Saturday, October 20, 2012

Palm Beach Nurse

By Peggy Gaddis,©1953
Also published as Moon of Enchantment

Julia Blake was not only a very good nurse and an extremely attractive woman but, most important, people trusted and confided in her. And so she knew:
Why Joseph Smith, her patient and a promising violinist, was brutally beaten but not quite murdered
Why Alice Jerome, who was not only rich but kind, brought Joseph to America from his native Italy
Why Isobel Cartwright, the young, beautiful heir to Miss Jerome’s fortune pretended to be in love with Joseph 
And it was certainly because of her warmth and sincerity that Kent Harper, Miss Jerome’s lawyer and advisor, was deeply in love with Julia, but sometimes not as attentive as she would have liked. Julia finds her job in Palm Beach the most exciting one she has ever had … one which combines the challenge of nursing with mystery and romance.


“Julia’s crisp white uniform was very becoming, and the perky cap that crowned her crisp, shining hair was tilted at exactly the correct angle for a smart, efficient and very pretty registered nurse.”
“As much as she could see of his face, beneath the bandages about his head, she liked.”
“No fancy dress designer in the world had ever been able to dream up a costume as becoming as a nurse’s uniform.”
“It always amuses me that men are so sure that the sole purpose of a girl’s life is to find some hapless male to pay her bills and keep a roof over her head. No matter what her profession is, or how happy she may be in it, or how successful, she’s supposed to be only ‘marking time’ until a man she can snare comes along.”
“I yearn to turn her across my knee with the business end of a slipper in my strong right hand!”
“The three things that make life worth living are, first of all, someone to love; something to hope for; and last but terribly important, something to do.”
“It’s the sort of life I want, too. A small white house, a garden, a tree or two, a sand-box for the kids. Me with a job, coming home late in the afternoon to find you waiting for me at the gate.”
Julia Blake has traveled to Palm Beach in the customary VNRN fashion: One of her patients in her Atlanta hospital needed a nurse to accompany her home and stay with her, and Julia took the job. But that patient is well now, so she accepted an assignment as a special at the hospital—“very, very special indeed, if I may say so,” says the patient’s doctor when he sees her—a young man who was beaten and is now in a coma. On her first day, she walks into the patient’s room to find three people there, despite the no visitors sign posted on the door. So she throws them out—and then discovers that the older woman is Alice Jerome, one of the hospital’s major benefactors.
Miss Jerome has asked to see Julia at her home, and Julia is obliged to put her head in the lion’s mouth—but when she arrives at Miss Jerome’s beachfront villa, Miss Jerome doesn’t decapitate her, she hires Julia to care for the patient when he is well enough to return to Miss Jerome’s home, and installs her in the large suite upstairs with views of the ocean. The patient—an Italian named, strangely, Joseph Smith—is a violinist whom Miss Julia brought home with her from the Continent last year, and she is intent on training him to become a world-class musician, apparently purely out of the goodness of her heart.
Also out of the goodness of her heart, Miss Jerome has raised Isobel Cartwright from infancy, giving the girl everything she wants. Unfortunately, Isobel has not responded with the same gratitude that Joseph shows, and instead displays her true colors by marching into Julia’s room without knocking and telling Julia, “You are to leave my men alone.” This means not just Joseph but also Kent Harper, Miss Jerome’s 30-year-old attorney, who was in the party that Julia ejected from Joseph’s hospital room. Isobel goes on to explain to Julia that she really has a thing for Kent, but is engaged to Joseph on the off-chance that Miss Jerome decides to leave him a lot of money when she dies—which is bound to be soon, because she’s really old and besides, this is a Peggy Gaddis VNRN—so she will have claim to it, since all that money rightfully belongs to her.
Kent, however, has other ideas, which occur to him almost immediately upon clapping eyes on the beautiful Julia in her breathtaking nylon uniform. He takes her out on dates and kisses her—then abruptly stops asking her out, telling her that he loves her and wants to marry her, but he can’t see her for now: “Wait until I can explain a lot of things that you are going to feel need explanations. Will you trust me, darling?” This is not the only mystery Julia grapples with, but the only one she is unsuccessful at solving. The two other main mysteries in this book, i.e. why Miss Jerome is so devoted to Joseph, and why was Joseph beaten up, are soon explained away, when the person who knows the answer decides out of the blue to unburden themselves to Julia. She should have considered a career as a police detective. But she shouldn’t feel too badly about the one answer that got away, as in fact the reader never gets any explanation for this, either.
Joseph, it turns out, is the grandson of a man whom Miss Jerome fell in love with as a young girl, but since the man was merely a violin teacher, and Italian to boot, her family not only rejected the match but drove the man out of the United States. Miss Jerome had tracked down the young Joseph, the last remaining descendent of her true love, and ensconced him at her house, but her attentions to him are ironically his undoing, as they brought him to the notice of an Italian syndicate. His attackers are desperately trying to bring an Italian woman named Vera into the United States. They believe that if Joseph tells Miss Jerome he wants to marry Vera, Miss Jerome, with her money and power, will get Vera into the states without an extensive background check, which would apparently reveal Vera as a bad seed. But Joseph, who cannot betray Miss Jerome, refuses to do this. Unfortunately, he has a weak spot: He’s afraid that the gang will discover that he’s in love with this woman in Italy, Lucia, and that the gang will harm her in some way.
It’s a lot of back story, but eventually we get some action: One night, Julia hears a noise from Joseph’s room, and enters to see a man bending over Joseph with a knife. She screams, the man runs off, and the entire house turns up in his bedroom. She’s a bit embarrassed that all she could manage in this moment of crisis was a shriek: “What a terrible way for a nurse to behave,” she says. When she tells everyone what she saw, Joseph looks them all in the eye and tells them that Julia was dreaming and that there was no man. Finally she gets the hint and agrees she was dreaming, though Kent isn’t buying it. He posts a guard outside Joseph’s windows—and Julia’s, lest the man she saw come back for her, too—but one night Joseph is able to give the guards the slip and escape the house. His body is found on the beach the next morning—and his suicide note is on his pillow, and a scrap of paper with Lucia’s name and address on it is under Julia’s pillow.
His reason for doing himself in, apparently, is to prevent the bad guys from finding Lucia, which is what Julia tells Miss Jerome in an attempt to console her when Joseph’s death leaves her prostrate with grief. Julia wants to track down Lucia in Italy to help her—what this help might be remains unclear—but if she goes racing off to Italy, the bad guys will follow her and find Lucia, and maybe wreak some vengeance. She needs a cover, and what better excuse for her to go to Italy, Miss Jerome decides, than to go on a honeymoon? So two days later, Julia finds herself marrying Kent in Miss Jerome’s bedroom. Isobel is late for the ceremony, and shows up just as the happy bride and groom are kissing—and stomps up to Julia and slaps her to the ground. This is just too much for Miss Jerome, who promptly expires.
But Miss Jerome has one last secret—and you’ll never guess what’s coming—Isobel has been written out of the will, and the estate (after generous legacies to the devoted staff) is to be divided between Kent and Julia. In the meantime, Kent and Julia spend a lot of time discussing, in public places and with numerous people, their top secret mission to find Lucia and prevent the bad guys from discovering her as well. Though we never actually find out how that goes, my guess is that Lucia is doomed.
On the whole, this was a fun and enjoyable book. There is a good amount of camp, and the characters, though straight out of the usual Peggy Gaddis playbook, are entertaining, and for once the ungrateful young rich girl doesn’t see the light, so that was something new. Julia is feisty, competent, and likable, though I was disappointed by her abrupt change in attitude once she has a ring on her finger. She early on declares that she would never give up her job for a man—and after she and Kent marry, they decide she will keep working “until the babies start coming, anyway”—but all the independent spirit she possesses at the beginning of the book is tossed away with the wedding bouquet and she says, “Honestly, Kent, it’s going to be your job to make important decisions. I’d like anything that you’d like. It’s always going to be like that.” After Kent and Julia are married, the book spends about 30 pages treading water as everyone waits for the will to be read, squandering the liveliness it’s had up to this point and slowly fizzling out. It doesn’t pay to look too hard at some of the details of the book—would the mob think that the best way to get Vera into the U.S. is to have Joseph marry her? would Joseph really leave Lucia’s address behind if he’s killing himself to protect her?—but this is, after all, just a silly nurse novel, and in the end it’s still better than most.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Love Comes to Dr. Starr

By William Johnston, ©1963
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti

Dr. Claudia Martin stood by as she watched her fiancé, Dr. Dan Starr, treat his new patient, Kathleen Emory, who suffered from a partial paralysis that could only be cured by physical therapy. Spoiled and petted by her husband, Kathleen was used to getting what she wanted. And Claudia was sure that right now Kathleen wanted Dan. Claudia was used to Dan's becoming involved with his patients' problems. But this time it was different. This time the patient was a very beautiful girl. How long could Claudia's love for Dan last if she was forced to share his emotional commitment with another woman? After all, being a doctor didn't mean that she wasn't a woman. She had a woman’s need for her man's attention. How could she make Dan see that she, too, needed him?
“That’s the secret of French cooking. Time. You’re so hungry by the time you get it, you’re sure it’s super-colossal.”
“Why don’t you marry the girl and get her out of your life?”
“She felt she had to compensate for being a woman in what was generally considered a man’s profession, and so she was less quick to show compassion, an expression which she subconsciously felt would give the impression that she was more of a woman than a doctor.”
I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to decide if this actually accounts as a nurse novel (and yes, books about women doctors do count as “nurse novels”). The character we spend the most time with is Dr. Dan Starr, and it’s his name that populates the cover. But Dr. Claudia Martin is also a leading character, we do get into her head a fair amount, and she ends up with her man (again) at the end; they were engaged from the opening page. The story is largely about him, his infatuation with another woman and how he extricates himself from it, but VNRNs can be about a man’s wandering attention and how he comes to his senses. In the end, though, I think the fact that he occupies more of the book than she does, that we don’t follow Claudia’s daily life, and that we don’t get to know her as well as we do him, means that this book is not actually a VNRN.
So the question of whether I should review it on this blog also comes up. The answer to that is easier; I read the book, so what the heck, I’ll do a review. Purists should skip to the next post.
Dan Starr is a chief resident at Rothwell Clinic in Manhattan. His fiancée is Dr. Claudia Martin, a psychiatrist. They get together for dinner and witty repartee: “Wouldn’t you like to put your feet up and relax?” she asks him when he arrives at her place. “I’m sorry I don’t have a dog to bring you your pipe and slippers.” But something must intrude on their happy affair or there wouldn’t be a book, so enter Kathleen Emory, a 20-year-old waif married to 50-year-old Eugene Emory. Theirs is an epic love story: He hired her to work at his factory as a secretary, but she was completely incompetent, so he shuffled her around the office until the only position left for her to take was the one as his wife. He takes care of her, because she’s ridiculously insecure and inadequate—this is due to an overbearing mother—and they don’t have a physical relationship, because she’s so childlike that neither one of them think she can handle it.
She’s landed in the clinic after a car accident ruined her arms, which she cannot raise or even twitch. Her physical therapist, Dr. Mary Young, is a burly sort—“From the rear, from Dan’s view, she had much the look of a Yale lineman”—who pushes her patients hard. Mr. Emory feels she is pushing Kathleen overmuch, and complains to the head of the hospital, who asks Dan to look into it. But—and this point is one of some contention between the Drs. Starr and Martin—Dan has a tendency to get overly involved with his patients. Sure enough, once Dan claps eyes on the pretty, helpless, tearful young thing in room 713, he feels the only way he can get to the bottom of the question of whether Dr. Young is working Kathleen too hard is if he himself personally gives her physical therapy treatments every night, in addition to the treatments she gets from Dr. Young, even though he admits he has little knowledge of physical therapy. Needless to say, Claudia is not too excited about this, and after visiting Kathleen, she quickly arrives at the idea that Kathleen is in love with Dan.
And how does Dan feel? “Dan avoided asking himself if he were in love with her. He was not sure what the answer would be. He knew, however, what he must do. He had to continue treating her.” Because if you think you might be falling in love with a patient, married or not, and it’s pretty clear that the patient is falling for you, the best thing is to go right on spending too much time with them. Even the head of the hospital, when he hears what’s going on, tells Dan, “You’ve made something complicated out of something simple.” Yet night after night, there is the altruistic doctor, rubbing Kathleen’s pale, limp arms and feeding her chocolates that she can’t lift for herself. How sweet.
It turns out that Eugene does not want Kathleen to get better; if she is crippled, she will be helpless and dependent upon him for life, and that suits him just fine. When she figures this out, Kathleen tells Eugene that she wants to be strong and well, and he responds by nastily describing all the enormous responsibilities he is going to load on her when she gets home, and won’t that be great? Naturally, when he leaves, she has a hysterical fit. The next night, when Eugene returns to visit his wife, “he had the look of a man who has won a battle and who assumed that he had thus won the war.” Not so fast, buddy. Kathleen tells Eugene that she is leaving him for Dan, who loves her and wants to marry her. “He’s a handsome and wonderful man. A man—understand?” she snipes at him.
Eugene naturally goes straight to Dan, whose answer is to visit Kathleen. There, he pulls essentially the same stunt that Eugene did earlier—one that came across as low and despicable when Eugene did it—by telling her that he’s all excited to marry her, and give her “a normal life,” and Dr. Martin is going to be brought in “to get you ready, to prepare you to be my wife.” Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. I was curious as to how Claudia was going to do this, exactly—show her porn movies? Review sex toys and techniques? But never mind, Kathleen caves to the pressure and screams at him to go away and leave her alone. Not content to stop there, Dan chews out Kathleen in the most heartless and unjustified way: “This business of being in love with me, do you know why you pulled that one? To give you a tighter hold on your husband. You intended all along to let him win you back. What a joke that was. You could never leave him. He was your closet where you could hide out. You couldn’t be a wife to any man because you’re not a woman—not the way you are.” Frankly, I did not see where this was coming from; nothing in Kathleen’s behavior or speeches makes me think that she did not believe herself to be in love with Dan. So my opinion of Dan plunged even further.
That’s not the end of the weirdness, however. Having beaten the emotional stuffing out of Kathleen, he marches off to see Eugene. There he pulls the same cruel game, telling Eugene that Kathleen is going to sue him for an annulment. “In that way, the fact that you and Kathleen have never really been man and wife and the reason for it will be brought out,” he says. What this “reason” could be is only hinted at. “How much do you know?” Eugene asks Dan, and then goes on to tell Dan that he married Kathleen because the men at his company were needling him about being single: “A man of fifty who’s never—who’s never … wanted a woman. They know about me.”
Could he … could he be … gay? In retrospect, all the classic signs are there. Eugene’s apartment is lavish and well-appointed, and he says, “Most people comment on my excellent taste,” when he shows Dan in. Flash back to our first meeting with Eugene: “Emory could have very well just stepped from the pages of Esquire magazine. He was wearing a meticulously trim, black worsted suit, a sparkling white silk shirt, and a silver silk tie, which more only the meagerest hint of a pattern, black shoes polished to conservative gloss, and a black homburg that sat on his head at a precisely correct tilt. His face, long and narrow, was interrupted by a guardsman moustache. Whoever kept it in trim was quite clearly a precisionist.” Why didn’t we see this before?
But let’s not beat ourselves up over it. Because there are greater villains at hand, and they grow increasingly more odious: Dan, not content to stop there, essentially blackmails Eugene into helping Kathleen get therapy so “she can someday be a woman.” He insists that Eugene “tell her about yourself—fully. And then, if you’re in love with her, by seeking the cause of your own abnormalcy, and trying to—” I assumed he was going to say have sexual relations, but that’s going too far for Eugene. “It can’t be that,” he cuts off Dan. “I’m what I am and I’m not ashamed of it.” Dan tries to encourage Eugene to get psychoanalysis, but Eugene refuses. “I’ve lived fifty years with this. If I changed, I wouldn’t be myself any more. I have my ways of living—my books, my apartment here, my privacy.” Instead he agrees to offer Kathleen a quiet divorce, which Dan graciously accepts on Kathleen’s behalf, although I’m not sure how the quivering aspic Kathleen is going to feel about all of Dan’s “help.”
I wonder if author William Johnston thought this was going to play as a happy ending, but to me it seemed a colossal nightmare, with no one winning. Kathleen might get therapy and someday go on to have sex—that is, after all, what all the “being a woman” euphemisms are about, and it seems that her virginity is of colossal importance to not only Dan but also her success as a human being according to the author—but Eugene is destroyed, and Dan is revealed as an evil, persecuting tyrant who will emotionally bully his own patient, and her husband as well, if it suits him. The no doubt unintended irony here is that the reason he got involved with Kathleen to begin with is that he was asked to look into whether she was being bullied by a doctor. It turns out that she is, but the perpetrator is Dr. Starr. And at the end of the book he’s hailed as a hero, and goes off to have coffee with the now-exonerated Dr. Young.
This is an odd book, but nonetheless a good one. It is well-written and humorous, and trots along at a good pace. The bizarre situation, the constant allusions to Kathleen’s sex life, and the hints at Eugene’s homosexuality make it one of the more unique and risqué books I’ve read, but since it’s not really a nurse novel, I guess that means it doesn’t count. Even so, it’s an interesting and worthwhile detour.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Nurse on Nightmare Island

By Lois Eby, ©1966
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti

Helen Barris was a conscientious nurse. When she surmised from his letters that Dr. Harvey Jenkins, the world-famous physicist who had been her patient at the hospital, was on the verge of a relapse, she went immediately to Morago Island, the ancient pirate hideout where he was recuperating. She knew her mission of mercy would be incredibly difficult. She couldn’t know that before the weird affair was over, lives would be lost—and her own life would be magically changed by an overpowering romance.


The very fact that I was unable to find one single sentence in 222 pages that I felt worthy of sharing as a Best Quote says quite a bit about Nurse on Nightmare Island. The island wasn’t actually a nightmare, and truth be told, the book doesn’t really qualify as a nightmare, either; it’s more of a complete snooze. But with the aid of a sharp pin, I managed to keep myself awake for most of it, so here we go: Nurse Helen Barris has been convinced by a series of letters from former patient and physicist Harvey Jenkins that he is hallucinating a six-year-old boy Tony, who is the exact age and has the same name as his own dead son! So she takes what appears to be an endless vacation and jets to Moraga Island in the Antilles to attempt to lure Dr. Jenkins back to the hospital. But when she arrives, it turns out that there actually is a six-year-old boy named Tony living on the island! Like every other situation in this book, a whole lot of angst and pages turn out to be a non-issue.

Now that she’s found that Jenks is actually sane, she spends her days posing as a model while he paints portraits of her with tropical flowers in her hair. Oh, and she gets a job as a nanny to the boy, who has been kidnapped from his mother, Cecily, and her second husband, Rupert Manning, by his father, Philip La Rorsch. Philip owns most of the island, and tells Helen that he kidnapped Tony only because Rupert dangled the boy over a balcony five flights up, which he learned from the boy’s nurse, Janna, who went with Cecily and Tony after the divorce and yet remained loyal to Philip. Got all that?

Cecily arrives on the island claiming that Philip has tried to murder her three times—but she will risk her life to be near her boy, because she’s so devoted to him. She turns up at lunch and drags the painter and his model off for a picnic—where a poisonous snake is found, and killed, and assumed to have been planted there solely to murder Cecily. There’s a lot of to-doing about the dead snake when Cecily’s lawyer sends three men to obtain it as evidence of Philip’s evil deeds, but it has gone missing from the spot where it was buried after its untimely demise. Cecily is convinced that this is because Helen told Philip of the incident and he absconded with the late reptile. If all this sounds like a fairly entertaining scenario, let me disabuse you of that idea: This whole affair just comes off as labored and dull.

This isn’t the only attempt on Cecily’s life; we also get to witness her tumble from her hotel balcony after the rail has been vandalized, but she is not badly injured because she manages to grab some vines on her descent. Helen witnesses this incident and then spends a day caring for Cecily, who campaigns mightily for Helen’s alliance. But Helen is torn about who to believe. Philip, who glowers and shouts a lot, tells her that Cecily is staging the whole thing so as to coerce him into giving her a big divorce settlement. Helen’s boyfriend, a real estate venturer and gadabout named Doug whom she met on the island, is convinced that Philip is the bad guy, but Helen is trying to remain impartial. Doug is waiting for his business partner to turn up so they can seal a deal to buy land for a new hotel. When that’s done with, he wants to run off with Helen, because he feels she is in mortal danger living in Philip’s house. But she’s not sure about marrying Doug. While three dates don’t seem like all that much to base your decision to spend the rest of your life with someone, that’s not Helen’s real worry—she is concerned about what will happen to Tony if she leaves.

Adding to the tortuous plot is the fact that Tony’s nurse Janna, who also fears she is going to be killed, has holed herself up in a locked room in a cave under the island. Helen is trying to get Janna to come out, and when she finally gets into Janna’s room, the nanny’s wrists have been slashed, and Helen is concerned that it wasn’t a suicide attempt but a murder attempt! Fortunately, Helen’s fast actions save Janna’s life, and she’s so speedy about it that she still has time to pack Cecily and Tony off with Doug and his newly arrived business partner on Doug’s boat and then impersonate Cecily at a meeting on a cliff that evening with someone whom she assumes will be the murderous Philip.

It turns out that it wasn’t really Philip who was trying to kill Cecily, but the plot was so transparent that I was not at all surprised at the ending—except by the last few pages, when Helen, recuperating at Philip’s house after the real killer finally succeeds in offing Cecily and in bashing Helen unconscious, declares that Philip has been tortured for years by his suspicion that someone poisoned his mother, driving her mad and inspiring her to dig up this tree on the patio with her bare hands just before she died babbling about Heaven and death. Helen has uncovered the secret behind all that in a book about trees—I am not kidding—and now that she’s clued Philip in, he “was whole again,” and did you also pick up on the fact that he is now also, conveniently, a widow, and so free to marry again? Again, this may sound amusing in synopsis, but in Lois Eby’s leaden prose, it’s only inane.

This book poses as a Gothic story, but the house is not much of a character in this book and is, in fact, “a warm house, a loving house.” In addition to posing as Gothic, the book also wants to be a mystery and a romance—and it ends up zero for three. The writing is so perfunctory and uninteresting that I cannot begin to imagine what made the publishers think it deserved more than 200 pages. The plot is contrived and confusing, yet nonetheless manages to be completely predictable. We would actually be better off if the book was spectacularly bad, because an epic fail would at least engender some strong emotion—but the only emotion this book gave me was a mild bewilderment.