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.

No comments:

Post a Comment