Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Courtroom Nurse

By Fern Shepard
(pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1968

Vicky Blair, R.N., knew her mother would never ask her to give up her job in San Francisco and come home if she didn’t need her desperately. But it was difficult to convince young Dr. Fred Harlan, who wanted her all to himself. It was especially difficult since the trouble at home concerned Vicky’s kid sister, Jean, and the boy she loved, Johnny Rushton. A descendant of one of Rushton City’s oldest and richest families, Johnny had also inherited the family’s streak of mental instability—or so his sister, Cora, wanted everyone believe. She had a lot of people convinced—including, to Vicky’s disappointment, Fred Harlan. Most important, she had finally convinced Johnny, who had told Jean he could not—would not—see her again. Vicky knew Johnny was not a victim of hereditary madness. She could prove it—in court, if necessary. But she hoped it would not come to that, because the revelation that would “clear” Johnny would dishonor the memory of the finest man she had ever known: her father…


“Was she turning into one of those romance-starved females who could not enjoy a nice view with a man without getting quivery all through?”

“A truly feminine woman … never comes straight to the point.”

I’m not certain if Courtroom Nurse actually intends to be funny or if it’s just an accident. A fair amount of the humor does come from the groovy datedness of it, what with the references to love-ins and long-haired hippies and the “teen-agers today behaving as if they’d gone ape.” But then there are sentences like, “She was considering killing herself just as the door opened into the pretty bedroom with gay yellow curtains at the old-fashioned casement windows.” In the opening paragraph, heroine Vicky Blair has decided to quit her job in San Francisco and move back to her hometown an hour away: “Several of the doctors insisted they could never get along without her. She was efficient, she never griped about working two shifts when necessary, and moreover, she was a beautiful blonde.” So what do you think? Is it intentional or is it just bad writing?

Vicky is moving home because her 19-year-old sister, Jean, is at an age when she needs some guidance. The girls’ father, Dr. Sam Blair, died some years ago, so it’s just Vicky and her mother Stella to steer Jean down the straight and narrow. Jean is scheming to marry her beau, Johnny Rushton, but unfortunately, Johnny “has a crackpot older sister who has made him believe he will go insane.” Cora Rushton has devoted her entire life to raising Johnny, and “she would rather see him behind bars in a mental institution than imagine him in the arms of another woman.”

En route to a tryst with Jean, Johnny drives off a cliff and his hospitalized for months; Vicky is naturally enlisted to care for him. Meanwhile, Jean attempts to convince her older photographer friend, Tom Gordon, to help her get to Las Vegas, where she is planning to win big at roulette so as to be able to whisk Johnny off to some remote location, make an honest man out of him, and support him until he can get his feet on the ground. Vicky and Tom tangle over his relationship with Jean, and since he just can’t betray Jean’s trust and tell Vicky what her plan is, Vicky is suspicious; naturally they end up kissing in the rain.

As Cora spirals deeper and deeper out of control—and it is a bit fun, if unsurprising, to witness her insane tantrums—it’s up to Vicky to save the day. You see, she has this letter that her father to her before he died, which he says will save Johnny if the lad ever needs saving. It will also impeach the pristine character of Dr. Sam, but she has a duty to the living. So what’s the big secret? Hints are scattered thickly like petals before a blushing bride, leaving you wondering with every new insinuation—did Sam have an affair with Johnny’s mother? Well, nothing that juicy.

It’s not too hard to see where this book is going—the trip to Vegas, the relationship between Tom Gordon and Vicky, Cora’s tenuous grasp on reality. But between the far-out vocabulary and the wild scenes of Cora shrieking in the courtroom and Jean swooning at the gambling tables, it’s a pleasant enough trip.

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