Thursday, April 23, 2015

Nurse in Istanbul

By Ralph E. Hayes, ©1970

When Donna Mitchell left City Hospital for private nursing, she didn’t expect her first job to take her halfway around the world—to Istanbul. But there she was, accompanying her employer-patient—a wealthy importer named Eastman—on a business trip. Besides Donna, Mr. Eastman had with him his secretary, Penelope Winslow, and Steve Chandler, his accountant. Donna liked Steve from the moment they met and sensed that he like her, yet he tried to talk her into quitting the job! She couldn’t imagine why … until an accidentally overheard conversation made he wonder about the nature of Mr. Eastman’s business in Istanbul. He was there to buy a rare emerald-studded necklace, the Green Medallion, and everything about the transaction had to be kept secret. Was it possible the necklace had been stolen, Donna wondered. If so, did Steve know it? The questions were still unanswered when a murderer struck … and the Green Medallion vanished!


“Is this a nurse or a go-go girl?”

“They definitely did not tell me in nursing school that there would be days like this.”

“Donna was suddenly very impressed with Steve’s ability in hand-to-hand combat.”

The back cover blurb, above, is one of the more dull ones I’ve come across—and an apt predictor of what’s inside that same cover. Our heroine, Donna Mitchell, is a paradoxical creature who can’t decide if she really loves the genuine ass she is dating, yet the next minute is credited with being so steady of mind that she single-handedly recovers a priceless stolen artifact (a tribute we readers, who have witnessed the whole affair, will receive with astonishment). I guess it’s possible to be both, but the author does not have the talent or depth to pull off a character this complex.

We first meet Donna when she is interviewing for a private nursing job for the “wealthy but aging gentleman with a serious heart condition,” like there is any other kind in a VNRN. Everything that is wrong with the status of women in 1970 is summed up by the opening remarks of his secretary: “You are a lovely girl,” the woman tells Donna. “I think Mr. Eastman will be pleased. I’m unmarried, dear, and you may call me Penny.” Mr. Eastman’s accountant, Steve Chandler, tries to warn Donna against accepting the job, but here she shows her spunky side: “I’m quite capable of taking care of myself,” she snaps at him, a declaration we later find to be completely untrue.

Before she leaves for Turkey, Donna must sort out her love life. She can’t decide if she really loves Dr. Richard DeForest, whom she describes as moody, presumptuous, condescending, arrogant, and unbearable, concluding, “she did not like her young doctor very much.” Yet even in the middle of sort of breaking up with him (“I just need to get away for a while, to sort out my thoughts about you,” she tells him), she thinks, “She still felt something for him.” As he has aptly demonstrated throughout this scene that he is a complete Neanderthal, we can’t imagine why she would, or ever did.

On the slow boat to Turkey, Donna begins to realize Mr. Eastman is not the innocent businessman when Steve tells her not to ask questions or “get involved,” and that she is in danger on this trip. When they finally arrive, they are ensconced in the “glamorous” Istanbul Hilton, which sports luxuries including “the latest automatic elevators.” It’s not too long before she stumbles across a meeting between Mr. Eastman and “two very dark gentlemen with heavy moustaches, looking very Turkish,” during which they discuss a necklace called the Green Medallion. During her eavesdropping, she notices that Steve is wearing a holstered gun—“Accountants definitely did not carry guns,” thinks our astute heroine, finally starting to catch up.

Cue the postman, who brings a letter from Richard. As it happens, he is in Beirut, and informs Donna that he’ll be popping up to Istanbul to apologize for his atrocious behavior. Naturally the wishy-washy Donna is soon dropping tears on the pages, wondering, “maybe she still loved Richard,” even though she’s also starting to fall for Steve, of course.

She does get in a little sight-seeing, visiting the Grand Bazaar, and when she returns, she finds that Mr. Eastman has “stepped out of character” and bought her a brass lamp (upon which Donna wishes for love, ew!). Not long afterward, the old man is found beaten to death in his room. Over the corpse, Steve decides to enlighten Donna regarding the fact that “Mr. Eastman was a dapper gentleman of the underworld,” who had come to Istanbul to purchase the Green Medallion, which had been stolen from the Topkapı Palace. Steve himself is revealed to be a Federal agent, and Penny is packed off to the Turkish authorities, to be extradited to the U.S. for “a short time in a nice comfortable American prison, and then get a legitimate job.” Uh, yeah, you keep telling yourself that.

On their way home from the police station, however, Steve and Donna’s cab is chased and shot at. The pair jumps out at a corner and ducks into the old Roman cisterns, where they jump into the water and hide behind literally the first column they come to. Donna barely endures this brush with death without shrieking at the thought of “all sorts of slimy things crawling on her legs in the dark water” and the bat that had flitted by them—neither of which actually bother her. The bad guys follow them into the cistern but can’t be bothered to venture beyond the doorway before quitting the scene. “Come on, honey,” Steve says. “Let’s get out of here.”

Back at the hotel, they discover that the medallion is actually hidden in Donna’s brass lamp! While Steve steps out to hide it somewhere until they can deliver it to the police, Donna meets Richard for breakfast. After she tells him that her employer is a smuggler who was murdered yesterday and she’s at the hotel with an armed government agent, Richard insists Donna leave Istanbul immediately. “Instead of trying to understand her situation, instead of listening to what it was all about, he had made up his mind that she was silly to further expose herself to the situation, and that was that.” Exactly! No, wait—“She had been right. Richard was incorrigible. He was a domineering, arrogant man who obviously felt that girls and wives should be treated like children, to be seen but not heard. He simply lacked a basic respect for her as a woman.” Right. Three pages later, Steve tells her he is taking her to the police station to be kept in protective custody, because “it might get rough at times. I don’t want you involved in it.” Our tough, courageous nurse, who has just stood up for her independence and autonomy, “smiled her warmest, broadest smile and put her arm through Steve’s. ‘All right, Steve. I’ll do whatever you say,’ ” she tells him.

But as fate would have it, they are captured and imprisoned in a stone cell, kiss, dig their way out through the ubiquitously loose bars, kiss, escape in a stolen car but are pursued by the gunmen, kiss, jump a ferry, kiss, disarm two of the gunmen with karate chops to the neck (that was Steve, actually), kiss, and are recaptured and forced to the top of a minaret. Donna saves the day by pretending to faint, allowing Steve to jump the gunman, whose pistol “went flying to the floor beside Donna.” Guess what our brave heroine does? “She stared at it fearfully as the two men fought. She could not bring herself to pick it up. She had never held a gun in her life.” It isn’t until Steve has actually knocked the bad guy unconscious that Donna “picked up the gun gingerly and handed it to him.” Thanks, honey. Then they kiss again.

The medallion returned to the Turkish authorities and the caper wrapped up, now we are given Donna’s new-born insecurities about her relationship with Steve. Though the book comes to a damp close after the crazy kids have clasped hands, “gazed into each other’s eyes and were ecstatically happy,” the fact that it’s over quickly is the best thing about it. I appreciate that the author makes a show of presenting Donna as a strong, capable person (and a very competent nurse), but in the end she is nearly helpless in the worst moments, and this dichotomy makes me dislike both the heroine and the book.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Village Nurse

By Joanne Holden, ©1964

Lorena read it in Deke’s glazed eyes. He had lost his battle to clean up River Street. And failure could mean an epidemic. As Deke’s office nurse—and the woman he loved—Lorena had to help him. There was just one way. The one who could save him was Beat Wetherill, the richest man in town. Lorena would go to him—and plead. But she was asking for trouble. Beat Wetherill—once Deke’s friend—was now his enemy. And he was irresistably attractive …


“You’re what is known as a natural dancer. I ought to have gotten the message from the way you cross the office floor.”

“I wasn’t born with a thermometer in my pocket. I’ll date anyone I please.”
“You add a decorative touch to this plain office.”

“I’m sorry you felt it was necessary to mix your threat to me and your proposal to Lorena in the same breath.”

Lorena Loring is a rare nurse with a blot on her record. Of course, it’s ill-deserved: She was once sued for assault and battery for having given a patient a blood transfusion despite the fact that the patient refused it on religious grounds. It’s actually an interesting story, from today’s perspective: An unconscious man, brought to the ED, had been ordered blood. When he came to, he told her to stop it, but she was unable to reach the doctor who ordered it. All she could do was “tell the patient once more she could not stop the transfusion except by doctor’s orders.” It’s curious in that, at least in this fictional event, (1) the doctor’s orders superceded the patient’s, (2) Lorena could not bring herself to at least put a hold on the order until the mess was straightened out, and (3) the patient didn’t just rip the IV out of his arm. I certainly hope this sort of thing didn’t happen even in the long-ago ’60s.

Anyway, she moves back to her hometown of Laurelton, in the Berkshire Hills of (presumably) Massachusetts to escape the ignominy, and quickly winds up working alongside Dr. Derek “Deke” Collingwood. There are other men on her horizons, too: the unfortunately named Beat Wetherill, the heir to the paper mill owner. This “exalted being,” as Lorena describes him, was the object of an alarming high school crush; Lorena had spent her time “lurking near the entrance to the Wetherill driveway, hoping to catch sight of Beat Wetherill. She had even been successful a few times and, as Beat flashed by in his sports car, had felt her heart jump in her throat.” What goes around comes around, though, as now she’s the object of an obsession: former casual beau Clyde Furness is convinced she’s returned to town just for him, and can hardly wait for her to marry him and quit nursing. “I’ve going to have you for my own,” he tells her. “Go on and play at being a nurse, and I’ll be waiting when you come back.”

Dr. Deke wades into the action when he tells her, “I’m not going to make a practice of this, but I’m going to kiss you, and nothing you can stay will stop me. Relax.” I can only hope this never really passed for romantic, because today it’s just creepy. Nonetheless, “Lorena did as she was told and thrilled to his kiss,” but not wanting to get into a relationship with her employer, pulls away and offers him a sandwich. Having disposed of him, she now has to fend off Beat, who walks in off the street and kisses her hard as she struggles to get away. Discovered by Dr. Deke, “Lorena was furious: with Beat for his thoughtless attentions; with herself for not anticipating his actions; and with Deke for having picked that moment to come out of his laboratory.” Curious that she blames not just her attacker but herself and the one who helps her fend him off, even if he is pissy about it, though it’s unclear whether he realizes she was being assaulted.

Naturally, Lorena is soon dating the insufferable Clyde and Beat as well, perhaps just to prove Clyde wrong, who has told her that Beat would “never look at a village girl” like her. Their first date is curious, from a sociological standpoint: Out on a picnic by the river, he puts his arms around her and tries to kiss her, “but she slipped away” and started setting out lunch—and then “silently scolded herself for putting him off so abruptly.” Then she brings up the name of a young woman in town who is putting the moves on Dr. Deke, suggesting that Beat would rather have brought her to the picnic. Beat becomes annoyed, telling her, “You’re a spoiled brat. If you weren’t such a beautiful spoiled brat, I’d be tempted to spank you as you deserve.” She, for her turn, becomes upset by his “resentful attitude” when she had brought up this other woman, and wonders if she should “plead a headache and ask to be taken home.” All these headgames brought me back to junior high, yet Lorena doesn’t seem to mind them and continues to see Beat.

Deke, meanwhile, is busy mounting a crusade against the slum that lines River Street, all owned by Clyde Furness. Sure enough, a small epidemic of German measles breaks out, claiming the child of the local handyman. Clyde’s own nephew Eddie is also a slum victim: There’s a cute little rumble between the River Rats gang and the slightly less imaginatively named Bridgers of nearby Bridgerton in which several boys are injured with antiquated weapons including switchblades, a skid chain, the antenna from a car, and a zip gun, and Eddie is the only fatality. Clyde responds to this personal tragedy by stating that he will publicly (and falsely) accuse Deke of malpractice and expose Lorena’s past unless Lorena marries him and Deke leaves town. Deke agrees to go, and Lorena is furious, calling him a quitter for abandoning the poor and the effort to improve health conditions in town. Deke argues that the next doctor will pick up the effort, and that if he didn’t succeed, he furthered the fight. “I don’t feel as if I’d failed, or that I’m running away from the problem at all,” he says, though he clearly has done both. Lorena, relieved, hurries off to make instant iced coffee.

Over these refreshing beverages, Deke tells her he’s going to take a research position in New York and he wants her to marry him and go with him. Her main objective accomplished, she’s suddenly tepid: “She had thought she might be in love with him. Yet now she felt curiously detached, as if they were casual co-workers.” Her main concern, it seems, is that, “suppose he ever wants to talk to me about his work? It would be another language as far as I am concerned. A nurse doesn’t deal in abstractions or theories. All nurses deal with people.” I’m not quite sure I follow this at all, but Lorena’s landlady renders the argument moot when she points out that “you would give up nursing anyway and start to raise a family.” The ending soon follows, a tidy resolution to all Lorena’s problems, including that pesky career, as her fiance (and you knew there would be one) tells her, “I’d expect a home-cooked supper” every night. Phew!
Lorena is a curious character. On one hand, she is feisty, often ready with the snappy comeback, and not afraid to tell people off. Yet throughout the book we are given example after example of her bizarre motivations and self-defeating decisions, and the two sides of her character seem incompatible. In the end I am just puzzled by the whole book, and the nauseating ending just confirmed the feeling. With the slums about to be revitalized (and you knew they would be), the poor families are summarily dealt with in a way that the healthcare team could have accomplished themselves, had they thought for five minutes about the problem. Furthermore, Clyde’s defense of the slums still echoes: “Suppose I fixed up those houses and charged the people a fancy rent—could they pay it, when they can hardly pay the pittance I ask? How many houses are there in Laureltown where these people could go, if it were not for me? Where would they live, if not on River Street?” Now that the slums are going to be torn down, and the developer emphatically telling Lorena that he plans to make money on the deal (Lorena answers, “You deserve to make money when you do something as fine and necessary as cleaning up the River Street pesthole”), it seems that all that really mattered was that the poor folks be relocated somewhere else so their blighted neighborhood could be eliminated. Both professionally and personally, Lorena has accomplished her missions, and we can all rest easy. Unless you’re one of those poor families about to lose their homes.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Nurse Craig

By Isabel Cabot
(pseud. Isabel Capeto), ©1957
Cover illustration by Martin Koenig

Toni Craig, student nurse at Riveredge Hospital, wanted no part of Chad Barlow. He had the reputation of being a wolf; besides, her ideal was Dr. Matt Nicoll, a brilliant, ambitious young surgeon at the hospital. But Chad refused to be discouraged even after her engagement to Matt. And then Toni began hearing disturbing rumors about her fiancé. They were saying he would stop at nothing to get ahead. And so she faced a new heart-twisting question. Could she marry a successful doctor whose practices she couldn’t respect?


“Never make a pass at a girl with a lighted cigarette in her mouth.”

If there is one thing that VNRN characters should know, it’s never let another woman “tend” to your boyfriend, no matter how briefly. Toni Craig is a nursing student in her first year of nursing school, and after the capping ceremony, which punctuates the probation period, class vixen Melita Fanning makes the grave error of pushing her boyfriend, Chad Barlow, on Toni until she can get rid of her parents. Toni’s friend Gail Sanders does her best to warn Toni of Chad’s low character, advising, “Don’t go behind any potted plants with him.” Toni needs no reminding, having met the young man in question at a previous social event in which he punched a police officer. At this meeting—under the sheltering bower of a large fern, as fate would have it—Chad rises to expectations by telling her that her uniform is “all wrong” because “it doesn’t do a thing for your figure. Now that little one-piece number that you wore at the beach party …” When she objects to this comment and to his constantly referring to her as “darling,” he drawls, “Honey, it doesn’t mean a thing. It’s like calling a guy ‘Mac.’ It saves straining your brain to remember names.” Chad is just drawing his arm around Toni when Gail appears—“I’m little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother,” she quips—and sends Toni off on an errand. Here we learn from various cryptic comments that Gail has had some encounter with Chad in the past that has hurt her deeply, but Chad apparently has no recollection of the incident. More to come later.

Five months later, Toni is working in the hospital and pining after Dr. Matt Nicoll; Ruth, the nurse’s aide who grew up with Matt, is something of an encouraging confidante, and Matt soon warms to Toni. He asks her out for coffee, and she accepts without hesitation. (When Ruth hears of their date, her smile seems a little forced, Toni thinks.) But who should show up at the diner? Chad Barlow, of course, and when Matt suddenly realizes he’s due back at the hospital, Chad offers to walk Toni home.

After Matt has departed, Chad reveals to Toni that he only barged in because Matt’s conversation (a full-volume and in-depth review of each of their patients, and confidentiality be damned) sounded so boring. Though she agrees to allow Chad to walk her home, she doesn’t speak to him the whole way—but when he calls the next day and asks her out, she accepts, curiously just after she has told him that for him she would never be free. She ends up having a great time, or so she says, as we don’t spend much time with them on their date. When she tells Gail about it, Gail seems disgusted, and that night goes missing. Toni phones Chad for help, and he delivers Gail, passed out drunk, safely home. So when he asks her out again, she feels obliged to go. During that date, he makes the obligatory pass/assault: “With a swiftness that stunned Toni, Chad had her in his arms. His lips were on hers, bruising and demanding. Toni had to fight to break his hold. She was breathing hard as she pushed away from him to the far side of the seat. Chad started to reach for her again, but involuntarily, Toni began to cry. ‘Cut it out. You’re not hurt,’ Chad said roughly.” The next day she blames herself, of course, for having suggested they stop to look at the ocean, which apparently is akin to asking for it.

To help a doctor friend, Dr. Gus Rogers, who has an unrequited crush on Gail, Toni agrees to double-date with the couple and Chad. To put her at ease, Chad declares that Toni need not fear him; the two will just have “a strictly buddy-to-buddy relationship” from now on. They start going out regularly, but just as friends. She’s still seeing Matt as well, but growing a bit more concerned about his worship of Dr. Heally, the pompous yet successful chief of surgery who is universally disliked among the nurses (always a bad sign, even today!) for never accepting personal responsibility and for throwing everyone else under the bus if something goes wrong with his patients. Then Gail and Gus, out on another date, are in a car accident, and Gus is badly injured. It comes out that Gail had been married seven years ago, but her husband had been killed in a car accident—and the other driver was Chad Barlow. Even though Chad had been “out carousing” and speeding to get home on time, he’s forgiven, because he’d crawled a mile with a broken leg to get help, and that though he’d been “a little wild in those days, he’s done his best to make it up.” We really haven’t seen him be anything but a little wild since we were introduced to him, however, so his easy absolution doesn’t really jibe.

Soon after, Matt proposes to Toni, who is giddy with joy, though Gail doesn’t approve. Matt’s busy sucking up to Dr. Heally, though, so Toni keeps on with her buddy dates with Chad. The other nurses are starting to criticize Matt, noting that he’s the first one to laugh at Dr. Heally’s jokes: Even if Matt is a smart and excellent surgeon, his use of flattery of Dr. Heally to win a position as the chief’s main assistant is considered a very serious offense. Then there’s more trouble in paradise: Matt’s mother becomes very ill and is hospitalized for several weeks. This drains Matt’s father’s bank account of the money he was going to lend Matt to start his own practice. Matt is very upset—not about his mother, but about this setback in his plans. Then he ditches Toni for the big Winter Festival parties and insists that she go with Chad instead, and on a scavenger hunt the two are locked in an abandoned ice house for most of a night, during which Chad grabs her and kisses her hard again. Matt’s not too pleased to hear about this, and also not too pleased about his lack of funds, and hers too: “It wouldn’t hurt any if you had a little money of your own,” he says, perhaps thinking of his old friend Ruth, who has recently inherited a bundle of money and left her job as a nurse’s aide to become a very successful businesswoman, tripling her fortune in a matter of months.

The ending is abrupt, dumb, and completely what you would expect, unfortunately. While this book is not without its charms—Gail is the perfect wise-cracking sidekick, and Melita and Ruth were also enjoyable characters—but the men in the book are not so rewarding. Chad Barlow proves again and again to be an ass, so Toni’s attraction to him is puzzling, and Matt’s transformation from hero to “twenty-carat heel” is also inexplicable. Isabel Cabot’s prior offerings, Private Duty Nurse and Island Nurse, are also fairly mediocre—more so Private Duty Nurse, which is also quite rife with scenes of sexual assault cum romance. It’s positively amazing that violence toward women could have been so casually accepted—even blamed on the victims—and that these scenes of humiliation and degradation are apparently meant to be titillating. But I guess we need look no further than the enormous success of Fifty Shades of Grey to realize that maybe we haven’t come so far, after all.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Surgical Nurse

By Ruth Ives, ©1962

An accident completely changed Susan Sande’s destiny. Instead of joining her father and sister at their clinic in the Far East, she chose to stay in her home town and nurse her Aunt Jessica. The choice was a difficult one, but it was made easier by the presence of Dr. Burke Tanner, her girlhood hero. However, Susan was no longer a little girl, but a lovely and dedicated surgical nurse who loved her work despite the heartbreaks it sometimes brought her. Burke Tanner had turned into a subdued, grim chief of surgery and was nicknamed "Old Ironheart." Then Aunt Jessica died on the operating table and, because of the will she left, ugly rumors began spreading about Susan. It took all of Susan’s courage to see her way through the dark days, but in the end she found the happiness she was waiting for …
"I’m glad she’s home to nurse me after the operation, instead of chasing off to the Far East to take care of those heathen children in her father’s mission."
"They’re young, and if they don’t marry too soon, I just might manage to make good registered nurses out of them."
Author Ruth Ives is a bit of a puzzle to me. She seems to have written just three nurse novels, and the trio—including Navy Nurse and Congo Nurse—could scarcely be more different from each other in tone. Congo Nurse was flat and insipid; Navy Nurse was over-the-top campy, shallow, and scattered. Surgical Nurse is easily the best of the lot, an honest, serious book that reminded me of Ivy Anders, Night Nurse, in that the two were pretty dark for a VNRN. I can identify writers like Rosie M. Banks, Peggy Gaddis, and (ugh) Peggy Blocklinger from the first paragraph alone, but it’s frankly hard for me to understand how these three were written by the same person.
After finishing up five years of training at Boston Medical Center, Nurse Susan Sande came home to Westwalk, CT, to care for her ailing Aunt Jessica instead of joining her father and sister at their clinic in Bangkok. She’s shocked to learn that Aunt J has metastatic colon cancer, and even more shocked that Dr. Burke Tanner, her high school crush and now local surgeon, told Jessica of the diagnosis. "But the shock—" she stutters to Burke before he shuts her down, saying that her aunt deserves to know the truth.
But Sandy, as she’s known, never has the chance to take care of Aunt J, who dies in the OR. Sandy doesn’t spend too much time grieving, though, and instead focuses on the disbursement of her aunt’s $250,000 fortune: Jessica wanted to use the money to build a new wing for the hospital, but only if it is done according to the exact specifications she and her architect have drawn up. Jessica had concerns that the board of directors, a gouty collection of backslappers, is more interested in lining their own pockets with kickbacks than in improving the hospital. Indeed, when Sandy makes the offer to the board of directors, the gang turns her down—and now a "whisper campaign" in town is suggesting that Sandy refused to give the hospital the money so as to profit herself. Sandy feels the board is trying to pressure her into giving them the money, no strings attached, but she refuses to give in, despite repeated insults and even physical assaults from townspeople and coworkers alike. Even more upsetting to Sandy is the fact that the subdued, disinvolved Dr. Burke, who has a seat on the board, does not go to bat for her. She even argues with him about it, but he just cannot bring himself to care.
This betrayal by her longtime crush is Sandy’s other chief obsession. Back in high school, Burke was the star halfback and Sandy just in fifth grade when she fell hysterically in love with him, pasting articles and photos of him in her scrapbook, insipid as that sounds now, 50 years before the advent of sexting. Now, after a school bus accident two years ago, Burke has transformed into "Old Ironheart," a snappish, icily formal martinet "who had seemed to relish terrorizing her during the day"—though he melts into a sweeter version of himself outside the hospital, giving her a ride home in the rain as he has noticed that her car was not in the lot that morning. This contradiction in his character, and his rudeness to her in the hospital, pass essentially unremarked by Sandy—though if it were me, I would seriously reconsider that crush. It’s true that she does see him with a more jaundiced eye and has many debates with herself about how "she no longer felt that childish, blind adoration for Burke Tanner, football hero of Westwalk High. She saw him as an adult, and perhaps as an adversary." It’s not clear, though, how much we should believe this. She’s obviously not star-struck any longer, but she can’t help crying herself to sleep on occasion over his rudeness. In some books this could come across as sloppy, but Ruth Ives paints a picture of conflicting and contradictory emotion that never feels phony.
When she’s not brooding over the changes in Burke’s character, Sandy is dating handsome swashbuckler Dr. Bob Parker. He takes her to glamorous parties, introduces her to kind and interesting people, and then slinks off with other women, leaving her to find her own way home. She doesn’t seem to mind too much, though, since she’s not really attached to Bob and is making lots of friends. When Bob takes her to another high-flying party and proposes out of the blue, she waffles and tells him she’s going to have to think it over. Bob responds by downing three consecutive martinis. He’s hard at work on the fourth when a fellow party animal attempts to cure an enormously pregnant woman of nausea by taking her for a drive and smashes into a tree. Cut to the OR, where Dr. Burke and Sandy stand by as the obviously plowed Dr. Bob attempts to operate on the driver, soon severing an artery and backing out to let Dr. Burke try for the save, and fail. That night, Burke drops by her house and tells her the story of the school bus accident, how he tried to save all the children but lost too many due to inadequate supplies and staffing, and how he decided that from that point on to harden his heart. In an attempt to bring him back to humanity, she asks him if he loves her. He does, he answers, but says he will never marry her and storms off. What will possibly make Burke realize that all the best doctors have hearts? Why, another devastating accident: The new plastics factory on the edge of town collapses, and it’s surgery and death and mud and mayhem all over again.
You know how everything is going to play out, and it’s not a bad ending. Overall the story has quite a few dark turns, between all the patients dying in the OR and Sandy’s ostracization in town. Sandy is a spunky and outspoken character who had considered becoming a surgeon herself before opting for nursing. She even has no qualms—and relatively few regrets—about having told Burke that she loves him, unlike most VNRN heroines who would rather lose their love forever than "chase" him, which is how telling someone how you felt was viewed in those days. Her only flaw is her utter inability to stand up against the false rumors about her aunt’s will, as she never once attempts to explain the truth to her detractors; a small but constant annoyance, as there are a lot of them. I contemplated giving this book an A- rather than a B+, but didn’t quite find quite enough here that is really stellar beyond the uniqueness of its somewhat grim tone and the excellence and shades of gray in Sandy’s character. Still, it’s easily worth reading.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Mountain Nurse

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1959

"I’m not going to ask you to marry me," Ken said—and Julie felt the words like a blow. For one awful moment she was speechless. Then her angry, hurting words rushed out. "I don’t want you to ask me to marry you! I wouldn’t even if you did!" After all, why should she? Her fabulous job—the job that meant so much to her—was waiting. Who needed Ken? But her heart lurched, for not until this moment had she admitted even to herself that she was in love with him.



"It’s colder than the heart of organized charity out there tonight."
"A woman doesn’t like to be told she’s remarkable. She’d much rather be told she’s beautiful, or alluring, or charming."
This book may well be unique among VNRNs in that the heroine, Julie Winston, is an unmitigated snob, and remains so right through to the end—or at least we are not given any indication that her underlying character has changed. Out of the gate, she is ferociously condescending toward the patients and families that her sister, widow Linda Blake, cares for in this rural Georgia mountain setting (the quintessential Peggy Gaddis novel backdrop). She prefers her upscale Atlanta clinic, which caters to rich folk, and has swooped in to insist that her sister return to civilization with her. Linda, however, is a sweet, dedicated, selfless type who would never leave her patients, even if she is, according to Julie, "overworked, poorly paid, miserably uncomfortable, lacking in all the things any woman her age should have." Not Julie: She’s even horrified when one of her colleagues leaves her post as a "luxury nurse" to join the war effort, telling Linda, "The idiot has joined the Army Nurse Corps and asked for overseas duty. Can you imagine?" She might as well admit that she beats puppies for what this remark is supposed to do for our view of Julie.
Out on call with Linda in the rickety jeep, and none too impressed with the "squalid" domiciles they visit, Julie is nonetheless pressed into duty when one very ancient woman, Miss Dovie—who is rumored to be a witch and therefore avoided like Ebola—is found near death from a stroke and no one else is willing or able to serve as private nurse. To her credit, Julie volunteers for the duty—but is completely ungracious about it; she’s just called Linda a "blind idiot" for refusing to leave the mountains, when her next words are to ask for instructions for caring for Miss Dovie. "I’m willing but not eager," she says. The neighbors drop by with firewood and food, but absolutely will not "set foot in a witch’s house" who can’t die, "she’ll just get on her broomstick and fly off to join her master, the Devil Hisself!" according to the roughneck who drops off groceries that include a "mess of the fresh"—butchered hog, that is.
When a huge blizzard starts up the next night, it’s looking like Julie is going to be snowed in for some time, but then there’s a pounding on the door. It’s Kendall Stockwell, aka The Wayfaring Stranger, God help us, a well-known folk singer whom Julie apparently saw perform in Atlanta last summer. He’s in the neighborhood looking for folk songs "that haven’t been sung to death by the others," he says, though Julie thinks it’s odd that he would just drop his very successful career to go wander the mountains in the middle of winter. His jeep is stuck in the road, so he’s got nowhere else to go, and Julie invites him in. The pair hangs out and chats for several days, and on a hike to the top of the mountain, Julie gets an anti-proposal when Ken tells her she "needn’t be frightened" because "I’m not going to ask you to marry me." Phew! Oh, wait, no; "his words had been a blow that struck straight at her heart. Not until this moment had she admitted even to herself that she was in love with him; but his words had torn away the gossamer cloud that had concealed this fact from her consciousness." If her sudden ardor wasn’t enough to make you ill, the florid prose should surely put things over the top.
The reason he can’t marry her is idiotic, of course: His business partner and best friend swindled him out of the money that should have been his, so he walked out on all his engagements and took to the hills, and now he has legal liabilities and no money to support a wife. He couldn’t possibly take his friend to court, he insists, because it would "prove to the whole world what a first-class fool and chump I am." Apparently it’s not the fact that he actually is one that’s the issue; it’s only if everyone else knows it, too.
Back at the cabin, the snow finally melts enough for the doctor to arrive to check on Miss Dovie and take the pair back to civilization. It occurs to Julie that she might want to say goodbye to the patient she’s cared for day and night for a week, but the doctor says, "She’s in a coma, Julie—she wouldn’t know," so she doesn’t bother—that’s our shallow Julie!—and heads back to Linda’s house, where she has her first encounter with a mirror in a week, much to her horror: "Lindy, if he fell in love with me when I look like this—then it’s just got o be love, hasn’t it?"
Everyone’s problems are neatly tied up in the end, of course, though there does seem to be a little epidemic of comas going around, and even Linda lands a fiancé, despite her tearful devotion to her husband, dead these three long years. It’s not a bad book overall, but there are the bones of a better one poking through that make it disappointing. The ending overflows with the usual Gaddis treacle about how blissfully happy everyone is when they are engaged, even throwing in the ubiquitous "I want whatever Ken wants," and it wouldn’t be a Gaddis book without a reference to spanking—though in this case it’s Linda threatening to paddle her sister, so that at least was a little twist. As it is, the story comes off flat, without a lot of sparkle, and it’s just perplexing that this pair falls for each other at all, let alone in two days, because neither of them seems all that interesting—although Julie at least is a feisty lass. So while I’ve read worse Gaddis books, I’ve certainly read better, and with such a promising setup, it seemed especially unfortunate that she was not able to pull off a better story in Mountain Nurse.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Mountain Nurse

By Arlene Hale, ©1966
Nurse Gwen Douglas loved the small mountain village where she worked alongside of her brother—the only doctor in this isolated community. The only shadow in her life was the empty cabin a hundred yards away—the cabin of Hap Benton, the man she loved. Hap was a restless soul, who wandered through the mountains, only to return to her and Three Rivers in the snowy winter months. But this winter, he was late in returning, and suddenly Gwen found a tall dark stranger showing up in his place …
“Come on, Baby, let’s get with it. We got some dancing and things to do.”
“If you don’t put your arms around me pretty soon, I’m going to have to act like a brazen woman.”
Gwen Douglas works with her brother Bob in Three Rivers, Colorado. She’s in love with the boy next door, Hap Benton, who is apparently a migrant worker, returning to town only after Thanksgiving and blowing back out again when the snow melts in the spring. Naturally, no one, including her brother, can figure out why she pines for the dope. As the book opens, the first flakes of November are starting to swirl from the clouds, so Gwen starts jumping at every slamming car door, thinking it’s her wayward beau come home. It’s not. Unfortunately, though, this leads to a fair amount of inner pining: “Hap! A carefree soul, if ever there was one. Would he ever settle down here in Three Rivers? Would he ever put a ring on her finger and make it official? She could only hope that her love and his need of her would eventually be strong enough to overrule his restless feet.” Uh, good luck with that, sister.
When that midnight pound on the door finally comes, it’s a stranger, Cole Fairfax, who tells Gwen that Hap has told him he can stay in his house. Cole is a moody, broody fella with a dark secret that makes him clamp down the minute anyone asks him about himself. But soon we are allowed inside Cole’s head, long enough to find out he’s been sued for every last one of the many dollars he once owned, and now he’s destitute and heartsick over some gal named Dolores; that part of the story unfolds slowly and gracefully, and makes Cole the most interesting character in the book. What is less of a surprise is that Cole is actually a doctor, and since he’s been dropping major hints in that regard all along (“You know quite a lot about blood poisoning, it seems,” Gwen tells him early on), the only person who will be shocked by the eventual revelation is Gwen herself.
Meanwhile, this nice young man from the Double S Ranch, Scott Stevens, starts putting the moves on Gwen, who reluctantly dates him despite her undying commitment to Hap. Then, the night Scott finally reveals he has long been in love with Gwen, there’s another midnight knock on the door, and this time it really is Hap! From the word go, he’s not a very likeable character: He’s an hour late for Thanksgiving dinner, he’s possessive and rude to Gwen, too joking to have a serious conversation with her about their relationship, and he immediately leaves town again to take a job at the ski resort, too far away to see Gwen more than once a week or so. For the first time, however, Gwen is starting to see the thorns on the rose, and Scott presses his suit, proposing to her on their second date, wooing her with the VNRN classic: “I think you could love me if you gave yourself a chance.” Well, all right, then! It works, though; now “when she thought of him there was a warm glow inside her.” Complicating matters is the big smooch Cole lays on her, saying, “I figured if I could respond to you, there was still hope for me.” The flatterer!
So now there’s just the matter of which of these eligible bachelors will win Gwen in the end, what Cole’s real story is, and whether everyone is going to survive the enormous blizzard that blows up, causing several medical emergencies that Bob and Gwen have to skid all over town to attend to. I was frankly a little surprised about which of the gentlemen triumphed in the end, so that was something, and the final paragraph was cuter than most. Overall this is a good story and well told, which makes me scratch my head a bit at the erratic and usually mediocre product churned out by Arlene Hale; this is the 12th nurse novel written by Arlene Hale that I’ve read, and only the fourth to garner a grade higher than a C. I can’t relegate her to the same category as Peggy Blocklinger (aka Jeanne Bowman), who is a reliably dreadful horror show. But given the fact that Hale churned out about 45 VNRNs, I do wish she’d concentrated on quality—since it is clear she can write a good story when she wants to—instead of quantity.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Nurse Kathryn

By Peggy O’More, ©1965
Psychiatric nurse Kathryn Kilburn could read most people like a book. An emotional problem in someone else was something she could heal. But when her fiancé constantly avoided marriage, she had to face the hidden truth about herself. And brilliant Dr. Lamont reached out to help her …
“She had come to Jensen to establish herself as a patient. She had complained of various physical ailments related to psychosomatic causes. Jensen had prescribed immediate marriage.”

When I read the back cover blurb, past experience made me shudder in horror. Peggy O’More, aka Jeanne Bowman, never met a crackpot pop psychology theory that she didn’t love or feel obliged to pound relentlessly into every other page. With this book all about a psychiatric nurse, I knew it was going to be a brutal slog, and indeed, it was. Indeed, it was. Starting strong out of the gate, Nurse Kathryn Kilburn declares that in her town, “practically everyone with some type of anxiety neurosis. Middle class fathers were anxiously trying to cross the boulevard to upper middle class. Upper middle class was anxiously fighting to maintain a strong toe-hold at their status level. Wives were seeking anxiously to aid and abet husbands and children of all ages caught in tensions.” Sigh.
Into this fray of mental anguish skulks psychiatrist Dr. John Lamont, who immediately begins to cure everyone in sight, including his first patient, a woman who weighs in at more than 200 pounds. He decides, with Kathryn’s sharp insights, that this woman really fears TB and believes that a huge BMI will protect her from germs. A little browse through a medical textbook, and she’s cured! As an added bonus, “he says my husband must love me dearly, or he’d never have put up with me as I’ve been,” warbles the blissful patient.
Despite her supernatural insights into everyone else’s personality defects, Kathryn cannot heal herself, though the clues come fast and furious: Her fiancé, Dr. Jack Benson, is a literal rock, demonstrating neither anger nor joy, but he does have “that particular quality she had to have in the man of her choice: a single-minded devotion.” Which is chiefly to his family, for whom no errand is too small to blow off a date with Kathryn without even calling to let her know. They would marry, except that Jack keeps getting passed over for promotion at the hospital and all his current income has to go to support his family, and his mother won’t hear of Kathryn working after Jack marries her. So three years later there’s nary a tinkle of a wedding bell to be heard.
Into the navel-gazing fray wade Kathryn’s parents: Her father, a small-town GP with a temperament much like Jack Benson’s, suffers a breakdown and is ordered to take a month-long vacation. Her mother, also her father’s nurse, brooks no shilly-shallying and has been cracking the whip over Dr. Kilburn for the past three decades, so she’s sent on a vacation, too, apart from her no doubt grateful husband. The obvious conclusion is hammered in: “For one illuminating and horrifying moment she saw herself and Jack transposed. She was her mother and Jack her father, and what she had sought from Jack and defined as undeviating devotion was to him deep resignation.” Got it?
Well, it’s still a bit murky, because even as “she realized now her attitude toward Jack had been wrong,” she’s nonetheless upset when Jack explodes at the chairman of the board of the hospital—who we suddenly learn is his Uncle Carl—saying that his uncle has been purposely withholding the top job from him so Jack will keep taking care of the family, and he quits. “Oh, but you can’t,” Kathryn wails; “this ‘new Jack,’ as Dr. Lamont called him, had a rakish devil-may-care attitude she abhorred. How could she marry such a man and have any feeling of security?”
Depressed over this change in Jack, Kathryn is lying on the chaise longue in her back yard when her take-charge roommate stops home long enough to tell Kathryn that she and Jack have just been married. She tells off Kathryn for allowing Jack to continue in the “dependable” life that subjected him to lifelong servitude to his family, for not supporting him when he refused to continue to be taken for granted at work and at home and quit his job, and for calmly congratulating her instead of attempting to strangle the new bride. Somehow, though, Kathryn’s flat affect is meant to indicate a breakthrough. She tells John, who has heard about the marriage and rushed over, that she is relieved that she is “no longer indebted to Jack for having been true to me, after his fashion, for so long.”
John, sensing an opening in the midst of this crisis, proposes. “ ‘Oh,’ she murmured, ‘so that’s what has been the matter with me.’ ” Meaning that she’s been in love with her boss and didn’t realize it, and now she’s magically cured. And somehow that “heartsick” look in John Lamont’s eyes, the one that everyone has commented on from the moment he walked through the clinic door, is gone, but apparently not for long: “The heartsickness would return. Because even has her father worried over his small town until it became a sickness, so did Dr. Lamont, with his wider experience in the world, worry over the sickness of nations.”
What the hell? Though the ending acts like Kathryn is now healed, there is absolutely no evidence of this whatsoever, and we’re also left with a less-than-flattering picture of Dr. Lamont’s mental health. Can two people who aid and abet each other’s delusions be happy together? Had the author intentionally made this the book’s central question, it would have made for a far more interesting story; as it is, I am unimpressed, irritated, and exasperated, feelings that O’More’s books usually engender in me. The fact that I continue to read them suggests I may be as nutty as psychiatric nurse Kathryn Kilburn.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Runaway Nurse

By Ethel Hamill
(pseud. Jean Francis Webb III), ©1955
Cover illustration by Rudy Nappi
For Nurse Jennifer Stowell, flight seemed the only solution. After the scandal involving her with the head of the Octagon Hospital, Jenny fled to the peaceful beaches of Hawaii, hoping to escape the gossip, the whispers and the pointing fingers. No one, it seemed, had believed her innocent. But on the smooth sands of Waikiki, handsome Dr. Brian Craig fell in love with Jenny. And Jenny, knowing all too well the damage that malicious gossip can do to the career of a promising young doctor, had to run again—this time from the arms of the man she loved.
“I don’t want to be a lady, Aunt Alma. I want to be an artist.”
“Doctors are just men. Ask the girl who owns one.”
“If you absolutely must, you may confess later on that what really sends you is not my ardent kisses but assisting at a long session of episkeletal surgery.”
“Sit here and contemplate the rewards of sin. I’ll case the joint.”
There are a few VNRN authors who give me a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and Jean Francis Webb III is one of them. Snappy writing, excellent plotting, great characters—Webb is a master, and I am grateful he chose to bestow a few gems to the VNRN genre.
When we first meet Jennifer Stowell, she has more than a little back story: She’s coming home to New York after running off to Hawaii for an extended vacation, escaping a scandal at home that had placed her in the arms of a prominent surgeon in his apartment after midnight, which had been captured on film by newspaper reporters and the doctor’s wife. While on that vacation, she had gotten chummy with Dr. Brian Craig—so chummy that the doctor had actually proposed marriage. But since she had told him nothing of her career or her shame, she’d felt obliged to leave him an insulting note and flee the islands, because being associated with her would have ruined his career, too.
But darned the guy, he follows her home and insists that she loves him and must marry him. She alternates between clinging tightly to him one minute and then to her belief that his association with her would ruin him, and does her best to fight him off with one lie after another, including the story that she actually was involved with Dr. Phil Grocer, and that they are planning on getting married when the dust has settled on his divorce.
You know that eventually the truth will out, as does the real story of how and why it was that Jennifer was lured to Dr. Grocer’s apartment, which not even Jennifer knows. In the intervening pages, Jennifer’s incessant insistence that she cannot marry Brian—as well as Brian’s almost-stalkerlike determination that she must—would be far more than the slight annoyance they are in the hands of the masterful Webb. The mystery, once revealed, is not simplistic or stupid, as some secrets are (see Nurse of the North Woods), but it’s not so complicated as to be unintelligible. In the meantime, the writing is smart (“This isn’t a place for tender confidences”) and even, dare I say, poetic (“A construction crew alongside the tracks were stripped to underwear above their belts, and their beef and muscle had begun to turn golden in prophecy of summer’s mahogany stain”). The characters are vivid and thoroughly enjoyable (well, Jennifer’s constant worrying does drag her down a bit), especially Brian, who has a tendency toward the bon mot, and the peripheral femme fatale character, the doctor’s publicist. The only thing that mars this story is not even the writer’s fault: Jennifer’s conviction that her disgrace will ruin Brian’s life just does not translate to modern times and so feels quite silly, especially since the book’s central problem hinges on it. Beyond that, however, this book is a delightful romp, and further cements Mr. Webb’s standing as one of the top five nurse novelists of all time.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 VNRN Awards

Its hour come round at last, this rough beast—the fifth annual Vintage Nurse Romance Novel Awards—is upon us once again. With a grand total of 271 reviews under my belt, I have cast my eye back over the 51 books by 37 different authors I read in 2014, and have pulled out those worthy of highest praise or lowest ignominy. The Best Authors category includes all the VNRNs reviewed for this blog, but only authors with more than one review are included; the One-Hit Wonders category is reserved for the best books by authors with only one review.

A+   Nurse into Woman, Marguerite Mooers Marshall
A    Nurse Lily and Mister X, Diane Frazer (pseud. Dorothy Fletcher)
A    Small Town Nurse, Emily Thorne (pseud. Jeanne Judson)
A   Doctor’s Wife, Maysie Greig
A-    Hospital Zone, Mary Stolz
A-   Cruise Ship Nurse, Dorothy Daniels
A-   The Doctor’s Wife, Peggy Dern (pseud. Peggy Gaddis)
A-    Calling Dr. Jane, Adeline McElfresh

D   Resort Nurse, Diana Douglas (pseud. Richard Wilkes-Hunter)
D+    Nurse against the Town, Jane Converse
D+    A Nurse to Marry, Patty Carr

1. “Put two girls and a can opener in the kitchen, and you have a feast.” –Peggy O’More, Disaster Nurse
  1. 2. “Hal Brent ordered: ‘Pucker, please.’ ” – Patty Carr, A Nurse to Marry
  2. 3. “I don’t want every man present to regard my girl as though she were a lollipop.” –Margaret Howe, The Girl in the White Cap
  3. 4. “Don’t worry your pretty bullet-singed head.” –Rose Dana (pseud. William Daniel Ross), Resort Nurse
  4. 5. “I’d marry you for your cooking even if you were an old hag.” –Patricia Libby, Hollywood Nurse
  5. 6. “Poppy—don’t fall in love with somebody famous before I get you down to the chili parlor tonight—okay?” –Suzanne Roberts, Celebrity Suite Nurse
7. “If I’m running a fever, baby, you’ve got only yourself to blame.” –Suzanne Roberts, Celebrity Suite Nurse
8. “There’s nothing better than a pizza in Japan.” –Dorothy Daniels, Cruise Ship Nurse
9. “Don’t kiss me again, not like that, not now—not when I’ve got to go back and do a skull series.” –Adeline McElfresh, Dr. Jane, Interne
10. “She put her cheek on one of the thin hands, the one without the needle.” –Teresa Holloway, Nurse Farley’s Decision

1. Jeanne Judson (3.9 average, 3 reviews)
1. Marguerite Mooers Marshall (3.9 average, 3 reviews)
3. Faith Baldwin (3.8 average, 4 reviews)
4. Maysie Greig (3.5 average, 2 reviews)
5. Ethel Hamill, pseud. Jean Francis Webb III (3.3 average, 4 reviews)
6. Elizabeth Hoy (3.3 average, 3 reviews)
7. Helen B. Castle, pseud. Frank Castle (3.3 average, 2 reviews)
7. Joyce Dingwell (3.3 average, 2 reviews)
9. Rose M. Banks, pseud. Alan Jackson (3.2 average, 4 reviews)
9. Patricia Libby (3.2 average, 3 reviews)

Best VNRNs by authors with one review
1.    “K”, by Mary Roberts Rinehart
2.    A Challenge for Nurse Melanie, by Isabel Moore
3.    Surgical Call, by Margaret Sangster
4.    Nurse Pro Tem, by Glenna Finley
5.    Walk out of Darkness, by Arlene Karson
6.    Woman Doctor, Alice Lent Covert
7.    Nurse Greer, by Joan Garrison
8.    Town Nurse—Country Nurse, by Marjorie Lewty
9.    Hospital Zone, by Mary Stolz