(pseud. Alan Jackson), ©1960
Alice Smith, pretty Navy nurse, had an attack of love at first sight. And she didn’t want to be cured. The man was tall, good-looking and French. Thrilled by his kisses, Alice longed for the day when she would be Mrs. Jacques Stern. But Jacques never talked of marriage. And he was mysterious about his private life, especially the source of his wealth. Meanwhile, the Office of Naval Intelligence had rated Jacques “top priority.” And handsome Morgan O’Neill, ONI agent, was making a particularly thorough check. Morgan loved Alice deeply. He’d stop at nothing to save her from the dangers that threatened her happiness—and her life.
“If you look like that, why do you need to say anything?”
“The fact that she is, well, homely should make her an excellent, obedient, and faithful wife.”
“Had she lived in a society which approved of polyandry she might have been completely happy.”
“This Communist thing is getting to be a bore.”
“Your heart does not leap into your throat, the nurse in her told her, but, oh, yes, it does, said the girl, the woman.”
“Morgan had thrown his arms around Alice to prevent her from pitching forward. Even at the moment of danger he had experienced a thrill at feeling the warm suppleness of her body pressed in fear against his. It was like making love in the millionth of a second.”
“He’s out this minute shopping for an engagement ring and I’ll need a magnifying glass to see the stone.”
It simply cannot be denied that adopting as your pen name that of a fictional character—herself a romance novelist of the most torrid kind, having penned the renowned Only a Factory Girl—is absolutely sublime in its cleverness. Add to that the fact that my esteem for the original Ms. Banks’ creator, P.G. Wodehouse, is nigh reverential, and my hat is doffed in deep respect to the Rosie M. Banks who brought us Navy Nurse. It doesn’t always pay to open a book with this sort of obligation already hanging over you, but Ms. Banks very nearly manages to be worthy of it. Very nearly.
First off, her writing is quite good. Maybe a little too good, in fact. Where are the heaving bosoms, the stolen glances, the bitter tears we would expect of someone who has chosen such an eponym? What we get is that crisp, fresh, almost innocent prose that to me evokes the 1950s, when everyone wore their shirts tucked in and their hair neatly combed, and blasphemed by cursing, “Golly!” But at the same time, the writing is entertaining, smart, and lively. As just one example, Ms. Banks describes the audit of a crooked French character’s bookkeeping: “And so the little purple figures, with their crossed sevens and their guileful misdirections, began to tell a curious story.”
The actual story, however, is less of a nurse romance than a spy novel with a nurse as a peripheral character. Indeed, we spend the entire second half of the book, right up to the last two chapters, hanging out with a gang of communist spies, following the intricate machinations of their plot to get the suave Frenchman Jacques Stern to marry Navy nurse Alice Smith, so as to milk her and her officer friends for military secrets at vodka-soaked cocktail parties for years to come. It’s an interesting enough thriller, if a little confusing at times, trying to remember who is double-crossing whom, but it just wasn’t really what I signed up for.
When we’re not witnessing conversations with the mysterious ringleader behind a one-way mirror, the untimely deaths of various characters who get in the way, and naval intelligence officers scrambling to catch up with the bad guys, we drop in for a quick visit with Alice. She has another boyfriend, naval intelligence officer Morgan O’Neill, who is madly in love with her. She, from the first day she meets him, believes “he would be a close friend, something like the brother she never had.” When Morgan proposes, knowing full well he will be rejected, she complies, telling him, “I do not love you in the way that would make for a happy marriage.” After all, “it was Jacques who excited her, Jacques whom she wanted to marry.” Well, we know full well she will change her mind, for two simple reasons: (1) No VNRN heroine ever marries a foreigner, and (2) no VNRN heroine ever refuses a man in uniform. Hit the road, Jacques.
You know he will, and you can even figure out that Morgan will have a hand in bringing Jacques and his gang to justice. But the patriotic whitewashing of every difficult fact, such as Alice’s abrupt change of heart toward Morgan, is too facile for a writer of Ms. Banks’ talents. I’m not one to throw away such promise so easily, though. She’s apparently written at least three other VNRNs, Surgical Nurse, Ship’s Nurse, and Settlement Nurse, so I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt until the evidence of these books comes in.