Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Nurse's Alibi

By Jane Corby, ©1966

Kate Saunders, R.N., returned from a working vacation as a ship’s nurse on a Caribbean cruise to find that a sensational murder had taken place in her home town on the very night of her departure. The chief suspect, George Hewlett, was claiming Kate as his alibi, and although Kate’s fiancé, Dr. Tim Weaver, advised her not to become involved, Kate felt she had a duty to tell what she knew, however dangerous that might be. With the support of handsome newspaper reporter Dave Warren who loved her, Kate followed her instincts and nearly risked losing love…and life as well.


“There was something about the young man that annoyed her. Perhaps it was the way his sandy hair was cut, so that one side of it was combed down over his forehead in a kind of ragged bang.”

“I couldn’t help thinking how much more athletic you look without your clothes.”

“For this occasion she had not spared the eye shadow.”

“Don’t eat that candy! It may be poisoned!”

“The district attorney did manage to bring out the fact that George’s mother was ‘emotionally disturbed,’ but even this, Kate thought, would only prejudice the jury in his favor. Most of the men—and there were seven on the jury—had perhaps had a similar experience with their wives for a short period.”

There is just no excuse for a dumb heroine. How can you have any sympathy for a woman who continually makes the worst possible choices, who throws logic to the wind, who is a complete hypocrite?

Meet Kate Saunders, who is working part-time as a nurse while she returns to Stratton University in Mansfield, NY, to obtain a graduate degree in psychiatry. A fellow student and acquaintance, George Hewlett, age 20, has been accused of murdering his girlfriend, Claire Taylor, who we are told is both 16 and 17. Kate has heard George say that he would kill Claire before he “let someone else have her,” and that he would do it by strangling her with a wire hanger, which is the exact way she died. She has heard him threaten other people as well. He has told the police that Kate was with him at the time of Claire’s murder, which is not true. She was “frightened at the way he lost control” when she told him she would not give him a false alibi. After George has been released from jail, a car just like his tries to run her off the road, and then George lies to her about where he was that night. And she receives an anonymous box of chocolates that has been poisoned.

What does Kate do with all this? Why, she tells no one at all about being run off the road, because “there was no use to add to the counts against him.” She asks the lab worker who tests the candy to destroy it all as well as his lab report. When she sees George on campus, she hurries to catch up with him and apologizes for not giving him an alibi, and seems hurt when he says, “If a man is going to be persecuted by someone, he ought at least to have the sense to stay away from her,” and stalks off. She apparently agrees that George killed Claire, but does not dwell at all on that question, rather insisting that is going to “help” him by providing a “nurse’s alibi,” which means she is going to testify to the fact that she thinks George is a “borderline disturbed personality,” possibly schizophrenic. She wants to testify on George’s behalf, she tells her fiancé Dr. Tim Weaver, because “nobody else knows what I know about George Hewlett,” and she is willing to break off her engagement with Tim over it. So although she will make considerable personal sacrifices to tell the world one thing she believes about George, she simultaneously buries her other suspicion, barely even admitting it to herself, that he is attempting to kill her.

Tim is opposed to her testifying because he is concerned that the attorneys will attempt to destroy her character and try to convince the jury that she is in love with George. As her fiancé, this will damage his reputation as well. Most of the book details their quarrels, his dates with “number one belle of New England” Mandy Burr, and Kate’s dates with reporter Dave Warren, with an interlude in which she stars in a play about a group of young women in 1910 seeking admission to the then-all-male university. There’s the trial in the end, of course, when all is revealed, and the engagement in the end, when all the difficulties are swept under the rug, but you knew that would happen.

The pop psychology in this book quickly becomes annoying. When George tells Kate that she is “persecuting” him, she starts with the psychoanalysis: “This was something that was definitely tied up with emotional instability. … Had George ever suffered from a persecution mania before?” Does use of the word on one occasion make for a “mania”? George’s mother is living in a sanitarium for the mentally disturbed, and Kate reasons that “her highly nervous condition might have been the cause of her son’s instability, and [George’s father] Jim Hewlett, unwilling to recognize the signs of emotional disturbance as an inherited trait, would be all the more belligerent toward anyone who suspected trouble.”

There is also a curious dichotomy about sexism. Kate and Tim get into an argument prompted by Kate’s horror at how constricted women’s lives were in 1910, when their roles were limited only to “making a man’s life ‘easy and agreeable,’ educating the young and taking care of those who were sick.” However, the other vintage nurse romance novels of the 1960s I have read suggest not a widely different role for women even at that “modern” era. Kate also mentions that in 1910 women teachers “had to work for half of what men were paid,” but in 1960, women were earning only 59¢ for each dollar earned by a man (
Getting Even, by Evelyn Murphy, ©2006). So it’s not clear to me that Kate is all that better off than the character she was playing. Especially when her fiancé starts arguing that “there was no use saying women were better off because they could earn their own living. In many cases, this simply meant they supported members of the family, or an indolent husband. They had actually been better off under the old system of being cared for and attending to their household chores.” Kate, the ninny, responds to this by bringing up wife beating, totally missing the point that women are human beings, not possessions, with the same right to choose their own destiny as men.

It should not come as a great surprise that at the end of the book Kate agrees to marry Tim, despite what she has called “the great differences in their points of view on almost everything.” “You won’t let me be myself, and I can be no one else,” she tells him when she breaks up with him. Yet at the end of the book, when she brings up the fact that they don’t “see eye to eye on many subjects,” he answers, “You don’t want a yes-man for a husband,” and tells her that he likes green hair and green eyes like hers more than black hair and brown eyes like Mandy’s. If you’re as dumb as Kate Saunders, R.N., a person’s coloring is just as good a foundation for a life-long relationship as any other. And it shouldn’t be too hard to get used to being considered chattel.

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