Sunday, April 17, 2016

Nurse Missing

By Elizabeth Kellier, ©1961
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti

When Anne Leatherington, a young R.N., accepted a private case at Craigash, an isolated ancient estate in the Scottish Highlands, she found herself confronted by one mystery after another. Suddenly, a torrent of questions overwhelmed her as she became a victim of her own curiosity. Why was her patient, the seemingly harmless, senile Mrs. McGray, terrified of her own stepson, Charles, the brooding owner of Craigash? And why was his past such a grim secret? But the darkest mystery of all was what had become of Anne’s predecessor, the previous nurse who had disappeared in curious circumstances. As Anne glimpsed the terrifying answers she would realize that the truth could destroy her and the man she had come to love.


Some novels are overly contrived, and this, I am sorry to report, is one of them. Anne Leatherington (speaking of contrived, how about that last name?) is a bit of a cipher as far as characters go, just sort of drifting along from one situation to another. Though she demonstrates an avid interest in interrogating everyone, she takes little actual initiative beyond that, right up until the end, when a frenzy of uncharacteristic action brings the whole mystery to a tidy close, only about 100 pages later than she should have.

Anne’s been hired to care for the elderly Mrs. McGray, who is a withered creature residing at a manor in the wilds of Scotland. En route to her new post, she’s thrust into mystery by the taxi driver, who tells Anne that the woman who previously held her position disappeared about two years ago, and hints that someone at Craigash manor “had something to do wi’ it.” Our strong, intrepid heroine is immediately overcome by the sensation that “some heavy, unseen door over at Craigash swung back reluctantly and waited for me to enter a fear-infested room that I might otherwise have escaped. Then, however, I was unaware of Fate’s stealthy hand shifting the course of my life, except perhaps as an icy finger pressed swiftly against my cheek, leaving me with a sense of uneasy anticipation and a tremor of fear which swept down my spine like a flame.” This, dear readers, is what we call over-reaction.

When Anne arrives at the manor, Martha Perryman the housekeeper perfectly channels Mrs. Danvers of Rebecca, displaying a cold and solicitous manner, severe bun, thin mouth, cold gray eyes, and monosyllabic sentences. She’s ridiculously devoted to Charles McGray, the owner of the manor, who is 30, arrogant, and rude to Anne at their first meeting. He’s involved with Stella Cunningham, a beautiful young woman with a fondness for horses and a well-shaped headbut we know thats not going to last!

We find out the missing nurse was a friendless orphan named Gerda with a difficult German last name, but the more we learn, the more mysteries bloom: If Gerda had left the manor that cold and stormy Friday night, how did she get away from the remote spot? If someone drove her, who was it? Why did she not come for her last paycheck? Whats so difficult about the name Schwarzenberg? And then the housemaid reveals that Gerda was going to have a baby … and a photo of the missing nurse is found in Mrs. McGray’s drawer … and it’s exactly like a half-finished painting that Anne came across in an unused  room down the hall … and Mrs. McGray seems so frightened of her stepson that she tries to jump out her bedroom window one evening just to get away from him …

Suddenly, in the books greatest mystery, it is revealed that Anne is in love with Charles; since he has been nothing but cold, remote, and all but nonexistent in her life to date, the reason why is completely unfathomable. And shortly after that, we learn that “he was a man like the country which had nurtured and surrounded him, strong, stark, yet with sudden unexpected touches of sensitive gentleness that could catch at a woman’s heart”—touches that have not at all been evident to us. Though he does smile at Anne once; I guess that’s what she meant. Soon he’s kissing her, but through a very oblique slip so mild that only the leading actors in a VNRN would pick up on it, she reveals that she knows that he painted the missing nurse’s portrait, and now he avoids her altogether, because this is clearly dangerous and offensive information.

To fill the hours Anne goes out with local playboy Paul Harrison, who is cash-strapped and makes no bones about it. In her usual ham-handed way, Anne attempts to pump Paul for information and ends up revealing more than she learns, that she thinks Charles murdered the nurse because she was pregnant with his child. A gleam springs to Paul’s eye and he begins to speak of blackmailand soon he’s paid off his car, which he had been on the brink of losing to the repo man!

Her career as an interrogator in shambles, Anne turns detective. She departs from Craigash on the convenient excuse that her patient has died, and heads for the nursing agency, obtaining the address they had on file for nurse Gerda. The folks at that address, it turns out, had bought the house from a Miss Schwarzenberg—but the sale occurred after Gerda had left Craigash! So Anne heads for the realtor’s office and begs for a copy of the bill of sale, which has another address for Miss Schwarzenberg. This clue is too much for our delicate Anne, and she instantly faints dead away. As soon as she recovers, however, she sets off for this new address, where she is led to Miss Schwarzenberg’s room and finds the alleged murder victim in a dressing gown reading magazines!!!

Their conversation is held off-stage, but the next scene opens with Gerda and Anne heading back to Craigash for a happy reunion between all the relevant parties. Well, maybe not so happy for some, as the guilty party snaps, “You’re more successful at amateur sleuthing than keeping your patients alive, Nurse Leatherington!” It’s a valid point. A lot of tidying up has to be done between quite a few of the characters, so as to straighten out all the loose ends and red herrings, but eventually it’s done, and all that’s left is for Anne’s man to claim her and we can close the book.

At 190 pages, this story is much too long. The slooooow revelation of the various clues in the first half makes for fairly dull reading, as the author tries to build a suspense about an issue that its really difficult to care about. There’s little life to the characters or the writing, almost no humor to speak of, no camp, and nothing, even with this many pages, to pin up under the Best Quotes section. Too many of Anne’s musing (but not amusing) questions pepper the story: “Was the gossip true?” “What about that portrait, anyway?” “How long would she go on?” “Had Charles ever loved any woman properly?” “Had Paul’s nonchalant remarks touched a spring that had unlocked the hidden door of truth or was I simply being rash and imaginative?” By the time I finished this book, I never wanted to see another question mark again. If it had been shorter and a little less forced, and endowed with a heroine with a bit more spine and a love interest who had at least some minor charm about him, it might have been a relatively pleasant book. But that’s a long list of ifs, so perhaps it would be best if we just acknowledge that this book doesn’t have much to recommend it.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Nurse on Location

By Virginia Roberts, ©1958

When Five Star Pictures decided to shoot Island Intrigue on location on a beautiful Pacific island, Nurse Pat Taylor was put in charge of the health of the glamorous stars. To young Pat, this was a dream come true. But barely had Pat set up her tiny hospital when she met a strange young American doctor, John Stewart, mysteriously hiding himself in this remote tropic outpost, and found that by giving succor to a dying native girl, she had broken an implacable tribal law and aroused the primitive anger of the native chieftain. Here is an adventure which might happen to any nurse if she was nurse on location.


“Who but a movie star could walk right up and ask a man for a date? Here she was reluctant even to phone Catherine’s friend, Dr. John Stewart. It did seem aggressive.”

“A fascinating woman. Beautiful. Mysterious. Everything that intrigues a man.”

“Suddenly she thought of the scene at Los Angeles Airport, just before the plane left. He had clutched his wife and two children as though he thought he was never going to see them again. He must have some sort of complex.”

“What a real, down-to-earth attitude movie people have.”

“Young women. What a batch of champagne bubbles you all are.”

“Most people think that an anesthetist is some jerk who flips a vacuum over your nose and yells to breathe deep.”

“Later that afternoon, when Pat returned to the hut, she found Vivienne weeping with as much fervor as though she were being paid $5,000 a week to emote.”

“You’ve got to stop worrying about other people, and start relaxing. If you don’t, you’re apt to swell up like a blimp.”

“His specialty is mental disturbances. He might take one look at you and pop you into a sanitarium.”

“Haven’t you learned yet a girl has to flirt a little if she wants to catch a man?”

“If it’s a career you’re after, always remember it’s never more important than a woman’s appearance.”

“It’s never good technique to keep a man waiting—too long.”

“Advice is cheap when you’re giving it out.”

Pat Taylor has completed her nurse’s training and is about to embark on her graduate studies at Johns Hopkins to become a nurse anesthetist, but she has a few months to kill before school starts in the fall. Through the intervention of a former preceptor, she has scored a dream job: traveling to Fiji for the summer with a film crew that is making a major motion picture. She’s been asked to drop in on the preceptor’s old friend, John Stewart, who is a doctor doing some unspecified research into “mental diseases among people far away from civilization.” Needless to say, Pat is instantly smitten with Dr. Stewart: Though their telephone conversation is purely small talk and lasts less than a page, it results in his politely asking her to dinner, and after hanging up, she thinks, “I shall look forward to tonight more than any other night I can remember.” Though their date confirms Pat’s opinion of him as “the most fascinating man I’ll ever meet,” his career is put forth as something of a mystery: Though her friend has told her what he is studying, he doesn’t really talk about it (but she doesn’t ask, either), and she starts jumping to all sorts of wild conclusions: “Who are you? What are you? Why are you? Was he running away from something?”

As it is soon revealed, this propensity for wild flights of imagination is one of Pat’s major characteristics. Shortly after she moves into her clinic, a local boy carries in a very sick young native woman, who dies hours later of perforated appendicitis. Pat overhears the crew discussing how “those dumb natives are trying to put the blame for that girl’s death on poor Pat. … No telling what they’ll do.” From then on, the poor Fijians, previously described as warm, welcoming, and civilized, are viewed by Pat with increasing hysteria: They’re ferocious, angry, “mean and secretive and suspicious”—words that really could be used to describe Pat’s own attitude. Again and again, she’s freaking out because some local person happens to be behind her or is looking at her when she walks down the street. On virtually every other page there’s some nasty thought of hers about how when they speak to each other in their native tongue they are saying something “ugly and obscene” and how at any moment “the natives might strike.” If they ever did, I’d be inclined to jump in and help.
She voices her paranoid opinions to John Stewart, who manages to stay seated for the remainder of their date. Later, he tells her he loves her—but that he has no right to woo her. Pat’s delusions immediately take flight again: “Was he engaged? Married? What was it that suddenly caused a mountain to spring up between them? Why should he choose to remove her, at the flick of an eyelash, from his life?” Someone has been seriously skipping their meds. Eventually her time in the Pacific winds to a close, and there’s nothing but a luau between her and the plane ride home when she is asked to tend to another native child, this one a mere toddler, with an infected foot wound. She angrily agrees to see the child, and we are told that “here again was a mercy call she could not refuse and be true to her profession”—though it’s hard to see how Pat’s overwhelming fear and brusque treatment of the patient and his family could be called mercy.

Two days later, John Stewart shows up, for the first time since he told Pat he loved her but couldn’t see her any more, to let her know that the child had an allergic reaction to the antibiotics she had given him and had almost died. He helpfully reveals that it had taken every bit of his skill to convince the local chief not to “take matters into his own hands. Or did you know what those drums meant? The drums were for you, and it wasn’t a celebration in your honor.” Thanks, John. But now the natives love Pat, showering her with gifts and flowers when she's out and about, and we’re treated to a ghastly description of the natives as “a paradoxial people, teetering between savagery and civilization,” again, a description better suited for Pat herself. All that’s left is for Pat to be anointed princess of the island at the luau—the villagers all drop to their knees and shout, “Long live the white princess!” as, wearing a crown made of ferns and flowers, she ascends a podium to her throne—and we are hard-pressed to retain our lunch.

But wait, there’s more! Guess who is the white king of the island? Guess who relents and asks Pat to marry him? Guess who tells her, “You can forget about being a stuffy anesthetist. I’m the one who needs you”? Guess who instantly chucks her career aspirations and sighs, “No girl was a real woman until she possessed the love of the right man”? Guess who finally loses her struggle and throws up?
You’d think I’d learn by now that if there is ever anyone brown on the cover of one of these books, the interior is almost guaranteed to be filled with hateful racism. It’s really too bad, because if the prejudice had been edited from this book, it would have been quite pleasant: The writing is generally enjoyable, the author has a fine sense of humor, and the minor characters, anyway, are well-drawn and interesting. Unfortunately, the plot is thoroughly saturated with bigotry, not just against the Fijians but also, at the end, women as well. If you can manage to take an anthropologic view, examining the relics of a bygone era with a detached eye, you might get some enjoyment from this book, but the author just doesn’t make it easy.