not to, even though she thinks he is a dirty louse to betray poor Mr. Patterson like that. Her conflict is rendered all the more paradoxical—to us, certainly not to the one-dimensional Glenda—because it is clear that the headmaster is doing a bad job running the school; as just one example, there’s no money for an extra nurse when the flu epidemic breaks out and Glenda is forced to stay up all night for days on end to care for all the ailing girls. All Glenda can think about is that it would positively kill old Mr. P. to be relieved of his job—but then, we are puzzled by her lack of concern for the fact that it might well kill him to keep it, as he has a bad heart that is going to fell him at literally any moment. In the end, Glenda circumvents her peculiar oath to silence by leaving her diary on her desk and asking Mr. Patterson’s devoted secretary to watch the office for 15 minutes, and when it is revealed that the secretary has perused the telltale volume, Glenda is shocked! Because she had not intended for that to happen at all! I think we are supposed to like her better for her total obeisance to her strange honor, but I would have liked her better if she had done it on purpose.

The book wraps up exactly as you think it will, and after Glenda’s final confrontation with Elliott, she finds that when she kisses him (OK, you’re wondering why she did at all) it’s still exploding rockets and firecrackers, but she pulls away, thinking, “This sort of excitement wouldn’t last. It had a way of dying out.” And then, when she next kisses Paul, guess what?!? “For the barest moment, the sky tipped crazily.” Zowie! Maybe the steady, dull guy can be exciting after all!

The writing isn’t terrible, and there aren’t too many loose ends (what is the story about little Betsy sneaking out late at night? Why does Elliott hate the school janitor so much?), so it’s not the most infuriating VNRN I’ve read. But in School Nurse Arlene Hale has done it again, and what I mean by that is that she has turned out another completely perfunctory, ordinary book without the least bit of interest. It’s not a bad book, mind you, but it is completely pedestrian in every way, one you will soon forget and be none the worse for it.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Woman Doctor

By Peter Baldwin, ©1963
Cover illustration by Tom Miller

Louise—fourth-year medical student at New York’s Central General Hospital—serious, dedicated, most brilliant woman in her class, with a great future in medicine and an unswerving devotion to it—
Elsie—a classic “dumb blonde,” a vapid playgirl with an astonishing talent in bed, living for good times—
Worlds apart—except that both were the same woman!


“Do I detect an acquisitive female gleam in your eye in connection with this paragon of all manly virtues?”

 “She still could not administer hypodermic infections of any sort with the casual indifference of her male colleagues. Her hands were as expert as theirs, but her native femininity was offended on each occasion. Then she came to realize that her instinctive reaction of fear and revulsion was probably deeply Freudian in its origin. As a woman she must find it unnatural and somehow horrible to be thrusting anything into another person. Hers should be the passively accepting role. Not the aggressively penetrating role.”

It’s a curious coincidence that I read this book immediately after Doctor by Day: Though Woman Doctor is a real nurse novel, being the story of medical student Louise Standish and how she manages her romantic and career adventures, its sex scenes make it a close cousin to that other lovely but more-sensual-than-your-average-VNRN masterpiece.

I don’t believe any of the nurse heroines I have encountered to date have enjoyed a sex life outside of marriage, so Louise is exceptional in that she has had not one but two boyfriends! Unfortunately, that along with the marginally lurid cover illustration and the frankly lurid back cover blurb make me think this is supposed to be a smut book. Oh, and there’s also a pair of lesbian lovers, so that may cinch the deal. But the sex in this book is oh-so-far from today’s contemporary romance novel, so the label feels less than adequate. Let’s call it a cross between smut and VNRN—and actually a smidge more the latter than the former—and get on with our review.

Poor Louise has some pretty spectacular sexism to contend with as a woman medical student. Of course, she’s internalized quite a bit of it, too, and when she hooks up with her first boyfriend, “gloried in being his prized possession, almost his slave. She eagerly accepted him as her master … This was a basic part of her femininity, she felt, and she strove to fulfill her duties and serve him.” She spends a lot of time trying to reconcile her two callings: one, the brilliant doctor she is clearly on the path to becoming, and the other, a subservient wife and mother. “Maybe she was only meant for love and babies and dependence,” Louise thinks at one point. “Maybe she should not attempt to take on the perpetual study and the terrible responsibilities of being a doctor. Was the strain too much for her? Was that why she was always irritable and restless lately?” The choice seems obvious to me, but I do have the luxury of living a quarter-century after Louise. Which isn’t really a whole lot of time, in the grand scheme of things, but what a difference it has made.

In an attempt to relieve the stress of her studies, Louise goes to a wedding reception and there meets a reporter. She decides to play a little game, and pretends to be a sublimely stupid blonde. “One thing that I always think is so nice about weddings,” she babbles to Don Bailey, “it’s always a man and a woman who get married. That keeps things sort of even, I always say.” Don is in raptures over the Yogi Berra–like inanities that drop from her lips—that and her “lovely face and gloriously nubile body”—and takes her to dinner, and from there to bed. Well, it was the sofa, actually, but no matter, it’s a place no VNRN heroine has dared to go before. And the next day, Louise can concentrate better, is so much more relaxed and sweet, and buckles down to her studies with new vigor. If the rest of the nurses knew what a miracle drug sex was, I’m sure they’d all be doing it!

Louise’s arch-nemesis is hospital chief Dr. Horace Wilmerding, who absolutely despises women doctors. Though Louise is in the running to be the top student in the class, he is going to refuse her the residency post she wants more than anything when she graduates in six months on those grounds alone. While most of the book is about Louise’s successes with patients and her growing relationship with Don, her battle with Dr. Wilmerding also mounts through the story, to the point where the bad doctor is going to deny her the post and possibly even refuse to allow her to graduate unless she becomes his mistress. Further complicating the plot is the fact that his daughter Helen, whom he has forced into marriage, has recently awoken to the fact that she is a lesbian and has entered into a relationship with Louise’s longtime roommate, Joan.

The lesbian relationship in this book is handled in a very two-faced fashion. On one hand, it’s called no end of horrible things: “a sickness,” “deviate tendencies,” an “aberration.” But at the same time, when Joan and Helen get together, it is a devoted relationship. “She, too, needed a sympathetic partner and mate with whom to seek comfort and release,” Joan decides, and Helen tells her, “What you and I have will be really beautiful. So gentle and loving.” When Helen asks why it’s wrong, Joan trots out the old saw that “love is meant to lead to babies and the continuation of the race.” Helen, however, concludes that her love for Joan is better than heterosexual love, because she is not just an “animal” intending to procreate, her love is “concerned with giving and receiving beauty.” Joan, though torn, in the end agrees to a relationship with Helen, thinking, “let the so-called normal people have their primitive instincts, but for now she would welcome the chance to enjoy sensuality on a higher and more stimulating plane,” and after the pair consummates their relationship, we are told that “a new and beautiful way of life had been inaugurated for both of them, no matter what else might intervene.” When Louise catches the two in flagrante delicto, however, she is so disgusted that she cannot look her former dear friend in the face. Clearly Louise, while avant garde in some important respects, is still disappointingly backward in others.

The book wraps up in a number of unusual ways. Louise’s problems with Dr. Wilmerding are unfortunately solved by Don, not Louise herself, when he confronts the doctor and discovers the man’s Achilles heel—a weakness that comes across, after his many evils, as completely unbelieveable. Some of Don’s negotiating strength comes from his belief that Louise doesn’t really need the internship or diploma, as he tells Dr. Wilmerding that he will be marrying Louise next week and she will be dropping out of medicine, but as a wedding gift of sorts he wants her to have those two notches in her belt before she takes it off forever and dons an apron instead. In the end, Louise does decline the residency, but for completely different reasons, and in the last chapter takes an unpredicted turn in her relationship with Don, which partially makes up for her earlier maundering about “the wonderful feminine pleasure of submitting herself, body and soul, to the man she loved.” It’s an only partially satisfying close, but in light of this book’s several unique qualities, it is nonetheless a milestone in nurse novels.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Doctor By Day

By Thomas Stone (pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1944

Doctor Anthony Collier voluntarily renounced catering to a stylish clientele, and set himself up as a general neighborhood practitioner. His aim was service rather than success. He didn’t realize that certain of his patients would demand service of a kind he hadn’t anticipated, and that idle women and neurotic men didn’t frequent only specialists’ streamlined offices. A frivolous blonde office assistant with a “fixation” on the doctor; a boy afraid of the draft; and a jealous fiancée were a few of the cases Doctor Tony was called upon to treat. And in the course of his treatments, he sometimes found himself personally as well as professionally involved in his patients’ affairs.


“I suppose I can stand it just once—being admired for my sterling qualities of mind and character. Just so it doesn’t get to be a habit with men.”

“Men think up much snappier stories on a full stomach.”

“I suspect the psychiatrists are all wet when they say sex is at the bottom of the happy marriages, or the unhappy ones. Why does it never occur to them that coffee is at the root of the problem? Imagine a man ever leaving a woman who could make coffee like this.”

“When Betsy Jane dreamed of High Romance, she didn’t mess with it. She really went to town.”

“Now look—what were we talking about when my fiancée blew in like a wild tornado, and called you a slut, and the two of you mopped up the floor with each other?”

“Rita looked like a gal on sinful pursuits bent, and as if having made up her mind to it, she’d sin or know the reason why.”

“If he cut out dames, think of the time he’d have for so many of the things he had always wanted to do, but had never seemed to get around to. Reading up in the classics, for instance, in his spare time.”

I wish I could tell you that this is the best nurse novel I have read all year, or possibly ever. Doctor by Day is, without question, an utterly fantastic book—but unfortunately there is not a nurse or female doctor in sight; this book is about a male doctor and his various girlfriends, so it does not count as a nurse novel. But it’s just too good to let go without shouting from the rooftops that everyone reading this should instantly hop over to Abebooks and procure a copy. I’ll wait.

Now that you’re back, let me explain: Dr. Anthony Collier is engaged to sultry tease Rita Shreve, a wealthy and controlling woman who wants to transform Dr. Tony from a general practitioner into a highly paid, glamorous consultant. He loves Rita and yearns for her badly, but is increasingly displeased with the pressure she is putting on him. On one epically bad evening, Tony’s secretary puts the moves on him, and he brushes her off. He then takes a call from a piano playing milquetoast with an overbearing mother and a terrible fear of his upcoming draft into World War II. Tony, fed up with the weeping youth, suggests that he lose his virginity, which will make a man out of him. Rather than follow this interesting advice, the mopey lad takes himself home and attempts to commit suicide by shooting himself in the shoulder, bringing the wrath of the boy’s mother down upon Tony. In an attempt to do right, Tony goes to the boy’s house, where he finds his cast-aside secretary feeding false information to the distraught mother and the boy suffering from a minor flesh wound. He also finds neighborhood gal Kathie Downing, who owns a tea room and is on hand to lend support. She steers Tony away from the situation before it escalates further and brings her back to her house to help buck him up. Once there, though, he realizes that she is a beautiful, vibrant, kind, intelligent woman who understands him much more than Rita, and he convinces her to allow him to spend the night with her. Yes, like that—a unique plot twist pretty much none of our VNRN heroines would indulge in.

Back at the home of the suicidal boy, the secretary is finally setting off for home herself, thinking about what more she can do to destroy Tony. A clever lass, she decides to drop by Kathie’s home just to see what’s what, lingers before the kitchen window for a while, and then goes home with a satisfied grin on her face. Early the next morning, she drops a dime to the home of Rita Shreve, suggesting that her young man would be so glad to see her, if she could dash over to this little cottage right away. Well, needless to say, when Rita arrives, fireworks ensue. This does put a bit of a damper on the love blooming in Tony’s heart, and crushes Kathie, though she is a tough, realistic lass and wastes no self-pity and few tears on the situation after Tony bodily drags Rita from the house.

It’s just a matter of time before everything is sorted out between these three, but in fact it really doesn’t matter how all this is accomplished. Because in Doctor by Day, author Florence Stonebraker has absolutely outdone herself. She should have won a Pulitzer Prize, or some similar major literary award, for insanely brilliant writing in the genre of hard-boiled fiction. Every page has a beautiful turn of phrase or a fabulous description: “He thought of Rita’s apartment in that exclusive and frightfully expensive building on The Strip. It had been done by an interior decorator with a French name, mincing ways, and a national reputation for achieving strikingly unique effects. And it looked it. It was so unique, and so definitely Hollywoodish, and so expensive looking, that you felt like making a low bow when you went into it, and apologizing humbly for daring to sit on the delicate, salmon-colored upholstery.”

At the same time, the writing also very evocatively describes the growing love between Kathie and Tony without inspiring nausea and the dry heaves, itself an extremely remarkable feat (says the intrepid guide who has read more than 250 of these books): “She had a way of looking at you, and walking right into your life as she did it. There was a warmth about her, and a sweetness. You wanted to tell her things.” The writing evokes a slightly softer Dashiell Hammett: sharp, witty, and intelligent—and at the same time charming, beautiful, and sweet. This book is an undiscovered classic, and (alongside her other outstanding work, City Doctor) permanently solidifies Florence Stonebraker’s reputation with me as the pantheon of pulp romance novelists, nurse themed or not.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Two Loves Has Nurse Powell

By William Johnston, ©1963
Cover illustration by Robert Bonfils

You know Nurse Powell, or perhaps you’ve just seen her walking down a hospital corridor. For a nurse, she’s a bit too distracting in face and figure, but she’s tops in her profession, capable, calm, trained right down to her fingertips. You might suspect that there was a romance between her and that brilliant young doctor, and you’d be right. But did you know that simply because of one patient, her off-duty hours became a whirlpool of politics and pleasure, she forgot her professional coolness, and lost her heart completely to a completely different type of man?


“It’s a grand old name, Mary. You don’t hear it much anymore. What is it we get these days? Kims! And Tuesdays! Oh, I keep up with the fashions. A man in politics has to. He never knows when he’s goin’ to ask a wee little babe’s name of its mother and she’s goin’ to answer back, ‘Tuesday’ or ‘Kim’—and a man has to be on his toes in a situation like that. If he followed his natural inclination and asked leave to go off and throw up his supper like he felt, he’d be sure to lose the vote.”

“I always like to see young people fight. It shows they’re not each other’s rubber stamps. It shows individuality. A good fight is a good beginning. It’s a mistake to save the fighting for marriage.”

“I see you don’t have your needle with you. May I consider that a sign of peaceful intentions?”

“You don’t have to be smart. You’re  a redhead.”

When a books starts off with writing that crackles, I relax a bit and smile with anticipation for what delights the rest of the book will bring. So it was with this book: Nurse Ellen Powell wakes with a premonition that the day is going to go badly, and it puts her in a funk. She’s worried that the impending doom revolves around her fiance, Dr. Dan O’Meara, who—though he has told her that he loves her—has not actually proposed. Soon she’s weeping, convinced that their relationship is over. But when she ventures into the kitchen, she finds that the coffee maker is on the fritz. Now she’s convined that this is the Bad Thing, and the wrinkles staining her brow are instantly smoothed. On to work.

There she finds that Packey Mackey, a most colorful 86-year-old politician, has been admitted for heart problems. Word on the street is that he’s actually just trying to duck testifying before a grand jury on a corruption charge, for stealing from the Welfare Fund and lining his own pockets. In the hospital, Packey’s health and treatment is being very carefully managed by none other than Dr. O’Meara. Dan is convinced that Packey is actually sick, and is running him through a complete workup, despite pressure to discharge Packey so he can face the music before the election and presumably be brought down instead of habitually returned to office by his loyal constituents. Got all that?

When she’s not caring for Packey, Ellen just can’t seem to stop herself from quarreling with Dan, though she never comes out and tells him what is really upsetting her. He assures her that he loves her, but that’s not enough for her—but she refuses to discuss it. Instead they head off to meet Neal Conlon, who is running against Packey in the upcoming election and also happens to be an old boyhood acquaintance of Dan’s—you couldn’t really call them friends. After this meeting, in one of their fights, Ellen declares she is going to work on Neal’s campaign every night, and how does Dan like that? “You’re a big girl now—you can think for yourself,” he says, admirably, despite all evidence to the contrary. So off she goes to Neal’s office, where she is immersed in his idealism and excitement. There she watches him threaten people with what will happen if they vote for Packey. And submits when he pressures her for information about Packey’s medical condition. “When we do wrong we’re doing it so that weventually we can do right,” he explains, pulling her close and holding her hand. Oh, OK, Neal! So when he starts kissing her, she’s swept off her feet, suddenly believing that she’s in love with Neal as well as Dan. And when Neal presses her to pump Dan for information too, she wonders about his seeming so shallow and opportunistic, that “there was little Neal would no do to get what he wanted”—yet keeps on spending all her free time with Neal and fighting with Dan about what she sees as his favoritism for Packey at the expense of truth, justice, and fair elections.

If Dan won’t propose, Neal certainly will, and wants to do it on election night: “It’s got schmalz. The little old ladies will love that.” Ellen has shown little ability to see Neal’s cold-heartedness up to this point, and once he starts kissing her, she is unable to do so now. But later, when Neal snaps at Ellen because she refuses to try to convince the chief of surgery that Dan is drawing out Packey’s stay in order to protect him from the grand jury, she tries to break up with him. He talks her out of it, though: “Let me take care of you. If you have doubts about me, about us—just squash them,” he tells her. Though she waffles some more, she does end the interview by telling him she wants to take time away from him. He’s fine with that—“and if anything new happens at the hospital, call me,” he tells her. Still she’s working every night at Neal’s campaign headquarters. But after he tells her to keep her eye on one of the surgeons who will be assisting at Packey’s operation, she suddenly sees through him: “his drives—his hate for his enemies and his professed love for her—had stemmed from nothing more than his own frantic need for self-gratification.” It’s a curious conclusion to make, based on the conversation that preceded it, and ridiculously overdue, given all the other conversations that had preceded it.

Assisting at the surgery, it’s an open-and-close affair—which means only one thing, that Packey has inoperable cancer. And when it’s over, she doesn’t rush off to telephone Neal. In fact, home in her own apartment, she doesn’t even answer the phone when it rings all night. A few days later, though, when Neal calls her to come down to headquarters and celebrate, she pulls on an off-the-shoulder cocktail dress and heads downtown, long enough to break up with Neal for good. Then she just has to make up with Dan and we can close the book.

I loved the writing in this book, and the political machinations—even more complicated than I have given you here—are not easy wrong-or-right situations, but shades of gray that give you something to think about. I would have easily given this book an A grade—except I just can’t forgive how the author has treated Nurse Ellen, who is easily one of the most gullible, spineless, simple-minded heroines I have ever met. Her character was uncalled for, and it significantly depreciated this story for me. It’s still worth reading, but you’ll want to do it with a roll of Tums by your side, a remedy for the queasy feeling brought on by the fickle, pathetic Ellen Powell, RN, who doesn't deserve to have one man love her, let alone two.