Sunday, July 22, 2012

Mystery Nurse

By Diana Douglas
(pseud. Richard Wilkes-Hunter), ©1968

Strange orders awaited Nurse Diane Halliday on the estate in Baja California. She was to wear bikinis instead of uniforms, dance instead of dose, appear to be living la dolce vita, but in reality be prepared to deal with a life-or-death crisis that could strike anywhere, anytime. The flaming redhead was to care for a patient who had a pathological hatred of nurses—a woman who must never guess who or what Diane was. A beautiful RN lives a hazardous lie in a gripping novel of love and danger in exotic Mexico.


“Doctor, I didn’t feel right about leaving my uniforms behind. I’ve always thought a uniform gives a nurse the authority she needs to control her patients. A nurse without her uniform is just another girl.”

“It takes a bikini to separate the girls from the women, I always say.”

The problem with a cover like that adorning Mystery Nurse is that it gives you high hopes for what lies inside it. The problem with this particular cover is that it—along with the cover lines—conveys the impression that the story is going to be frightening and suspenseful. Wrong on all counts.

Diane Halliday has been hired to be a private nurse in Mexico. But when she gets there, she discovers that her patient, Irene Cartier, is not to know that Diane is a nurse. Irene, age 51, is a wealthy asthmatic with the beginnings of heart failure. It is mildly interesting to see how what is now a commonplace and easily managed disease was handled in this book—never leave the house, don’t excite yourself, monitor your vital signs religiously, two-hour naps every day, and slit your wrists out of unrelenting boredom by your 25th birthday. The reason for Diane’s subterfuge is that Irene absolutely despises nurses and refuses to have one in the house. So Diane’s story is that she’s the sister of a friend of Irene’s son John, who has hatched up this plot and hired her. She and John are supposed to have dated, but now they’re just good friends. She knows so much about asthma treatments because her mother was supposed to have been an asthmatic, and also she has some friends who became nurses, the poor, misguided souls.

Diane is not very good at this pretending thing. Her first day—after unsuccessfully attempting to persuade Irene from coming to the beach, where the damp sea air will be bad for her lungs and walking on the sandy beach will be too tiring—she starts babbling on about subcutaneous injections, how you should hold a pill under your tongue to give it time to work on the bronchial muscles and nasal membranes, that temperatures taken in the armpit aren’t as accurate as those taken orally, that nursing schools only take students from the top third of their class. Before long, everyone is giving her the hairy eyeball. Except John, of course: “You look swell in that orange slacks suit, Diane,” he tells her.

Irene has a major attack in the middle of the night, and Diane is on hand with her properly sterilized syringes to give an injection and to veto another dose of barbiturates. The next morning, “Irene Cartier’s eyes were hostile as she looked at Diane.” But then everyone is off for a day of deep-sea fishing—again, over Diane’s protestations of Irene’s poor health—and Diane soon puts her thoughts of Irene aside and bags a 300-pound yellow fin tuna, the biggest one of the day, the show-off. But tragedy strikes: The Mexican boat captain, who might have been wearing one of those red uniforms from Star Trek, falls into the ocean and is attacked by a barracuda. Diane springs into action and expertly bandages the man’s leg to stop the bleeding, refuses a tourniquet that would cause more damage than good, anticipates the thirst that will follow after such blood loss, accompanies him to shore in a speed boat, persuades the balking local doctor to operate immediately, and assists in surgery. I was wondering why she didn’t just fly him to a level-one trauma center in her invisible jet.

Back at the hacienda, Irene has made a few phone calls and discovered the shady truth about Diane’s profession. After threatening to have Diane jailed for her charade—oh, and thanks for your help with my asthma attack and for saving the boat pilot—Irene reveals that her husband, who was hospitalized with terminal cancer, died when a nurse left him to go flirt with a doctor. And get the hell out of my house. Diane, sick at heart that she isn’t going to see John again, hires a broken-down truck to drive her to the nearest airport. But en route, John stops them in his flashy red convertible. Not to propose marriage, but to let her know that his mother is having a heart attack that will surely be fatal if Diane doesn’t come back at once and save her life. Off they go, and after some good old-fashioned CPR, Irene is as good as new. I swear, when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he found he had three missed calls from Diane Halliday, RN.

This quick little book is over in a couple of hours, almost faster than it takes for Diane to blow her cover. Despite that, it’s not worth reading, even to marvel at Diane’s superhuman abilities. It’s not campy, and it’s not even really interesting, orange pants suits notwithstanding. (I was also not impressed that despite setting this book in Mexico, he didn’t bother to take a minute to learn that the phrase is no comprendo, not no comprender, as repeated multiple times throughout the book. The author is at his best when he’s discussing Diane’s surfing lesson, but that’s not why we’re here. I’m beginning to think that a good cover illustration is a kiss of death. In this instance, it certainly is.

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