Sunday, September 11, 2011

Night Call

By Adeline McElfresh, ©1961
Cover illustration by Robert Abbett

To Nurse Lyn Jennings, hurrying through Carter Memorial’s cool white corridors, emergencies were part of the life she had chosen—the challenging, exciting world of a hospital at night:
—in the operating room, a valiant struggle to stem a sudden hemorrhage—
—in 212, a lonely, crying child, afraid to go to sleep without its mother—
—in the driveway, an ambulance shrieking to a halt after a race with death, bearing the victims of a highway collision—
—in the darkened supply room, storage place for drugs and narcotics, a mysterious figure moving toward a cabinet,

no longer able to resist temptation.


“There’s nothing like having a baby to reveal a woman as she truly is.”

“As a surgeon he was a good butcher.”

“I wish you two were married. When a man is in trouble he needs a woman.”

“Her superbly brassièred bosom heaved a sympathetic sigh.”

Lyn Jennings works the night shift at Carter Memorial in Carter, Ohio, with surgeons Dr. Arthur, the assistant chief of staff, and Dr. Seymour, the chief of staff. In the opening pages, a local alcoholic attorney and bastard hits another car and “finally” kills someone. Brought to the hospital with a major hemorrhage, he dies on the table in the OR when the surgery appeared to be finished—but then a new bleeder mysteriously opens up and the surgeons, Dr. Seymour and Lyn’s boyfriend, Tim Neil, are unable to stop it.

Lab tech and hospital gossip Nat Willis thinks one of the surgeons made a slip with the scalpel. The attorney had it coming, everyone agrees, but the attorney’s wife sues the hospital over his death, and a major scandal erupts. The hospital itself, according to Lyn’s astute perception, seems “tossed in the troubled wake” of the crisis, “filled with a plaguing unease, a dysphoria that touched even the sickest patient.” The building has so many feelings this book almost counts as a gothic novel.

No one who was at the table is talking, but the gossip around the hospital—and the town—is that it was junior surgeon Tim’s fault. It seems some people in town—like the manager of the local high-end department store—have information that clearly comes from inside the hospital, like that the cause of death was a severed inferior epigastric artery. “He doesn’t know his inferior epigastric artery from his astragalus,” says another nurse in an obscure reference to the ankle. Who’s spilling the beans?

Lyn is frantic with worry about what this will do to Tim’s reputation, and then, to make it worse, Tim is removed from OR duties. Tim himself has nothing to say about this, and indeed in the two or three dates we observe between the couple in the entire book, he says little at all, mostly just lying on the grassy bank of a stream and watching the clouds while Lyn respectfully observes him and his silence. What exactly she is attracted to remains a mystery, but I guess there’s someone out there for everyone.

Then Lyn is strangled by someone walking with a staggering gait that she almost recognizes—who could it be? Narcotics are missing from the hospital, it is eventually revealed, and slowly her suspicions turn, no matter how reluctantly, to Tim—it would explain the slip in the OR!

This book gives us a lot of questions—Lyn is strangled by someone with “strong efficient hands that had strangled people before,” who is spilling the hospital’s secrets around town? Why wasn’t Dr. Seymour’s wife (his second) not home in the middle of the night?—and few of them actually get answered. It’s shades of Nurse Kathy, though perhaps not as extreme. Confusion also stems from trying to keep track of the 66 characters that populate this book; a dramatis personae would have been helpful. I did have to wonder what Adeline was thinking in creating this extensive cast. It might be more realistic, but did she really think it would be helpful to her book? At 190 pages, it’s a bit over-long, since there’s not all that much to the plot, and the extra pages seem to further only the hand-wringing, angst, and unanswered questions, which it could have done with less of. It’s not a bad book, but it really didn’t deserve this magnificent cover.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more with your last line. That cover was definitely what caused me to own a copy of this, but besides using the word sepulchral once, it really doesn't live up to nocturnal mood therein. Thanks for this wonderful blog.