Sunday, February 27, 2011

Challenge for Nurse Laurel

By Fay Stone, ©1970

“Is that you, Laurel? How are you, darling?” When Nurse Laurel Winston realized who was on the phone, she was startled, then angry, at her pulse-pounding reaction. Ambitious young Dr. Neil Elliott had jilted her months before, for a rich heiress. Now here he was calling the suicide prevention center where she worked, asking her … what? To come on a case where a 12-year-old child tried to drown herself? To “watch over the poor psychotic little thing until she can be committed.” Laurel’s impulse was to say no—she wanted nothing more to do with Neil Elliott. But she changed her mind when her chief, Dr. Powers, asked her to take the case, as a favor to him. And when she met her young patient, Laurel was glad she had changed her mind. Because something was very wrong—something she didn’t begin to understand until it threatened them both…


“For six months you haven’t heard the fellow’s voice. The minute you do, your body chemistry goes right out of balance.”

“She was just another jilted girl, and she’d have to make the best of it.”

“A little girl burning up with fever really should have priority over such minor considerations as to whether a nurse had the right to be blonde and dressed in black pants.”

“She considered all the psychopaths running loose around California. One could read any front page. Some nice-appearing, apparently trustworthy character would suddenly go berserk and murder somebody, many half a dozen somebodies. And as often as not, the murderer turned out to be the gardener! Oh, yes. For some reason not at all clear, psychos seemed to gravitate to wealthy homes to look after the flowers.”

“Plenty of women seemed grim indeed when they showed their faces as nature made them.”

An unwanted child; a glamorous, wealthy mother perched on the brink of psychosis; a hunky guy in love with the nurse but contemplating marrying the shrew for the sake of the child—haven’t I just read this book? Well, yes and no. It’s true that the circumstances of Challenge for Nurse Laurel are strikingly similar to the last book I read, Runaway Nurse, but oh, what a difference an author makes. While Runaway Nurse is lively, campy, and fun, Nurse Laurel is ponderous, dull, and stupid. The best line—the back cover blurb quote in which nurse Laurel is exhorted to “watch over the poor psychotic little thing”—is not even in the book, and it’s a sad day when the blurb writer outshines in one paragraph an author who has 208 pages to exert her muscles.

Laurel, a country bumpkin loose in the concrete jungle of Los Angeles, was jilted by the suave psychiatrist Neil Elliott months ago. But now, for reasons never explained, the only nurse who can help him is Laurel. She is to babysit the adopted and despised daughter of Nina Newlands, 12-year-old Pat, who is hearing her recently deceased father’s voice telling her to kill herself. Laurel, first hearing the story, asks, “Could it be that the youngster was psychic?” If Neil weren’t such a jerk, he would have entertained this perfectly rational explanation. But instead, mean old Neil “brushed the notion aside as so much nonsense.” Probably because Neil needs Laurel’s testimony that the girl is nuts so Pat can be popped into a straightjacket and whisked off to the asylum for a lifetime of shock treatments. This would mean that her father’s oil well fortune, which has been left entirely to Pat, would then be at Nina’s disposal—just an incidental fact that surely has no bearing on the matter.

When Laurel first meets the little nut job, Pat has been tied to her bed for two hours because Nina “must have a little time to rest and meditate, and not be worried wondering if you’ve run off to destroy yourself again.” The gardener, Al Kendrick, shimmies up the drainpipe to assist the girl, who has started screaming. For just a hired boy, he is pretty aggressive and rude to Nina, who uncharacteristically wilts before him. Pat is untied, and Laurel gives her a bath. (My 12-year-old daughter would rather hack off an arm with a butter knife than let me give her a bath, but I hear girls grow up quicker these days.) Tucked amongst the towels is a note ostensibly written by Pat’s dead father Byron, urging her to join him in heaven. That night Laurel, in the next room from Pat’s, hears scraping and whistling, and then Pat is screaming her head off about a ghost in her room. This is all Dr. Neil needs to start ordering the girl’s one-way ticket to the nuthouse.

Laurel is horrified by the prospect, because everyone knows those places are just packed with “hopeless derelicts of a subterranean world; a variety of defectives, from high-grade morons to low-grade imbeciles and idiots … the abnormal, the mentally twisted, the grotesque creatures who were lost to hope. … the mentally retarded, the unfit, some of them Mongolian idiots.” Oh, God, anything but people with Down syndrome!!! If this is the qualified opinion of a highly skilled psychiatric nurse, the profession is in serious trouble.

Will Laurel and her new-found love Al be able to get to the bottom of the mystery in time? Well, if all it takes is a hare-brained scheme, everything will be great, because this pair has them in spades. First, Laurel is going to kidnap Pat, and Laurel’s esteemed physician friend and mentor, whose medical license apparently means nothing to him, is going to help them hide the child. If that doesn’t work, Al is going to marry Nina in exchange for her promise to leave Pat alone. Nina is all over this plan like the dog on your leg. Never mind that there is absolutely no reason why a very wealthy woman should go for the gardener (Lady Chatterley notwithstanding) when she has done nothing but snarl at this one, and she certainly has no shortage of better prospects, Dr. Neil included. The only thing Al can give her, she herself acknowledges, is “the delight of abandoning herself to the joy and delights of a vital woman in the arms of a truly fabulous man.” As it were. She could probably just drive down to Sunset Boulevard and get herself a gigolo for a lot less hassle.

The plot is telegraphed from every page. Again and again Laurel goes over the implausibility of there being an actual ghost, who might be behind it, what there is to gain from this plot—though only a low-grade imbecile could miss it. Could it be Nina? Is it Al? Neil? Nina? Al? Neil? Around and around we go, pounding to death a question no reader could possibly care about. There are a few other “mysteries” tossed in, like who Pat’s parents really were, and has anyone else noticed that her eyes are so much like Al’s?

Then there are the parts that just make no sense at all. Nina takes a great deal of crap from Al, and when she tries to fire him, he tells her that the house belongs to Pat, so she can’t make him leave, because Pat “has the legal right to decide who was to stay there, who was to go.” I really don’t think a 12-year-old child has that kind of legal authority, even in California. When Nina rightfully retorts that she, as Pat’s guardian, indeed has that right, Al says that the court has not yet appointed her Pat’s guardian. Again, wha-a-a-a-a? Are we really supposed to believe that Pat was adopted by Byron Newlands alone, and that Nina has no legal relationship whatsoever to a girl she has raised for 12 years? And when you get to the final aha moment, when all is revealed, the unbelievable coincidence is so contrived and lame that it’s all you can do to keep your gorge in check. Really, just toss this bore of a book and run straight to Runaway Nurse.

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