Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Nurse and the Pirate

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1961
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti

After five months as a cruise nurse on the luxury liner Santa Theresa, Kathy was glad that the trip was almost over and that she soon would be back to the demanding atmosphere of a big city hospital. Suddenly, during a starless tropical night, a desperate band of men seized the liner by force and terrorized the passengers and crew. All at once Kathy not only had more nursing to do than any one nurse could handle, but she had become the special object of attention of the leader of the pirates!


“You talk too much, sister, and with us that’s not healthy.”

“ ‘Yes, Doctor,’ said Kathy in the colorless polite tone a nurse learns very early to use to a doctor.”

“You can’t blame a guy for wishing he was sick in bed of some interesting disease and an angel without wings like you was coming to soothe his fevered brow.”

“With somebody as pretty as you to look after her, she could make a speedy recovery at that. Who wouldn’t? I may even consider breaking an arm or a leg, if that’s what it takes to arouse your interest.”

“I’m a devoutly practicing coward, if you must know.”

“You mean you don’t know how to do brain surgery? What kind of a doctor are you, then?”

“No matter what Kathy wore, she would still be the most beautiful woman aboard. Even in shorts and a halter—though I can’t imagine a girl like Kathy, with her decency and self-respect, ever allowing herself to be seen in public in such an outrageous garb.”

“I do believe our kitten has claws!”

“Nothing gives a doctor more prestige than a wife who can hold her own in any social gathering; and nothing gives a wife more courage to face her husband’s most important associates than to know she is wearing real pearls.”

After a fairly good run of C- and D-grade novels (am I getting cranky in my old age?), I was pleased to meet Kathy Martell, the quintessential spunky Peggy Gaddis heroine. She defers a bit overmuch to the doctor, but she retorts and blazes and marches off, her head held high. Even if I have met this character frequently in Peggy’s books, I’m pleased to meet a gal with a spine.

Kathy is near the end of her cruise as a ship’s nurse when, as advertised, a band of about 70 pirates storm the ship. Col. Jose Manuella is a Portuguese-speaking revolutionary from an undisclosed country, and his band of thugs is planning to use the ship to spring political prisoners and stage a coup against the dictator running his home country. He doesn’t speak English, so he has a bilingual American who calls himself Edward Teach (after Bluebeard the pirate, from whom he claims to be descended). Teach is casting a roving eye at Kathy, who gets feisty when she is brought in with Dr. Burke Jerrold to mop up after the pirates have had their way with the bridge crew.

But at least he’s an honorable pirate. Kathy decides “if he thought she was in love with Dr. Jerrold, that might make him leave her alone.” A bit of a stretch, but it’s worth a try. And as fate would have it, the ploy works! “One of the first things a fellow learns in my business is to keep away from the other fellow’s girl,” he says. But now she and Dr. Jerrold—who has previously had nothing to do with anyone on board outside of a strictly professional exchange, even taking his meals in his room so as to avoid personal contacts with the passengers—have to pretend that they’re in love. The heretofore agoraphobic doctor takes to the act readily, throwing his arm around her and calling her “honey” and “darling” in public. What’s up with that?

Kathy now has a hospital full of patients to tend to, which might have kept her over busy for the rest of the book, but when she’s asleep one night, leaving her critical patients alone for a good eight hours or so, the pirates dump them all on an island inhabited only by bloodthirsty natives. Or were they really tossed over the rails? These pirates are so mean, they’re just going to torture Kathy with worry over the true fate of her patients. But this means she’s free to cavort with the doctor and sass the pirates.

And get married. As the ship drifts at sea, the Colonel decides that, to compensate for the dwindling food supplies, the passengers deserve a little entertainment, and so insists that Kathy and Dr. Jerrold get married before the entire ship to lend “a romantic touch to the voyage.” That is one sentimental revolutionary. The betrothed couple agrees that, even “if things were different, I’d be honored to marry you,” they can have the farce annulled once they reach shore. So they agree to the ceremony, and all agree Kathy is the most beautiful bride ever.

Now what should we do? I know, let’s murder the Colonel! Kathy and the doctor are standing at the ship’s rail when they see the ship’s pharmacist, who has been revealed as a double agent for the revolutionaries, knocked down by the Colonel. He shouldn’t have done that. The pharmacist, curiously named Miguel Evans, is a native of the Colonel’s country whom the Colonel had personally railroaded into a jungle prison. (Oddly, though he took so much trouble to persecute Evans, the Colonel has never laid eyes on the man and so does not recognize him.) Evans escaped the prison and spent years living with native Indians, who taught him all sorts of interesting things about poison. Now he carries a blow gun up his sleeve—or is it an unusual cigarette holder given to him by a Chinese girlfriend in Hong Kong, as he insists? Suddenly, the Colonel lurches against Teach, clutching his heart, and the pair tumble over the rails into the briny blue. Was it a heart attack or, as Dr. Burke insists, Evans’ blow gun? Though numerous passengers, including Kathy and the doctor, witnessed the entire episode, no one seems to have seen Evans actually dart the pirates. And now, more than a week into the crisis, it is abruptly over. All we have to do is get Kathy and the doctor to reveal their true feelings for each other—and wrap up all those flapping loose ends—and we can close the book.

Actually, forget about resolving the loose ends, as we are going to be left hanging on a number of points. For example, (1) an elderly dowager becomes obsessed with the idea of adopting Kathy and bequeathing her fortune to her, as her only heir is a lazy cad whom she intensely dislikes—even accusing of trying to murder her (by breaking the news of the pirate takeover) so as to inherit all the sooner—but this side plot abruptly drops off the port bow as soon as the ship limps into the harbor at the end of the book. (2) We get hints that the cad himself actually cares deeply for the old bag, and a classic Gaddis device is to unite warring generations, but apparently she forgot here. (3) A question of whether or not the Colonel is deathly ill becomes moot once he drops overboard. (4) A plot to overthrow the pirates that is apparently being hatched below decks by the double (or triple?) agent Evans never comes to pass, unless the plot was simply Evans’ blowgun murder—but this hardly seems intricate enough to merit involvement of two entire classes of passengers and the dowager’s maid. (5) The true fate of the injured crewmembers that were dumped on the island, or overboard, is never explained.

There are more, but who’s counting? (Wait, I guess I was.) Because in spite of the sloppy plotting, this book isn’t bad. Kathy, as I said earlier, is a plucky lass and enjoyable to follow. Her blooming love for Dr. Burke is not nauseating, another nice plus. And there’s enough of a camp factor in the writing to make for an occasional chuckle. I must confess, though, that I was somewhat disappointed that, despite the prurient hints suggested by the back-cover blurb and even, however gently, by the book itself, it’s entirely tame—as we should have guessed it would be. But it’s a decent little book, particularly after the losers I’ve met recently.

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