Friday, November 28, 2014

Nurse to Remember

By Teresa Holloway, ©1970

Against her better judgment, Adair Davis let herself be talked into becoming nurse on Dr. Garnett’s secret government project. In that ancient isolated house where it was being conducted, she was both attracted and frightened by the doctor’s assistant, the tall, handsome young doctor, Sam Lennox, whose hostility was coupled by a concealed concern. The phones were tapped, the house harbored mysteries, strangest of which was the unseen presence of a mysterious woman somewhere in an upstairs bedroom. But it was Adair’s feminine heart that was to be the major traitor to her planned flight.
"Even the oxygen tubes in the strong, aristocratic nose did not deter him."
"I always thought the description of the beautiful girl who tended the dwarfs [in Snow White] had far more imagery than anything Shakespeare wrote."
"She had the feeling, and she didn’t like it, that the eye of the Kremlin was fixed on them."
"Here was buried, it related, the body of a little girl, preserved at death in a keg of rum by a father who’d promised the mother to bring her home intact from a journey abroad. When the child died of the plague, the father true to his promise bought a keg of the ship’s spirits, knocked off the head, placed the girl inside and refixed the head to the keg. ‘American ingenuity,’ Adair marveled. ‘And understandably comforting to the poor bereft mother.’ "
"Inwardly, she was reacting violently to the super-saturation of adrenal fluid his voice had generated."
" ‘I’m a husky American girl,’ she reasoned. ‘I can do it.’ "

Early on, I found myself thinking that this was one of the more boring VNRNs I’ve read. Later, I found myself thinking that it was one of the dumbest. I guess I’ll take dumb over boring, but neither makes for a great read.
Adair Davis has taken a job as a nurse for Dr. McGregor Garnett, an aging scientist with metastatic pancreatic cancer living and working in a rambling old house in Beaufort, North Carolina, an actual town on the Inner Banks. She didn’t really want the job, but she was pressured to take it with the encouragement, "You’ll be useful to your country if you go." She’s been selected for the job because she’s good at chemistry and "had a few hours of college pharmacology in her freshman year," because a few hours of pharmacology is all you really need; just ask any pharmacist who’s finished their six-year PhD program.
While unpacking in her room—she’s brought several Dresden figurines, a paperweight of a Kennedy half-dollar, and a signed photograph of the President with her, curiously—she meets Edwina Jernigan, who works in the bank nearby and has been invited to stay in the house, apparently as a sort of chaperone while Adair is there, and Dr. Mac’s young assistant, Dr. Sam Lenox. She’s quickly inducted into the top secret project, and if "only a half a dozen people in North Carolina know about Project Beaufort," that number is going to grow exponentially the way these guys blab. The boys are under the impression that the most important contribution that science could make to the world (it’s not a cure for cancer, because "that’s in the works," she’s told) is to create a pill that would enable a person to remember anything that’s ever happened to them. This, somehow, is going to put an end to "sheer unadulterated illiteracy." "Think, if you can, of what such a drug will do to empty the ghettos, to close the ‘genius gap’ between our country and Russia, if it exists," Dr. Lenox tells her, and never mind that a person would have had to actually do the studying in the first place in order to be able to remember it later on. Adair dubs their invention a "recall pill," and the boys light on the name as if it’s the greatest contribution their project could have. "She’s everything they said! They’ve sent us a woman who thinks!" crows Dr. Mac, apparently unacquainted with many such oxymoronic creatures.
The scientists also ask her if she wouldn’t mind popping a pill or two, because "we need to make a couple of experiments that will be woman oriented." She’s fervently against the idea, which sets the project back a bit since they will now have to find another woman to experiment on; Edwina is never considered, for some unexplained reason. They have given the pills to a female cat, which caused it to completely freak out. They ascribe this reaction to recalled memories of a time when the cat was caught and nearly killed by a dog, though how they can be so sure of what the cat was feeling is not explained. "It is our theory that perhaps a woman, being primarily an emotional being, will recall a dominant emotional episode at the outset of reaction," explains Dr. Lenox. Adair, mercifully, is not taken in: "What does a male cat recall?" she retorts.
Then Adair receives a late-night phone call directing her to be at the bus station the next day. Off she dutifully trots, and after she has been waiting around for several hours, Dr. Lenox pulls up to claim her just as a strange man approaches her, and the man runs off. At this point the boredom wears off the book and exciting events occur every two or three pages: There’s an explosion at a paint factory, and Adair and Dr. Lenox are pressed into service at the hospital; Adair gets a flat tire in her car and discovers the spare is also flat; she tours a cemetery at Eddie’s suggestion and encounters the bus station fellow—whom she now unfortunately refers to as "The Man from ‘They’ "—who pulls a gun but kindly runs off to fetch a cup of water when she begins to faint and doesn’t return when Dr. Lenox again arrives at the opportune moment. All of which happens on the same day.
The next isn’t any better: Hurricane Janelle approaches the island in a fury, Adair discovers that her Kennedy souvenirs—engagement gifts from Bill, a man who is no longer her fiancé, we learn—have been taken from her room, and she finds the butler unconscious on the stairs as well as a trip wire that had been set up to send someone plunging. Ben has a severe concussion, but there’s an x-ray machine in the basement, so Dr. Lenox takes some pictures with it and then gives the plates to Adair to deliver to the radiologist in town, though how the diagnosis will help when the patient is stranded at the house is unclear. Adair drives through an increasingly ferocious storm, the winds up to 70 mph and downed power lines snapping at her car. Needless to say, the radiologist is not in his office, so she takes the plates to the police station and, after severely spraining her ankle getting out of her car, insists that the solitary officer there deliver the plates at once! Then, back in her car, she drives back to the house using her left foot on the accelerator the whole way, only to find that Ben has died in the interim. Damn!
Home again, events continue to pile up: Adair learns that Edwina’s husband, CIA man Frank Taylor, has been secretly living in the spare bedroom next to hers. Dr. Mac needs a hypodermic after all the excitement, but the syringes have vanished from their usual spot in the locked medicine cabinet, and the key has gone missing as well! Two pages of kerfuffle about that and what everyone is going to have for lunch, and the key turns up under the pile of wet clothes Adair had changed out of. She’s anxious to "fix her face," so she dumps out her handbag’s contents on the bed and finds a stack of bills, $2,500. Instantly she’s under the suspicion of Frank the CIA man, and Dr. Lenox tells her that with Ben’s murder, she will be a prime suspect if she can’t explain the money. If you can connect those dots, let me know, because I’m just not seeing it. The money, Adair decides, was put there to "discredit" her, and that’s another leap that I don’t follow, but if she could only remember where she’s seen Frank before, and when she left her purse unattended, everything would be great!
So she hobbles down the hall on her sprained ankle to Dr. Mac’s room and collects a little purple pill, because "it’s only right for a nurse to remember," and let’s all groan together about the lame association with the book’s title. She swallows the pill on the spot, and fortunately for her, the side effects of nausea and dizziness don’t come on until after she’s back in bed with a tape recorder, so as to document her experience. There she gratuitously recollects her encounter with President Kennedy during "that desperate hour in the White House. She’d been in Bill’s office waiting for him to finish work, when the President had come in, gray-faced with worry. Only later did she associate his tension with the ill-fated Bay of Pigs affair, unknown to her at the time."
Edwina comes in to report that she’s found the hypodermics, and that Adair must have forgotten that she’d put them in a different location. You’d think this would lead to some revelation about the syringes being tampered with—a possibility that Adair herself mentions—but instead she remembers leaving her bag for a minute at the bus station to buy a paper, and finding it slightly misplaced when she returns to it. She mentions this to Dr. Lenox, and then remembers that she met Frank while out on a date with Bill years ago, only then he’d been named Francis Talenov and was working at the Russian embassy, and he’d been accompanied by "The Man from ‘They’ "! Rather than tell anyone this, she allows Dr. Lenox to shoot her up with one of the suspect syringes and turns out the lights so she can get some sleep. A while later, Frank enters her room and tries to smother her with a pillow, but for the third time, Dr. Lenox turns up, this time with a gun, to save the day. Frank begins swearing in Russian, and Adair hops over to the dresser to retrieve—and I am not kidding—her red, white, and blue scarves to tie up the bad guy. This is the moment that Dr. Lenox decides to announce to the room that he and Adair are going to be married, but Dr. Mac stops into the room to cut him off, saying that he’s decided to give Adair his house, so she and Dr. Lenox, who has decided to quit lab work and become a GP in town, can live and work there.
Seldom has so much happened to a VNRN heroine in the span of two days, and seldom do so many loose ends remain dangling: What was the deal with the hypodermics? And the flat tires in Adair’s car, which she’d previously blamed on Edwina? Who put the money in Adair’s bag, and why? Who killed Ben the butler? What happened to the Kennedy souvenirs? And "The Man from ‘They’ "? The improbable plotting is equally unfortunate, and the writing also sloppy—at one point Frank’s outfit is described while he’s on the other side of a door, knocking to be admitted. Which is sad, because early on in the book—when the plotting was a lot duller—the writing was actually almost fine in places, such as, "the racket she’d made with the knocker seemed somehow discourteous." If you approach this book ready to poke fun, it’s a perfect vehicle for your mockery, but beyond that, it has little use unless it’s to prop up a wobbly table.

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