Sunday, March 24, 2013

Candy Frost, Emergency Nurse

By Ethel Hamill,
pseud. Jean Francis Webb III, ©1952
Attractive, red-haired, green-eyed Candy Frost had set an almost impossible task for herself. Her prescription was to work hard at her mountain nursing post … and never to love again. That was surely the antidote to the deep wound left by Bruce three months before, when she had given up her nursing to marry him and he had jilted her in a strange city.
“Frost, dear, was that a dreamy quiver to your mouth, just then?”
“I’m just a hard-bitten old maid with a face like a mud fence, so what would I know about romance?”
“You look cuter than ever in that silly cap.”
“To prove to herself how sensible she was, Candy sat primly on the edge of her chair and chewed each mouthful of whatever it was she was eating the prescribed number of times.”
“We’ll have a proper date and I’ll behave like a saint in Levi’s and won’t mention loving you once.”
“You’re talking like a half-baked Florence Nightingale. I could set those lines to music.”
Candy (and if this nickname is not unfortunate enough, it’s actually a contraction of her given name, Candida, which is, of course, a genus of yeasts) is not an emergency nurse, really. She is a rural nurse, and as such attends to any health issues at the log-cabin clinic, including emergencies. This means she will, at a moment’s notice, slip out of her nylon dress and into riding breeches, toss her emergency kit over her shoulder, and gallop to the scene on her black mare Rocket, the roads being too undependable for vehicular traffic. She had been working at the clinic for a while when she tumbled for an artist who had set up a studio on the mountain, and had left with him for the big city to marry. But as they had checked in to their hotel, a long-lost flame of Bruce’s crossed the lobby, and when Candy went upstairs to change into her wedding garb, he went out the front door with his ex, leaving her with a dear-Candy letter (and apparently the bill).
Now she is returning to her mountain home in disgrace, but en route experiences an emergency of her own when the bus she is riding on goes off the road and rolls into a ditch. Candy is not injured, probably because the handsome young man sitting next to her flings his strong arms around her to protect her from harm. That’s all it takes for Skip Amherst to fall madly in love with Candy. “Something went zzzing! inside you, just as it did with me,” says the romantic poet. But she’s vowed never to love again, so she tells Skip in no uncertain terms that she wants nothing to do with him. “It’s bad manners to turn down a proposal before the fellow makes it,” he answers. “Gives a sort of impression of overconfidence.”
Meanwhile, there’s a group of resident terrorists that goes around beating the locals and burning down their houses if they try to interfere with the lucrative moonshine business. They are called—and resist the urge to scream—the Pillow Heads, because they wear pillowcases when they’re out for their nightly jaunts. Who could they be, and how can they be stopped? The upside is that they do give the clinic a lot of business, and reason for Candy to go galloping around the mountain on horseback rescue missions, since the clinic doctor, Blanche Thomas, is apparently unfit for the saddle.
When she’s not out and about, Candy takes steps to protect herself from Skip. She has Dr. Blanche write into her contract that she will forfeit a year’s pay if she marries within a year. That will keep her safe! Though why anyone would want to get married less than a year after meeting a new man is a bit of a puzzle to me, and I’m also not certain how a contractual clause against marrying keeps one safe from hot men—you don’t have to buy the cow, after all. Skip is not really convinced, either. “No scrap of paper can keep us apart, Candy, darling,” he tells her. “The only paper that has any real bearing on your future is the wedding license we’re going to take out together.” And he says that she’s overconfident.
Skip has been taken in by the Orr family, whose own son, Ad, drowned in a flash flood that he should have known better than to be caught in. The Orrs have also boarded the new schoolmarm, Lulu Mae, who is a tarty thing with an eye for Skip. Soon gossip is going around town that Skip and Lulu Mae are an item, and Candy finds that she is jealous! She spies on Skip at a dance that she has refused to attend with him and sees him kiss Lulu Mae, and then Mrs. Orr reluctantly tells Candy that she heard him talking to Lulu Mae, saying he’d picked her up on the bus, and that “a girl that’s been tagged with a scandal like that ought to be easy to get.” Now she’s jealous and mad! And when Candy’s old beau, Wayne, proposes, she naturally accepts. So much for that contract.
Candy and Wayne make plans to meet in town to get married, but Skip gets wind of it and kidnaps Candy, literally carrying her off “with a contemptuous ease which suggested he was hefting a not very valuable sack of feathers” when he catches up with her waiting for the bus to town, and I’m impressed at how this sentence implies the sexiness not only of being physically assaulted, but simultaneously of Candy’s dainty physique. And Skip is only getting warmed up. He tells her, “I ought to take you over my knee and spank you right here and now,” before driving her off to a deserted cabin in the woods. “Do you remember saying I couldn’t make you do what I wanted you to do? Rash remark!” he says. When she says she knows that he is carrying on with Lulu Mae, he denies it, but says, “What of it? You’d still be mine—and only mine. And I wouldn’t kiss you again if you came crawling across this room to me on your knees. And you might do exactly that, you know.” His prediction is close to right—when he storms toward her, looking as if he’s going to beat her, she collapses in tears into his arms, but he “flung her from him” and crashes out of the cabin, guarding the door to keep her from escaping until the bus has gone. Candy “settled down on the hard bench to wait. He was master here.” It’s a monstrous scene in so many ways, rendering Skip completely detestable. But that’s never bothered a VNRN heroine before, and it certainly doesn’t slow Candy’s pulse, either.
After this, all the back stories fall into place. There’s a complex scheme that, when brought into the open, explains Skip’s kissing Lulu Mae, the remark Mrs. Orr overheard and relayed to Candy, who the Pillow Heads are, Ad Orr’s untimely death, and the Pillow Heads’ raid on the Orr farm. All this might leave you gasping for air, but Jean Webb has a real flair for plotting, so the entire story seems completely plausible, and it’s also unfolded in such a way as to be not indigestible. Furthermore, his writing is still among the genre’s best. We get tasty morsels like, “The hinged door flattened with a faint pneumanic gasp,” and, “The late moon still swam above them, but her reign was ending.” I am a devoted fan of Mr. Webb’s, who has garnered an A- average in the three other books of his that I have read so far (Aloha Nurse, A Nurse Comes Home, and A Nurse for Galleon Key). Unfortunately, Candy Frost, Emergency Nurse does not meet the standards set by the others: It is short on camp, the hero is utterly despicable, and the heroine is a bit of a moron. Even if Skip had been a stand-up guy, this book doesn’t have much else to recommend it. So while anything Jean Webb writes is worth reading, Candy is not his most delicious.

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