Thursday, January 31, 2013

Nurse in Danger

Willo Davis Roberts, ©1972

The voice coming over the phone was like a deadly purr. “Keep your mouth shut, nursie. Because, if you don’t—you’re dead.” Nurse Denise Morgan hung up the receiver in an agony of trembling. She hadn’t really seen the man who had tried to kill her patient—only his silhouette, as she reeled backward from the blow he’d given her. It was a vicious, hate-filled plot, and Nurse Denise found herself in the middle of it. Only the strength of Dr. Pat Riordan kept her on an even keel … as they waited one dark night to spring the trap.
“There was an outbreak of whistling when Peggy introduced her. Denise had had this happen before; it didn’t shake her composure.”
“Any man who enjoyed looking at a pretty girl shouldn’t want to die.”
“Only a minute or two, that’s all it takes to terrorize a girl.”
Before I even get started on what’s inside this book, I simply must comment on what’s on the outside. This is absolutely one of the worst cover illustrations ever! The black mass on her head that purports to be hair resembles more a dead animal. And is anyone going to be strolling casually down the lane with a half-smirk on his face while a house burns behind him? I am doubly disheartened that this is an Ace title, when that publisher in the 1960s consistently turned out amazing book covers. (See my other blog, Vintage Romance Covers, for proof of this statement.) And now that I’ve got that out of my system, we can move on.
The most interesting aspect about Nurse Denise Morgan is the fact that, when she was away at nursing school, a young man they had taken in six years previously inexplicably shot her parents and four siblings at the dinner table, and was subsequently hanged. Her name is really Denise Davonne, but she changed it after the massacre so that no one would tie her to it. And she lives alone, not in the nurse’s dorm, so she doesn’t have to answer questions from her fellow nurses about her painful past.
She’s working on men’s surgical, lusting after Dr. Patrick Riordan, when Ed Hale is brought in. He’s been run over in the street, an attempted murder, because he is planning to testify in a corruption case against Vince Gurley, the big union boss. Ed is mostly worried about his wife Laura and son, who he fears will be attacked by Vince’s goons while he’s abed. So Denise volunteers to spirit the pair out of town to her family’s farmhouse one night. When Laura and Eddie Junior come to visit Ed in the hospital, Denise disguises Laura as a nurse, pops the boy onto a gurney, and out the back door they go. The plan is a complete success, and no one—not even the police who were supposed to be guarding Laura and Eddie—knows where they are.
Everything is great—Dr. Riordan is even starting to notice her—but then, “there was no way for her to know that within twenty-four hours she would have plunged into a nightmare so terrifying that a peaceful night’s sleep would seem an unattainable goal.” Good thing the author warned us about this, or we might not understand how scary the situation is supposed to be; you’d certainly never guess it from reading about it. One evening shift, Denise enters Big Ed’s room to find the policeman guarding him on the floor, and a thug with a gun standing over Ed. The thug pops Denise across the face, fires blindly at Ed in bed, hitting him in the jaw but not killing him, and vanishes.
When everyone rushes in and turns on the lights, Denise sees all the blood and has a PTSD moment: “The present and the past existed simultaneously in a series of pictures in Denise’s mind, clicking off and on. The kitchen at home, on the farm, spattered with blood. The hospital bed, empty now, stained dark red.” It is rather curious that she had requested a transfer to a surgical floor, where a nurse is necessarily exposed to more blood and guts. But she pulls herself together when Dr. Riordan tells her, “Snap out of it!” She describes her attacker to the cops and they’re out looking for him, but now he’s calling her house. “Keep your mouth shut,” he tells her. “Because if you don’t, nursie, you’re a dead tomato.” A dead tomato? Denise responds to this threat not by laughing her head off but by fainting dead away on the kitchen floor.
She tells Dr. Riordan and the cops about this, too, and then there’s this nosy reporter, Larry Groves, coming around who wants to write a story about Denise and put it on the front page, his dazzling ambition totally blinding him to the fact that doing so places Denise and the Hale family in further danger. When Larry barges into her apartment to demand an interview, Denise is horrified: “He couldn’t write a story about her, he couldn’t!” But instead of saying no, she says she has to ask the hospital supervisor, the shrinking violet. The next day, as Larry pesters her again in the hospital foyer, she lets it slip that the woman wearing the mink coat is the wife of another patient who has tried to kill himself—and this sideline is rather jarring when so much of the book is focused on the Ed Hale—so now Larry wants to write a big story about the patient, who is a well-known businessman in town. The wife is naturally upset at this threat to her privacy, but Denise reassures the woman, “I assure you none of the staff would tell the newspapers anything.” This from the one who tipped Larry Groves off to begin with.
Larry’s no dope, and soon puts it together that Denise is actually the lone survivor of the Davonne massacre, and further realizes that Denise has hidden the Hale family at her old house. So he decides to drive up there himself and interview Mrs. Hale—and the only thing Denise can do to stop him is to drive up there first, since there is no phone at the house, and she asks Pat Riordan to drive her. When they reach the farmhouse, they extinguish all evidence of the family’s week-long stay there in five minutes, and then all four of them hike the half-mile to the old tree house and climb up into it. They can see the lights of Larry’s car, but they’re still waving their flashlight around like idiots—and then to cap it off, Pat decides he’s going to sneak back to the house, Denise in tow, to be sure that Larry leaves after he’s broken into the house and found no one there. But hot on Larry’s trail is Tony Gurley, Vince’s younger brother and the thug who tried to kill Ed in the hospital. Tony is about to murder Larry until Pat steps in with a rusty pitchfork, and a kerosene lamp is knocked to the floor, igniting the farmhouse, as presaged by the terrible cover illustration. Tony is tamed and tied up with his belt, but through it all, Denise is pretty useless. “She didn’t know how she managed to move at all. People died from fear … but she couldn’t die, or Patrick would die, too, and Larry.” Not that she does much at all when she does move, except start the car to distract Tony.
Back in town when everything is all wrapped up, Pat tells Denise, the presumptuous cad, that he’s arranged for the two of them to get a week off, which they will use for a honeymoon, because they’re going to get married that afternoon. Ever-passive Denise responds that she forgot to feed the cat! “She ran out of words. Patrick had said honeymoon…” Denise’s friend Peggy wants to hear all about what happened with Ed Hale’s attacker, but Denise says she’ll tell her all about it next week, because “tonight I’m going to be very busy,” wink, wink.
This book has several large and unpardonable  flaws. Denise is so inert in every other aspect of her life that it’s very difficult to believe she would plan and enact the disappearance of two people she’s never met, and put them up in a house that holds horrific memories for her, that she hasn’t visited since the day she discovered her murdered family there. (Who cleaned up the mess is never revealed.) Even her intended doesn’t bother to ask her to marry him; he just tells her what’s what. Then the tragedy of her murdered family is a very large elephant throughout the book. It doesn’t have to have a tidy explanation—senseless crimes occur every day—but the book never spends any time at all addressing it, except to trot it out of the closet now and then to freak Denise out. (Her intended never even discusses it with her after he learns about it.) I don’t think this is something she could ever come to terms with, but she doesn’t have to; just thinking about how it shapes her life and the accommodations she has to make for it (like getting out of surgery?) make it something other than a grim sideshow that feels exploitative and disrespectful. The writing is not engaging or amusing, and I found Denise largely irritating. Since the only other book by this author (Once a Nurse … But Always a Woman) was pretty good, I’m especially disappointed to find that Nurse in Danger is a big dud.

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