Monday, September 5, 2011

Psychiatric Nurse

By Fern Shepard
(pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1967
Cover illustration by Armand Weston

Nurse Tracy Ross had many reasons for going home. Her mother needed her … and she needed a rest from the terrible strain she had been under. But her welcome was marred by the shocking realization that you can’t go home again. The problems she fled were neither as immediate nor as difficult as the ones she faced now. Back in her home town, she found herself working with a doctor with whom she had once been violently in love. That was hard enough in itself … but even more difficult was the terrible secret she carried within her breast. Ethically, she could not reveal it … but if she kept it hidden, many lives were doomed to tragedy!


“And why shouldn’t it rub him the wrong way to be informed in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t the six-foot bundle of perfection which he seemed to believe he was?”

Once again, we find that Florence Stonebraker has teased us again with her title. Tracy Ross is actually working in pediatrics, but she used to be a psychiatric nurse. It was then that she first met Fern Wilson, a volunteer at the hospital who appears more than a little unbalanced. She tells a seven-year-old girl dying of leukemia that she is going to burn in hell after she dies, and when a mysterious fire erupts outside of town, most people think it was started by “a bunch of juvenile delinquents,” but Tracy knows better. Unfortunately, her professional oath prevents her from alerting the town to the fact that there’s a nut job in their midst.

Fern (again, as in College Nurse, Florence has named a character after her pseudonym) is doing well since Tracy last saw her; she is now engaged to widower Dr. Bert Brooks, the hospital chief of staff. But she’s not taking well to Bert’s daughter, Cathy, who is seven. She accuses Cathy of having stolen a photograph of Bert’s deceased wife out of his study and burned it, and Bert locks Cathy in her room for an entire day because Cathy says it was actually Fern who took and burned the photo.

Tracy knew Bert when they were children, and had been hopelessly smitten with him, crying during his wedding for the wrong reasons. Now she’s not sure how she feels about him. Bert is suave, handsome, “ambitious to attract wealthy patients and cash in on his work,” and would have “done wonderfully well as a con man,” as many of his aging women patients fall under his spell and leave him a bundle after their deaths, and never mind about that little conflict of interest in someone whose profession is purportedly to keep people alive. But her long-standing relationship with him puts Tracy in a unique position to be able to try to set Bert straight. She tells him that though he may be successful professionally, he’s “a failure as a person” and “a spoiled, irresponsible mama’s boy.” Needless to say, he isn’t exactly brought around to Tracy’s way of thinking about himself or Fern.

In the meantime, Tracy has Dr. Larry Sizer on her side at the hospital. Larry agrees that Fern is a lunatic, since the leukemia patient was his, but Larry doesn’t have a lot of influence with Bert, who is trying to get Larry kicked out of the hospital because he occasionally uses hypnosis in his treatments. So even though her ethics have kept her from spilling the beans about Fern to Bert, there she is, before the book is half over, telling Larry about how Fern was brought into the psych hospital “dangerously berserk,” but after shock treatments and analysis, she underwent a miracle cure and was dismissed from the hospital as cured. Larry’s take on this is that Tracy is still in love with Bert and is jealous, even though he thinks Fern is a “vapid-faced … first-class idiot.” So she and Larry fight a lot, then literally kiss and make up, then fight some more.

Eventually Fern drives Tracy to the outskirts of town and tries to shoot her, but Tracy calls on her training and uses a “trick she had learned through practice, how to twist and hold helpless the arm of a deranged patient,” pitches the gun out the window, clubs Fern on the head and escapes on foot back to town. But Fern has beaten her there and told Bert that it was Tracy who was the attacker. She has also told Bert that she was admitted to the asylum—to research the treatment of the insane for a book she was writing, and she was just pretending to be a lunatic while she was there. In the meantime, Fern has planted stolen jewelry in Cathy’s room and helped Bert find it, so Bert has concluded that his daughter is “pre-psychotic” and needs to be committed. He tells this to Tracy when he meets her after the attack, and suggests that Tracy herself needs to check in for a little rest.

That night, Cathy runs away to Tracy’s house, having escaped out the window from her room, where Bert has locked her again. Larry scoops up Cathy and Tracy and carts them off to his cabin in the woods, which many VNRN doctors seem to own for the sole purpose of sheltering persecuted nurses until their would-be assassin tracks them down there just minutes before the hero walks in and saves her. Psychiatric Nurse runs true to the form, except that Fern unexpectedly lights herself on fire and burns to death rather than be caught: “Daddy, I’m on my way,” she screams as she sprints for her stash of kerosene outside. “You always said I’d burn in hell for being so naughty, and here I go!” This may well be the most magnificent VNRN stage exit to date.

We know this is a book about psychiatry because it is packed with technical jargon: little Cathy is “seriously deranged,” Tracy fears she is “cracking up,” Larry worries he is “going nuts,” Bert believes Fern was never a “mental case,” Bert’s housekeeper thinks Bert has “lost some of his marbles,” Tracy recalls the basic rule from psychiatric training, “never let a psycho know you are afraid.” Tracy is not the most endearing heroine, as she regularly turns peevish on Bert and Larry, and even Fern, in the role of beautiful evil vixen, isn’t what she could be. The plot holds promise, but it just wasn’t executed all that well. The writing is nowhere near Florence’s best (consider that I could only find one decent Best Quote), and just grinds through the story without inspiration or even much interest. Sometimes Florence has got it, and sometimes she doesn’t. In Psychiatric Nurse, not so much.


  1. I’m enjoying your reviews of Stonebraker’s nurse books. I didn’t realize she wrote so many of them (or that their titles could be so silly). Not that I want to corrupt you, but if you had the urge to read something a bit more risqué, you might try City Doctor. Stonebraker (as Thomas Stone) names the book after a selfish doctor but spends a lot of her time on his conscientious nurse.

  2. Thanks! I did know that Florence wrote racier novels, and though I hope to try one at some point, I haven't as of yet (mostly because I haven't had the time to track one down!). However I will keep an eye out for City Doctor ...

  3. So, Don, not only did I love "City Doctor" but I also gave it Best VNRN of 2012 ...