Cover illustration by M. Hooks
Nestled deep in the California hills was a hospital so strange, so unique that only a handful of people knew of its existence, let alone its mysterious mission. Through its antiseptic corridors moved the shadiest of characters—bullet-ridden gangsters, suicidal actresses, punch-drunk pugs—people who could not stand the all-revealing daylight of public exposure. A truly odd assortment of bedfellows. Here, under the most modern and efficient conditions, beneath the secretive cloak of midnight, life-saving operations were performed by a team of highly skilled, dedicated men and women. Jennifer James, Registered Nurse, was one of them. Some people will condemn her for it. Others will come to her defense. But no one will be indifferent to her, or to the doctor she loved—the man she had no right to want.
“Bye, sweetie, and I hate you because you’re so damn attractive.”
“Now that’s the epitome of our gentle era. Booze through a straw. Bombs from the bomb bays, missiles from the pads, rockets and men in orbit, atoms from the smashers and booze through a straw.”
“Would you like to go down by the river? There are benches, and I promise to behave outrageously.”
“California now has something to talk about whenever the subject of beauty is brought up.”
“She’s your wife. You should be able to handle her or you shouldn’t have married her.”
“You are much too attractive to worry.”
Jennifer James, R.N., is wholly unique among the more than 200 nurse heroines I have met to date: Right off the bat, right there on page 16, she sleeps with a married man she had admired but barely known when she worked with him years ago. The man in question, Dr. Rafferty Corbett, is a surgeon at Manhattan’s West Side General, but now he is a rude, sloppy drunk, babbling on about his Eskimo pie of a wife at the hospital’s annual ball. She takes him outside for some fresh air and he all but passes out, so she takes him to her room in the nurse’s dormitory. Big mistake. In his gratitude for her assistance, he forces her down and tears off her dress. She responds as women in VNRNs usually do when they are being assaulted, namely, “she found herself clinging to him instead, pulling him closer.” Next thing you know, she’s picking up her underwear off the floor and rushing to the OR, where she is head surgical nurse, for an emergency surgery.
There she works on a man who has been assaulted to the brink of death by the henchmen of gangster Sydney Delgado. The man, a former associate of Sydney’s, was about to sing to the police about Sydney’s illicit activities, but now he’s fighting for his life with just Jennifer James, R.N., between him and the grim reaper. But there’s this mean police detective, who wants the patient to wake up and talk before his imminent death. Jennifer, who has orders to keep the man sedated lest his shredded spleen start hemorrhaging, dopes the patient with morphine even as the detective is rushing to the hospital administrator to make Jennifer keep the man alert. Her efforts come to no avail and the patient dies, and now there is hell to pay. Jennifer is fired from her job for obeying the doctor’s orders and not the detective’s, and is blacklisted from every job in town—except for one, working for an abortionist, which she turns down, so we know she has some morals.
Then she gets a phone call from Raff. He’s in California, having left his wife, and he wants her to take a job at the hospital where he works. Next thing you know, she’s at a very upscale medical facility in the Los Angeles hills. The patients are glamorous movie stars, dirt-poor Mexican immigrants, anyone who needs care—including a number of shady types with suspicious wounds; Jennifer’s first surgery upon arriving is assisting Raff in removing a bullet from a seedy fellow who repays her by grabbing her breast, and only Raff’s quick intervention with a right cross to the jaw preserves her relative modesty.
It turns out that the hospital is financed by Sydney, who after watching his mother die of cancer, impoverished and without proper treatment, swore that he would help others in the same situation—apparently the only act of goodness he has ever committed. So all these nice poor people get top-notch care, but the down side is that Jennifer and RAff have to minister to any of Sydney’s associates who might need medical attention. But to have a job again, and to work alongside Raff—and to open her door to him at night—is all Jennifer needs, so she accepts the good with the bad. And the bad includes another assault, this time a near-rape—she is again saved by Raff, whose timing really is uncanny—and the arrival of Sydney himself, who has survived a plane crash and crawled across the California desert to the hospital. Oh, and Raff’s wife turns up as well, and a Hollywood gossip columnist, both of whom are threatening to expose Jennifer and Raff as adulterers as well as the hospital’s slimy underbelly.
It seems black for everyone concerned: How can Raff shake off his wife and the gossip columnist, and persuade Sydney to continue funding the hospital, which, after his first-hand experience as a patient, he now regards as an unworthy medical facility staffed by quacks? (He may have a point there; shortly after his arrival, he is determined to have metastatic lung cancer and less than two weeks to live, and though he is even given radiation treatment, he is never informed of his diagnosis lest he freak out and pull the plug on the hospital’s endowment trust.)
Not to worry, in the event that you are: All is resolved when the hospital handyman (a very dignified Mexican) essentially murders Sydney by brutally revealing his illness to him, the shock of which sends Sydney into a coma from which he never recovers, and also by a bit of dirt that Jennifer and Raff fortuitously uncover on Mrs. Raff and Mr. Columnist. It isn’t really a satisfying ending; I had hoped that someone might literally put an end to Sydney, which would have made for a more thought-provoking conclusion to the hospital’s woes, and the way in which Mrs. Raff is dispatched seemed too facile. But on the whole it’s an enjoyable book, even if at the same time it doesn’t have all that much to recommend it. The writing is pleasant and brisk, and the surgeries are well and accurately described, but the plot just aren’t that enticing. I also wasn’t really impressed with Raff, who goes around either threatening to hit everyone or actually doing so, and his initial assault on Jennifer wasn’t too nice, either, even if she did succumb to his charms. It’s an odd addition to the VNRN genre and for that reason alone perhaps worth reading, but otherwise you won’t find that Jennifer James has much to offer outside the bedroom or the OR.