(pseud. Jean Francis Webb III), ©1954
Cover illustration by Edrien King
When lovely, blonde Elizabeth Lane returned home to San Francisco, she thought she could take up her life just as it had been before. But in the three years the young nurse had been away—years spent as a prisoner of the enemy in Asia—grave changes had taken place. Handsome Doctor Marsh Carson, who had sworn to marry her, now was engaged to the ravishing, yet strangely sinister Karen Russell. Barney Jordan, who had helped Elizabeth survive her harsh captivity, now claimed a debt she felt she could never honestly repay. Then there was the rugged young newspaperman, Scott Alexander, with his probing questions and disturbing attractiveness. And Elizabeth quickly discovered that she herself was no longer the same girl who had gone away, as she struggled to find out what this new person who bore her name should do.
“So you’re a good nurse. I need you as a woman. The woman I love!”
“I meant to get down to Dr. Carson’s shindig yesterday, but we had an unexpected polio case brought in, and I was all day on the telephone locating another iron lung.”
“It was Aunt Wilma’s firm conviction that none of this world’s ills struck too deep to be at least mitigated by hot tea and cinnamon toast.”
As some VNRN authors induce fear and loathing (I’m looking at you, Jeanne Bowman), others land in your lap like a light blue box from Tiffany wrapped in a white satin ribbon. Jean Webb, writing as Ethel Hamill, is most definitely one of the latter; he can write circles around almost everyone else out there. The very first page serves up little prose gems to admire, such as when Nurse Elizabeth Lane is cruising into San Francisco Bay: “San Francisco … She said the name over to herself for perhaps the thousandth time that morning, taking comfort from the syllables as old ladies were supposed to take comfort from a cup of hot tea.”
She’s coming home after two years in a prison camp in Korea to be reunited with Dr. Marsh Carson (one of my ongoing quibbles with VNRNs is the ridiculous names they give to the love interests). Like most fickle fiancés, though, in her absence he’s become engaged to the svelte minx Karen Russell. But the man whom she leaned on during her internment, Barney Jordan, is standing by her side—maybe a little too close for comfort, as he soon professes his deep love for her, leaving her with two fellas to contend with. Actually, make that three—as she steps off the boat, famous photographer Scott Alexander snaps her picture, which is broadcast on front pages across the country. He’s now hounding her for an expanded profile piece with lots of pictures to go with it, so he’s hanging around too. For a malnourished, emotionally scarred wreck, she sure is irresistible to the boys.
Of course, every one of them has obstacles. Marsh is, of course, engaged to someone else, but he does seem to get awfully jealous of the other boys in Elizabeth’s life. “I’m hanged if I’ll let Barney get away with stealing my girl!” he fumes to Elizabeth, totally oblivious the fact that he abandoned any claim he ever may have had on her when he proposed to Karen. Speaking of whom, his fiancée is quite a cat, and she uses her armory of claws to full effect to keep a grip on her man. Part of her efforts in this direction involve uncovering the fact that Barney, before he went to Korea, was a bank robber who skipped out on his parole and has a little prison sentence waiting for him back in Chicago. She is on the verge of spilling this little tidbit—where else?—at Elizabeth’s welcome home party, but Elizabeth cuts her off and announces that she and Barney are engaged, thus saving Barney from jail: As long as Karen’s competition for Marsh’s affections are engaged elsewhere, she’ll keep her lipsticked moue closed. In the meantime, the old judge, who is a longtime friend of Elizabeth’s family, is working to get Barney pardoned in light of his heroics at the Korean prison camp, but it will go a lot easier with a standup nurse like Elizabeth willing, by marrying him, to vouch for his character and to keep him on the straight and narrow.
Scott, meanwhile, is playing the part of the wounded suitor, and though Elizabeth is torn by her feelings for him, she just can’t seem to bring herself to explain the truth of the situation to him and insists that she must go through with the sham marriage to Barney. Everything gets wrapped up tidily in the end, of course, with a crashing finale in the pool cabana that leaves Marsh in a coma. It’s pretty good stuff, but not quite as fabulous as it could have been, I have to say.
Part of the fun for me is the fact that this book is set in San Francisco, the greatest city on the planet. There are references to the usual landmarks, of course, but some surprised me, to wit: “They cut along the edge of Union Square, past a yawning mouth to that amazing underground parking garage for which the whole Square had been torn up and set down again just before the second World War.” All the times I passed by, it never occurred to me to consider that garage with anything akin to wonder.
I also appreciate the fact that after returning home from years of deprivation and torture in the prison camp, Elizabeth and Barney are not laughing and dancing and partying it up. They are haunted by their experiences—and though this is brought up regularly, it is not rubbed in our faces, sensationalized, or irritating. It’s just a fact of their lives. If the complicated web of Elizabeth’s love life is a bit overwrought—and I’m not a big fan of the I-have-to-marry-this-man-even-though-I-love-someone-else plot—the writing is excellent and the characters are well-drawn (with the exception of Elizabeth, who is the weakest of the lot). The most depressing thing about reading this book is that it means I only have four more books by Ethel Hamill left to read.