Sunday, May 1, 2016

Nurse of Polka Dot Island

By Jeanne Bowman, ©1966

After Nurse Agnes met Jim Mahoney, the tiny island where she worked became enchanted. The big Irish detective was tracing down a dangerous criminal, but he still had time to fall in love. However, Agnes was troubled. Their romance would go out with the tide if she concealed evidence from the headstrong young deputy. And her patient would die if he learned his own son was a suspect.


“Oh, why couldn’t he be just an ordinary deputy sheriff, out risking his life on murders and riots?”

“So much for girls who ran after men. Unless they had a legitimate reason for calling, they got further ahead by waiting.”

“If she could only somehow psychologize Jim into letting her help.”

“He’s in the café with that cute little number he’s been shining up to.”

“What man could stand having a woman, not even in his profession, win out over him?”

Regular readers may recall that I have no fondness for Jeanne Bowman, who in my view is more unpleasant than a heaping plate of Brussels sprouts. This book is not her worst, but her trademark pedantic pop psychology is well-represented in these pages, so it’s still not worth the trouble. But since I did in fact brave the storm, here is my report from the front:

Nurse Agnes (yes, Agnes) Leahy is a nurse who owns a small house somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. The geography is a bit confusing, and I never quite figured out if she actually lives on Polka Dot Island or somewhere else. But she is working there, caring for a Mr. Mason who has no first name and is recovering from a major car accident that killed his wife. As the book opens, Agnes and Mr. Mason’s son Ted, age 19, are plotting how to keep away the well-wishing hordes who will descend on the patient and wear him out. They settle on—and actually install—an electrified cattle guard at the end of the driveway to zap any friends who might come visiting, and I am not kidding.

Someone on the island is running around setting fires, and suspicion quickly settles on young Ted, who always seems to be near at hand when the blazes start—in fact, at one point he burns his arms attempting to put out the blaze, or so he says. His father alludes to the new return of a problem Ted had when he was younger; Agnes fears that it’s playing with matches, but somehow just cannot bring herself, through 80 pages, to ask Mr. Mason exactly what he’s referring to. As she is nursing the chief suspect’s father, Agnes soon meets Detective Jim Mahoney, who is borderline pathological about pyromaniacs, stemming from the fact that his family farm was burned by one when he was an impressionable lad, and the ensuing financial ruin is thought to have brought on his father’s fatal heart attack. This gives Agnes and Jim plenty of opportunity to spout platitudes about criminals and victims, such as, “With fire, no insurance can cover the loss of a man’s faith in himself and his ability to care for his family. Not if it is set by a pyro.” And these beauties sprout like dandelions on virtually every page.

Dating a detective who chases pyromaniacs can be tricky, however; Agnes at one point has to throw out the flowers she’d set on the table and change her dress because both are orange, “a tone of flame. She wanted nothing to remind him of his work.” Not that it matters; it’s all he talks of. We therefore spend a lot of time discussing the motivations and psychoses and behaviors of pyromaniacs; I am sorry to report they are not very interesting.

The pyro continues to light blazes unchecked, despite all of Jim’s obsessive police work, and eventually Jim asks Agnes to give up her job caring for Mr. Mason because the island’s too dangerous. She declines, and Jim gets angry: “You’d rather I worried myself into a frazzle than let some other nurse tie up that case,” he says, and Agnes, getting ridiculously ahead of herself, despairs that their yet-to-occur marriage will end in divorce: “This disagreement meant there was some profound difference between them; one that could swiftly wreck their marriage unless one or the other was willing to give up his integrity.” It’s a very long reach, but this sort of psychobabbling leap is not uncommon for Bowman. So to save their possibly forthcoming marriage, Agnes sets out to figure out who the pyro actually is, since the detective with the might of the police force and years of experience backing him can’t seem to manage it. But if Jim can’t even handle her working on the island, I can’t believe that Agnes’s success in tracking down the criminal would do anything but utterly doom their relationship.  

In the end, though, the days we spend following her around on her mystery-shrouded sleuthing vacation come to naught when her own house is targeted—and we saw this coming since about page 3—and she finds the perpetrator dancing with glee in the bushes, just seconds before Jim appears on the scene to do the same. The inconvenient fact that she figured out who the guilty party was well before he did is conveniently swept under the rug, and all that’s left for her to do is get married, which she does with nauseating drama on the last page.

Jeanne Bowman was, unfortunately for us, a prolific writer. Nurse on Polka Dot Island is not her most egregious offense, but now that it’s done, there’s one less for us to wade through.

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