Sunday, June 5, 2011

Nurse Liza Hale

By Jane Corby, ©1965
Cover illustration by Mort Engel

“I’m so frightened!” The terrified girl who had appeared out of the night at Liza’s door clung to her, sobbing.
“Please,” Liza said, “try to tell me what’s the matter.”
“The noises,” the girl said. “As if someone was tearing down the house. It’s haunted! But my husband won’t believe me. He thinks I’m …”
Psychiatric nurse Liza Hale thought she knew what lay behind her lovely neighbor’s panic—the tragedy of mental illness. But the truth was stranger and more sinister—and, disregarding the warning of the young doctor who loved her, Liza soon found herself in a maze of mystery of menace … with no way out!


“Dr. Kimberly did, however, look at Liza with interest. Liza thought he was probably looking for signs of mental disturbance.”

“Psychiatrists! I suppose it’s all right to work with them if that’s your job, but I certainly wouldn’t let one of them near Harriet. They’re home-wreckers. Why, I know of several marriages that were broken up because the wife went to be psychoanalyzed.”

“They watched the rest of the show together and danced later in the center of the room, while music from records encouraged them to join the others in experimenting with novel twists and turns and inspired gyrations of every kind.”

“I’ll go barefoot if you have the stage floor sanded. I don’t want to get splinters in my feet. I might get lockjaw. Long Island used to be farming country, you know, and there may be tetanus germs around.”

“When you’re in the Village, you have to talk as the Villagers do, or they won’t dig you.”

“I’m neither rich nor famous—yet, but with you beside me, I know I soon would be. There’s something about you, Liza, a kind of warmth, that is what a man needs if he’s to make a success in life.”

“Now we’re in our twenties—grown up!”

“You must know, Liza, it’s hard for a man to keep his hands off you.”

“ ‘My pockets aren’t big enough to hold them all,’ she said after a while. She eyed the capacious pockets of Bret’s seersucker suit longingly.”

The back cover blurb wants to make this book out to be some sort of mystery, but there is no secret whatsoever as to what is going on in the house next door. Nurse Liza Hale is helping two doctors research a book on the drug treatment of psychiatric illnesses—“Dr. Mathews thinks that in time this kind of treatment will supercede most of the other types,” she explains—when newlywed Harriet Duane knocks on her door, saying that she hears noises and she thinks they are made by a ghost. She is a wealthy, naïve 20-year-old mouse from Atlanta, and Liza immediately thinks that Harriet would make a good case study for Dr. Mathews’ book.

Harriet’s husband Charles, age 35, has “a narrow-eyed, supercilious face with a wisp of carefully shaped moustache above an arrogant mouth.” When Liza sees the couple at a party a few days later, Charles finds a pair of pearl earrings that Harriet denies having worn, and he suggests that Harriet is under mental strain, saying things like, “Now, Harriet, you know how easily you forget things.” Dr. Bret Kimberley, the younger psychiatrist who is working with Dr. Mathews, immediately sees that Charles is a rat with something up his sleeve. Liza, the astute trained professional, responds, “Don’t analyze him; he’s simply upset about his wife. He’s very distinguished-looking and cultured, and he’s deeply in love with Harriet.” Not too many pages later, though, Charles’s suggesting that Harriet should be instionalized because she doesn’t like the wallpaper in the sitting room where Charles forces her to sit quietly for hours every day. I want to think this is a reference to The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, but I’m not too optimistic.

In between arguments with Bret about whether Charles is a devoted husband or a ruthless con man, she is pursued by Don, a high school chum chasing a career in the theater, who attempts to persuade her to give up nursing for acting. In addition to acting, of course, Don wants Liza to take on the role of his wife, and asks her if she loves him. “I’m afraid not,” Liza answers, in a novel response for a VNRN (and I do think we were meant to chuckle here). She goes on to explain, “I can’t see myself as your partner, rooting for your success, while I stumble along in a minor acting role myself.” Apparently remaining in nursing while he works as an actor is not an option. She thinks that nursing is a far more noble profession: “Nursing was real. That would be thrill enough for her—to see people whole and happy through her participation as part of a team, working side by side with a doctor, not only content but elated as she carried out his orders.” It’s curious that she won’t marry Don because she doesn’t want to be second-rate to him, yet seems totally oblivious to the fact that as a nurse, she may be literally at the doctor’s side, but carrying out orders, no matter how elatedly, does not make her an equal.

It isn’t too long before Dr. Mathews spots a squib in the paper saying that a Mrs. Charles Duane of Chicago is looking for her missing husband, who has absconded with all her money. Liza then reveals that Harriet has told her that Charles is angling for power of attorney, is angry that Harriet wants to consult her own lawyer, and thinks she ought to spend a few weeks in a rest home. “What can we do to protect Harriet?” Liza asks the doctor. “Nothing, I’m afraid,” says the doctor, who is apparently unaware of the existance of the police force. “I always distrusted him,” Bret chimes in, and Liza, in an abrupt about-face, defends Charles by saying, “Oh, you’re just antisocial.” Later, when they hear on the radio that police are looking for this Chicago Charles Duane, Liza comments, “It may not be our Charles Duane,” and nobody bothers to drop a dime to the boys in blue.

When it is finally revealed that the two are one and the same, Liza has no explanation or self-recrimination as to why she has been such a complete dope. Totally distraught, Harriet tries to kill herself by cutting her wrists, but “only succeeded in making mere scratches.” The next day, Harriet apologizes for the trouble she’s caused the doctors, and Liza is finally able to put her years of training as a psychiatric nurse to clincial use: “ ‘You should be!’ scolded Liza. “Think how good they’ve been to you—and they’re such busy people, too!’ ” Psychiatrist Bret shares Liza’s concern for Harriet’s mental health, referring to Harriet’s crisis as “that silly slashed-wrist business.”

There is some humor in the story and the writing isn’t bad, but it’s full of dead-end side trips, including a major hurricane that renders some of the characters homeless, a shelter for battered women, a missing child and a childless couple, and a traumatic incident from Harriet’s childhood that undermines the idea that Harriet is not mentally incompetent. Its biggest flaw, however, is the heroine’s utter stupidity in regards to the true situation with Harriet and Charles Duane. When an allegedly intelligent woman with highly specialized training is unable to see what we have known since page 8, I just can’t like the book.

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