Sunday, May 22, 2016

Queen’s Nurse

By Jane Arbor, 
Cover illustration by Jack Harman

“He has the power to get what he wants, and he is the type who could hate to lose to anyone else …” So, in a bitter moment of defeat, had Jess Mawney summed up a complete stranger with whom she had occasion to cross swords. Little did Jess know, as she went to take up her first ‘district’ as “Queen’s Nurse,” that she would be living on the stranger’s door-step. Neither would Jess have believed it possible that, one day, she  might hope that this stranger’s “power to get” would be directed towards herself. 


Queen’s nurse, it turns out, does not mean nurse to the Queen, but rather a district nurse. I was a little disappointed by that, hoping this might be some roaring bodice ripper of a nurse novel, but I have to say that was almost the only disappointment in store for me once I turned past the cover of Jane Arbor’s very neat little book. Jess Mawney, age 24, is leaving the city to practice amongst the country folk—but first she must attend the auction of her recently deceased father’s estate. He had instructed in his will that everything be sold and the proceeds given to Jess, which was mostly fine with her, except there is one piece of furniture she had wanted to keep and now is forced to bid, along with the public at large, for the right to own it.

Enter the uppity rich gentleman, who is stuck with a flat just outside the auction house. While he waits for his car to be fixed, he is regaled by the mechanic of the story of the new orphan with no resources other than the proceeds from this auction and her work as a nurse. So he grandly strolls in and instantly recognizes the 17th century Welsh dresser as the only item of quality, bidding relentlessly on it—far outstripping Jess’s meager pocketbook—until he has won. After the auction, she attempts to buy it from him, but apparently this is a shameless thing to do, and he rudely brushes her off.

Imagine their surprise when, ensconced in her new position weeks later, Jess calls on the housekeeper of local squire, who has twisted her ankle—and they meet again! Muir Forester is a Mr. Rochester type, alternating kind and cold, but he and Jess soon become friends. Even more so because an orphaned young woman, Liane Hart, is a lonely waif who has been taken in by him, and wants very much to be Jess’s friend. Liane’s dead father was a very good friend of Muir’s, and Liane believes that Muir intends to marry her, despite the fact that she is not in love with him and 15 years his junior. In fact, after the housekeeper’s son, Peter, arrives home from the war in Korea, Liane quickly tumbles for that young man instead. Jess, of course, has fallen in love with Muir, but is determined to keep it a secret, knowing of his deep love for Liane. Oh, what a tangled web we weave!

There are a few additional plot lines to keep us entertained: the local busybody who is determined to see Jess fail, the young woman who wants to be a veterinarian, Jess’s would-be suitor from the city who pops in now and again to roil the waters of true love, the explosion at the beet factory. But really it’s a fairly classic setup, with many obstacles in the way of our star-crossed lovers, and every fresh misunderstanding between them—which we clearly recognize as such—brings on a pained wince as we wonder how they are going to find their way out of this one. The only disappointment was the final scene, when the pair unwind all their errors of judgment and learn the truth, which was a bit anticlimactic in the telling. But no matter: Overall this was a very good story, with humor, a thoroughly admirable heroine, and good writing. If the love interest was a bit severe for my taste, the ending too bland, and the writing not campy enough to yield any nuggets for the Best Quotes section, these are minimal quibbles that I can easily forgive when the rest of the book is this enjoyable.

Alternative cover

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Duty Nurse

By Diana Douglas 
(pseud. Richard Wilkes-Hunter), ©1968
Cover illustration by David Blossom

The girl in room 17 was so young and lovely and had so little time left. How could the doctor deny her anything ...  even himself? The duty nurse was kind and wise beyond her years. Could she deny her tragic patient anything ... even the man she herself loved?


“She is a woman. That’s the first thing I noticed about her.”

“Probin is like all hospitals, it doesn’t believe in encouraging its interns by overpaying them.”

“The guy has his good points. He’s asked me twice for a date.”

“You had to use psychology if you wanted a date with a girl like Sandra.”
“A man needs the kind of incentive only a wife can give him.”

“Jim Macauley was very immature, even for an intern. And that was saying plenty.”

It is hard for me to believe that Richard Wilkes-Hunter actually penned this book. Only one solitary reference to a patient’s “firm young breasts” gave any indication that it just might be his work, after all. At book’s open, nurse Sandra Bethune is arriving at Probin Memorial Hospital in San Francisco for her new job. The cab in front of hers also sports a new addition to the medical staff: Dr. Peter Stewart: single, 26, and hot. And he likes the looks of Sandra, too: “When I marry it will be to a woman who looks like her, with a pale olive complexion and black hair that always looks freshly brushed, with a natural sheen of youth and health.” Frankly, I was looking for someone intelligent and kind when I married, but then, a good disposition may be highly overrated. In any case, Sandra is safe for a bit, as Dr. Stewart has planned to wait another two years “before he could afford to marry a girl, in the way he wanted.” These young doctors always talk about getting married like it’s picking up a loaf of bread at the supermarket. But we know how those plans are going to turn out, don’t we?

The two are thrown together right away when they are both caring for a new patient, Ava Sindell, who is 22 and admitted for anemia. We’re just waiting for her to give a cough to indicate that it’s a fatal illness, but Dr. Stewart’s thorough physical exam turns up an enlarged spleen, bleeding gums, and swollen lymph nodes, which will work even better. It’s too bad, because she’s so pretty, and legitimately quick-witted, smart, and sweet—for once a character’s actual behavior coincides with how other people describe her—but she’s got leukemia, which was fatal in those days. Unfortunately, the doctors and Ava’s family conspire not to tell her about it, so as not to destroy her hope or ruin her last month of life. I’m sure she won’t wonder why she needs all the steroids and blood transfusions, or why she keeps passing out.

Early on, Peter toys with the idea of asking Sandra out, but by the time he gets around to it, she’s accepted a date with someone else. Now Peter is certain that he’s lost his chance with her, even though she doesn’t really like this other man, and drops him after he becomes petulant and demanding. “That was the trouble with men, she thought. You went out with one a couple of times and soon he became over-possessive and thought he owned you.” For his part, Peter starts going out with Ava—at first, just to keep an eye on her after she’s been discharged so as to keep her from overdoing it and blowing her remission—but he quickly comes to care for her, and she easily reciprocates the feeling. And Sandra is left thinking that she’s lost Peter, all the while feeling rather conflicted about it, realizing this is her young patient’s only chance for love (cue the violins).

It’s clear from the beginning how this story is going to play out, but it’s told honestly and (I dare to say it) tenderly. Sandra is a strong, clear-eyed, intelligent woman, unlike any I’ve ever met in a Wilkes-Hunter novel, who firmly tells her would-be beau, as he rather nastily pressures her to marry him on their third date (being married to her would help him relax, he says), “It took me years of study and hard work to become a registered nurse and I wouldn’t give that up lightly.” Ava, too, is not so dumb that she doesn’t understand what’s really going on, and even Peter is a nice guy. There’s a bit of humor here, some unintentional (Sandra’s roommate is named Nancy Drew), and the writing is perfectly sound. Again, it is really hard to believe that this book could have been written by the same man who brought us the D-rated Resort Nurse, not to mention his seven other books of varying shades of C, because I have never seen even a hint of sensitivity or feeling in any of the other books written by him that I have read. But fluke or ghost-written, this is a lovely book.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Holiday for a Nurse

By Joanne Holden, ©1965
Cover illustration by Mort Engel

Valerie Wyndham, R.N., was looking forward to a few weeks of relaxation at a mountain cottage. But Valerie was far too pretty to escape attention, and too much a dedicated nurse to deny a request for help. That was how she found herself involved with the darkly handsome Adam Balin, owner of the famous Balin estate. But the charming young doctor, Ted Meredith, hated Adam and wanted Val to himself. And there was someone else—someone who had made it clear that Valerie was unwanted, and would stop at nothing to get her out of the way …


“I think it is my duty to reprove you—or maybe kiss you.”

Nurse Valerie Wyndham is headed for the Berkshires in Massachusetts for vacation, to stay in the lakeside cottage of a fellow nurse. Her arrival, however, is anything but relaxing—she finds a surly, apple-eating teenager ensconced in the place, so arrogant that she doesn’t even bother to split the scene when Val shows up and reprimands her for the damage the youth has inflicted on the owner’s treasured collection of salt and pepper shakers. Val quickly identifies the girl as Peggy Balin and pops into the old Balin estate to have a word with Peggy’s older brother, Adam, who is her guardian, as their parents are deceased. There she finds him, tall, dark, arrogant, unpleasant, and baleful, not excessively willing to take his sister to task for her crimes, and Peggy stomps out after tossing what is apparently meant as a cutting blow, a comment about how limited the Balin family vocabulary seems to be. Shows them!

In what is de rigueur  in VNRNs, the vacationing nurse stops in to say hello to the local GP, Dr. Meredith, who talks about his dream to create a medical center so cushy and resort-like that busy executives wouldn’t mind coming for medical treatment, checking in with their wives for a few days of R&R and prostate exams. Also de rigueur, the next night Val is out on a date with his son, Ted. After he drops her off, she finds an intruder in the kitchen—this one an ugly hobo who makes to attack her, when Ted hears her scream and reappears in time to save her. It’s a gratuitous blip in the story that ends there. I’m not sure what attempted sexual assault was meant to demonstrate in these stories—titillation? setting up the boyfriend as a hero?—but in any event, the offhanded treatment of such a grave issue is more than a little annoying, if not disconcerting.

The next morning, Adam Balin calls to apologize for his rudeness and to invite her over to tour his historic house. While there, Christabel Wheeler, a female acquaintance of Adam’s, drops by, and she’s a beautiful, rich, insulting snob. Val responds by stomping off again, furious at Adam, of all people, feeling that “he had no right to expose her to a situation where she was at a definite disadvantaage as a stranger.” Since Chris had shown up uninvited, and Adam had in fact been angry at Chris for her comments, it’s unclear exactly what he should have done, but try telling Nurse Val that.

Two days later, Val returns from an outing to the village to find the house vandalized again, and an apple core in the sink. But she decides against going to the police because nothing had been broken, and “all she would accomplish would be to put herself on record as a fault-finding, ill-natured termagant.” She decides to go talk to Adam, as she’s now decided that “Peggy needed help, not censure.” The pair hits on the glorious plan of putting Peggy in charge of a bus full of old women coming to tour the Balin house. Needless to say, on the day of the tour, Peggy is nowhere to be found, justifiably dubious about spending the day with Mrs. Regina Abernathy and the Woman’s Culture Club. Not to be thwarted, Adam and Val next plan to drag poor Peggy on a hike, but Peggy skips out on that adventure, too, and Chris shows up in her stead. The outing is a complete fiasco, with Chris spraining her ankle and leaning heavily on Adam the whole way back. Val becomes increasingly irrational, deciding, “that was the type of person he wanted to marry,” though Adam has shown nothing but irritation with Chris the whole day.

For the next crisis, Val is out driving one evening when she comes to a bridge and finds a crowd: Peggy Balin is out on the other side of the railing, and a crowd below is urging her to go for it. So Val shimmies up the girders and psychologizes the poor kid into climbing down. Afterward, as Adam tries to talk to Val about how to manage Peggy, Val goes psychotic and starts fuming about how he should ask Chris Wheeler for her opinion. Adam is rightly confused: “Who says I was going to marry her?” he asks. “No one,” Val is forced to admit. Adam surprisingly agrees to see Val the next day, the last of her vacation, to talk about Peggy. Val cries herself to sleep: “Not a word to show that he cared whether Val Wyndham went or stayed. He had made it plain he didn’t care.” So she pulls the classic seventh-grade mind game and “forgets” that she’s agreed to meet Adam, instead driving out of town with Ted, who’d proposed marriage a few days earlier. She has not yet given him an answer, but refuses him as they are starting their date, and then kisses him later on. I have to say I am not very fond of Valerie Wyndham.

Adam tracks her down that night, as she’s arriving home, and the two discuss sending Peggy away on a cruise ship school, giving Adam’s house to old Dr. Meredith for his wacky health resort idea, and—finally—getting married. Accustomed to nutty women, living with his sister and friends with Chris Wheeler since childhood, Adam is rounding out the trio with Val, the poor man. Though the character of Ted Meredith injects some humor into the book, overall this story is stupid and maddening, and the heroine, as I have previously mentioned, is a dopey nut job. This book may be a holiday for a nurse, but it won’t be one for you if you bother to read it.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Nurse of Polka Dot Island

By Jeanne Bowman, ©1966

After Nurse Agnes met Jim Mahoney, the tiny island where she worked became enchanted. The big Irish detective was tracing down a dangerous criminal, but he still had time to fall in love. However, Agnes was troubled. Their romance would go out with the tide if she concealed evidence from the headstrong young deputy. And her patient would die if he learned his own son was a suspect.


“Oh, why couldn’t he be just an ordinary deputy sheriff, out risking his life on murders and riots?”

“So much for girls who ran after men. Unless they had a legitimate reason for calling, they got further ahead by waiting.”

“If she could only somehow psychologize Jim into letting her help.”

“He’s in the cafĂ© with that cute little number he’s been shining up to.”

“What man could stand having a woman, not even in his profession, win out over him?”

Regular readers may recall that I have no fondness for Jeanne Bowman, who in my view is more unpleasant than a heaping plate of Brussels sprouts. This book is not her worst, but her trademark pedantic pop psychology is well-represented in these pages, so it’s still not worth the trouble. But since I did in fact brave the storm, here is my report from the front:

Nurse Agnes (yes, Agnes) Leahy is a nurse who owns a small house somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. The geography is a bit confusing, and I never quite figured out if she actually lives on Polka Dot Island or somewhere else. But she is working there, caring for a Mr. Mason who has no first name and is recovering from a major car accident that killed his wife. As the book opens, Agnes and Mr. Mason’s son Ted, age 19, are plotting how to keep away the well-wishing hordes who will descend on the patient and wear him out. They settle on—and actually install—an electrified cattle guard at the end of the driveway to zap any friends who might come visiting, and I am not kidding.

Someone on the island is running around setting fires, and suspicion quickly settles on young Ted, who always seems to be near at hand when the blazes start—in fact, at one point he burns his arms attempting to put out the blaze, or so he says. His father alludes to the new return of a problem Ted had when he was younger; Agnes fears that it’s playing with matches, but somehow just cannot bring herself, through 80 pages, to ask Mr. Mason exactly what he’s referring to. As she is nursing the chief suspect’s father, Agnes soon meets Detective Jim Mahoney, who is borderline pathological about pyromaniacs, stemming from the fact that his family farm was burned by one when he was an impressionable lad, and the ensuing financial ruin is thought to have brought on his father’s fatal heart attack. This gives Agnes and Jim plenty of opportunity to spout platitudes about criminals and victims, such as, “With fire, no insurance can cover the loss of a man’s faith in himself and his ability to care for his family. Not if it is set by a pyro.” And these beauties sprout like dandelions on virtually every page.

Dating a detective who chases pyromaniacs can be tricky, however; Agnes at one point has to throw out the flowers she’d set on the table and change her dress because both are orange, “a tone of flame. She wanted nothing to remind him of his work.” Not that it matters; it’s all he talks of. We therefore spend a lot of time discussing the motivations and psychoses and behaviors of pyromaniacs; I am sorry to report they are not very interesting.

The pyro continues to light blazes unchecked, despite all of Jim’s obsessive police work, and eventually Jim asks Agnes to give up her job caring for Mr. Mason because the island’s too dangerous. She declines, and Jim gets angry: “You’d rather I worried myself into a frazzle than let some other nurse tie up that case,” he says, and Agnes, getting ridiculously ahead of herself, despairs that their yet-to-occur marriage will end in divorce: “This disagreement meant there was some profound difference between them; one that could swiftly wreck their marriage unless one or the other was willing to give up his integrity.” It’s a very long reach, but this sort of psychobabbling leap is not uncommon for Bowman. So to save their possibly forthcoming marriage, Agnes sets out to figure out who the pyro actually is, since the detective with the might of the police force and years of experience backing him can’t seem to manage it. But if Jim can’t even handle her working on the island, I can’t believe that Agnes’s success in tracking down the criminal would do anything but utterly doom their relationship.  

In the end, though, the days we spend following her around on her mystery-shrouded sleuthing vacation come to naught when her own house is targeted—and we saw this coming since about page 3—and she finds the perpetrator dancing with glee in the bushes, just seconds before Jim appears on the scene to do the same. The inconvenient fact that she figured out who the guilty party was well before he did is conveniently swept under the rug, and all that’s left for her to do is get married, which she does with nauseating drama on the last page.

Jeanne Bowman was, unfortunately for us, a prolific writer. Nurse on Polka Dot Island is not her most egregious offense, but now that it’s done, there’s one less for us to wade through.