Sunday, July 17, 2011

Marie Warren, Night Nurse

By Blanche Y. Mosler, ©1963
Cover illustration by Mort Engel

Also published as Terror Stalks the Night Nurse

Lovely Nurse Marie Warren was alone with a terrible secret. She alone knew that the dreaded street gang the Cobras had sworn revenge against her hospital, every doctor, nurse and patient in it, for the death of their leader under the surgeon’s knife. But she had no proof. The hospital authorities, even the man who loved her, thought she was a neurotic, frightened girl. Her only safety was in flight. But Marie Warren stayed—to risk her career, her love, her life itself, everything for the lives and safety of others.


“They were in their own peculiar kind of shock which no amount of plasma would have power to alleviate.”

“A snack for that fresh truck driver—Sam Brown—no doubt. If they built his strength up any more than it was, the nurses would have to go in for either track-running or Judo!”

“I’ve been running my shapely legs off!”

“Oddly, never had she felt less ‘female’ than in dealing with this tough trio. Not that she wanted their admiration—she would have loathed it.”

“You’re a mighty sexy dame in that white uniform, know it?”

“A girl! Oh, no. What this world needs is more men!”

“It had been a fine life, strong and secure, with big wheat farms clustered around the town whose grain elevator shaft lifted proudly into the sky.”

“You don’t deserve my sheik-like caresses. You turned off my football news.”

“ ‘You have swell legs,’ he said; ‘they cause naughty thoughts.’ ”

“Al Dawson’s death had changed shadowy, silent corridors into murder traps and now, from his grave, he was reaching out to snatch her love, because terror of his gang was changing her from the gay girl she’d been to a worried, harassed girl no man would be attracted to.”

“A girl can lose her virginity in 317 in less than a couple of minutes.”

“ ‘Hoodlums or no hoodlums,’ she said out loud, banging pots and pans, ‘I’ll pick out my wedding outfit this week-end, or know the reason why. I’ll be darned if I’ll march down the aisle in my birthday suit. So there!’ ”

“A few minutes could end her dreams, her happiness, slashing like a bright, glittering scalpel!”

“‘You’ve got good hands, boy,’ he said. ‘You might have made a good surgeon. Pity you wasted them on the wrong kind of knives.’”

Lovely Nurse Marie Warren works the night shift (duh) at a city hospital, where she sneaks longing glances at her fiancé, Dr. Keith Andrews, a surgical intern, as he speeds down the hall behind another stretcher bearing patients on the brink of death. One evening while she is working—which means mostly making sandwiches and coffee for the families of patients in surgery—a youth named Al Dawson is brought in. He has been struck by a car, and his brother, King, along with two other young men, Bat and Strangler, are waiting for the news from the OR. They are all members of The Cobras, which Marie finds out when they turn around and she reads the words on the backs of their black leather jackets. “These must be toughs from the notorious south side,” she thinks in horror. But despite her boyfriend’s best efforts, the young delinquent can’t be saved. The autopsy clears Keith of any wrongdoing: “what did kill this boy [was] the twin evils of neglect—possibly resulting from poverty—and violence, resulting from environment, plus his own meanness,” says the pathologist. That’s actually three evils, but who’s counting?

Though The Cobras walk out without a fuss, Marie is instantly seized by the idea that the gang is going to return and take its revenge on everyone in the entire hospital, including herself, Keith, the chief of staff, the anesthesiologist, the medical technologist, the assistant surgeon, the OB nurse, and the two scrub nurses. She tries to warn everyone, but they mostly just mock her: “Don’t tell me we can expect a—what do you call it?—rumble at good old dignified Kenwood? Switchblades vs. scalpels?” asks the OB nurse. So she worries enough for all of them, her anxiety shrieking on every page: “And now, oh, God, will we ever be rid of them—ever be free again?” Her throat tightens, she tries to push down the cold panic in side of her, she digs her nails into her palms, terror uses all her energy, she tries to thrust away the stark knowledge that danger was terribly real, she tries to suppress her screams. “This is where the hoodlums have us, she thought. We have to think of—work for—others, while they can devote every minute to hatching their evil.” But really, she devotes an extraordinary number of minutes to thinking of them. And before long, you just want to give Marie a good slap and tell her to pull herself together.

Apart from a nervous breakdown, the other disadvantage her obsession could bring on is that if she makes too big a deal about this gang of hooligans, she will end up becoming such a downer that Keith dumps her for former girlfriend Nurse Barbara Street, who is quite the hot tomato; “even in flat white shoes, her walk had a come-hither switch.” Barbara is doing her best to win Keith back, and Marie worries that if she’s totally not on her game, her apparently shallow fiancé will leave her: “Lose your figure and you’ll lose Keith,” she thinks, but mostly it’s her anxiety that’s driving him away. “While I grow edgier, she can—without any burden of terror—be quite the gay companion,” she thinks. “And after the tensions of heavy surgery, Keith demands a girl who has ‘the light touch’—a girl who can ‘take it easy—’ Take it easy—oh, God—” Someone get the Ativan, stat!

Honestly, I just didn’t know what to do with this book. The camp factor here is off the charts—but it’s a one-note tune played at absolutely top volume. By page 20 I was already rolling my eyes every time Marie went off on some hysterical rant. The ending, in which Marie’s predictions come true in the most hilarious way—“The Cobras had taken over the hospital! Oh, God, this was it—then!”—went a long way toward improving my opinion of it. And I had to recall my recent review of Nurse Kate’s Mercy Flight, in which I chastised the book because Nurse Kate, allegedly on the brink of a nervous collapse, spent most of her time baking pies with complete bliss and going to the ballgame. So perhaps it’s not that easy to create a strung-out character that doesn’t exasperate the hell out of the reader. And I should be careful what I ask for.

Beyond the camp, the book has a few other redeeming features. The gritty aspects of hospital life are not ignored in this book: Patients die from botched abortions, a couple is severely burned in a plane crash, a baby is born to a woman whose husband was forced to marry her and then left her (“Johnny, damn your skimpy jeans,” Marie thinks), characters actually swear. There is a totally unique passage in which Marie tells a feisty truck driver to stop pinching the nurse’s bottoms. “We’re grieved that we can’t provide all the comforts of home for you here in the hospital, but your sex problems don’t happen to be among the major ones in this hospital,” she says. “You’ll be home with Mrs. Brown before long.” He answers, “Y’know, my old lady’s a slob, but she’s better’n nothing. Paddles around in a sloppy robe, hair uncombed.” She replies, “Maybe a lot of that is your fault. Think it over.” Apart from my surprise that a character is acknowledged to be having sex, I was a bit taken aback at the apparent suggestion that Mrs. Brown’s role is to service her husband. So if you can grit your teeth through Marie’s pathetic whining, the book does have its rewards.

Note: Another blogger has also reviewed this book.

This book was also published under the title 
Terror Stalks the Night Nurse, which had a
different cover, illustrated by Lou Marchetti.

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