By Jane Converse
(pseud. of Adele Kay Maritano), ©1966
Jennifer Mellin, R.N., is on trial—before the world, before her own conscience. For she was the last person to see her mother, ex-movie star Angela Di Marco, alive. Exhausted by caring for her hypochondriac mother, her professional senses numbed by a never-ceasing tirade of hysterical demands, had Jennie in fact given Angela the wrong pills from the vast array of bottles in the medicine cabinet? Was Angela’s death—as her wardrobe mistress, Bessie Wykoff, hinted maliciously—the result of foul play?
I was looking forward to my next Jane Converse title after the fabulous Surf Safari Nurse, but Nurse on Trial was a bit of a letdown. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t have the humor or even the fine writing of its sister. They were both written the same year, so maybe Jane shot the wad on the Safari and coasted through the Trial.
Jennifer Mellin is the daughter of a famous faded movie star, Angela Di Marco, who is a Garbo and a Joan Crawford all rolled into one glorious mess. Jennifer is obliged to leave the side of her doctor fiancé to nurse her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in years, because she is told that Mommie Dearest is on her deathbed. The scenario is compelling: “Unaccountably breathless Jennifer started toward the bed. It was a monstrously large round affair, mounted on a circular dais, and surrounded by sheer white curtains that were affixed to a curved track in the ceiling. The curtains were drawn back now to reveal Angela propped up against at least a dozen pillows and covered by a custom-made gold-threaded quilt of white satin. Two Siamese cats dozed at the foot of the bed. She wore a black marabou bed jacket over a low-cut nightgown of powder blue lace … The red-gold hair was brushed into a high Grecian halo on top of her head, an arrangement that brought her pale, drawn features into startling focus.”
After this introduction, we go round and round on the Hollywood starlet carousel: green pills, pink pills, smeared mascara, scrapbooks and clippings at 3:30 a.m., cigarettes, broken mirrors, black velvet negligees, bourbon and peppermints. The usual manipulations: “I wanted to spare you, Jennie. Sometimes I’m in such terrible pain, I don’t know what I’m doing.” “Let me die in peace!” “You haven’t noticed that I’m wearing the Dior. Careful, Jennie! You’ll muss me up!” “Lies, lies, lies! Is this why you came here? To slander me?” “Get me something for my nerves …”
For 76 pages the story staggers drunkenly along on its spike-heeled gold kid mules. We know that Angela is doomed—the back cover tells us so—but it isn’t until page 112 that she actually kicks off. There is no jury trial at all, as Angela’s doctor decides she died of cirrhosis. (Curiously, she has left-sided pain—the liver is on the right—and no jaundice, but then, Angela’s not much of a nurse: As much as she despises her mother’s self-medication, she always caves and gives her more pills.) Perhaps her trial is more metaphoric than legal, but she doesn’t acquit herself very admirably, inexplicably helpless to save herself from the manipulation or her mother from disease, organic or addictive.
The burning question, as condensed on the back cover, is whether Jennie poisoned her mother: “I don’t remember what I gave my mother last night. … Maybe I killed her!” But with just 16 pages between Angela’s death and the end of the book, we are not left to wonder for very long. The premise of the book is good, if a little hackneyed, but after it sets up, it doesn’t know what to do with itself. It can barely be called a romance, as Jennie is happily engaged from the opening chapter, and there is never any tension about that relationship. I’ve read books that are a lot worse, but I also know that Jane can do a lot better.