Monday, October 31, 2016

My Love an Altar

By Joan Sargent
(pseud. Sara Jenkins Cunningham), ©1963

To Roxanne Collier, Dr. Vance Collier had become a shadow-husband keeping up the façade of an empty marriage, so when Dr. Fritz Bascomb showed her that she was still a beautiful, desirable woman, she was grateful and flattered. Then tragedy struck in the form of an epidemic that threatened the lives of the town’s children. It was a time for some quick and deep soul-searching, for Vance and Roxanne faced not only the break-up of their marriage but the loss of their child.


“What’s he doing to Pomeroy that the rest of us wouldn’t if we got the chance?”

“He’s going to get better. He assures me that he won’t stay in such a place as this and that he hates me. You can’t down a man like that.”

“Miss Skipper, completely won over, was quite willing to try anything that went with that smile.”

“How do you like being an incurable disease, Beautiful?”

I’ve been on a roll lately, finding myself in some of the more interesting VNRNs I’ve met to date. My Love an Altar continues in this vein: The main characters are a decade older than most, are already married (even if only to each other), and are attracted to other people. Roxanne Collier is the perfect doctor’s wife, beautiful, stylish, a brilliant hostess—and she hates every minute of it. On the inside she is insecure, lonely, and contemplating a major change in life. Her husband, chief of staff Vince Collier, admittedly married young Roxanne for her money, and has built a successful career as the head of a major sanatorium for tuberculosis treatment. He’s not happy, either, however, because he is overwhelmingly guilt-ridden, feeling he has been handed everything on a silver platter belonging to his father-in-law, who has funded Vince’s education and the hospital itself.

Then, at a dinner party during which Roxanne is suffering a major migraine, she is seated next to psychiatrist Fritz Bascomb, who recognizes Roxanne’s ailment as springing from the deep-seated dissatisfaction in her life. He rescues her from the party, takes her home, gives her medication, and days later is taking her out for pie at the truck stop on the edge of town. He’s an incorrigible flirt and knows how to use his powers, and soon his attentions perk up the wilting Roxanne, giving her a confidence she had lacked when she felt overlooked and unappreciated. She secretly begins taking classes at the local university and plots a trip to Reno when the couple’s daughter, Susan, goes off to college next year.

Vance, meanwhile, has an office nurse, Mary Pendleton, who has long been in love with the doctor and with whom he shares a not entirely professional relationship. Nothing untoward happens, of course, but his demeanor toward her is more possessive and involved than it should be. After several years of this, Mary has decided she needs to put an end to the chaste affair and submits her resignation. Vance has a better idea, however, and offers her a post working for the new doctor in town, Tom Hazard. Soon Mary is looking at Tom with the same adoring eyes she once cast on Vance, and for some inexplicable reason Vance despises young Tom and his new-fangled ways of treating tuberculosis.

The climax of the book comes when Vance’s daughter—along with a good number of other children in town—becomes desperately ill with a tuberculosis-like disease that no one can diagnose, and it’s all hands on deck to save her life. The ending is exactly what you know it will be—even the mystery epidemic is foretold in the book’s opening chapter (and this is by no means a spoiler). We couldn’t actually have a VNRN solve its romantic dilemmas with divorce, but this book is unique in that it gives us characters who are preparing to take that ignoble route. The writing is quietly more than competent and honestly sincere, and I must confess I even shed a tear at one point. Though it lacks the camp I hope for in a VNRN, we do, however, have some sass in the Collier’s daughter, Susan, who is full of quips like, “I know the book says an adolescent gets a crush on a man much older, but don’t worry about me and Dr. Bascomb. I’m thinking of having my crush on Mr. Bates, who teaches physics at school. He’s more my type. Sort of plain and helpless.” If its ending is not as revolutionary as it hints it could be, this book has a lot more to offer than most of the herd. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

School Nurse

By Arlene Hale, ©1960

The terrible secret she harbored seemed far, far away to Glenda Lloyd, R.N., now that she was school nurse at Brentwood Academy for Girls. But the Academy soon began to present problems of its own, not the least of which was the handsome art teacher, Elliott Hunter, and the strong, silent Paul Fields. When Glenda found herself caught in the middle of school politics, her secrets suddenly were used as weapons for her affections and her loyalty.


“ ‘These crazy girls! What makes females so emotional?’
“Glenda laughed. ‘So that you strong males can protect us, of course!’ ”

Glenda Lloyd, R.N., has left her home and position in Pittsburgh and applied for a post in a Midwestern boarding school for girls, Brentwood Academy. Fortunately for her, she is hired on the spot, or she would have had to roam the countryside forever, because, you see, she is running away from a terrible past. What that is we do not know, but we are aware of her tortured soul by such sentences as, “Had he, perhaps, learned about— No, it wasn’t likely.” So we won’t learn about that terrible day in January, or the big empty house with the closed door, or Sara or Dr. Ted Hartford, until page 112, by which time the purported suspense will drop you about two inches and you will not at all care to learn the details of what you had suspected all along: that nurse Glenda had been accused of some terrible professional blunder that turns out to have been no crime at all, and at book’s end 16 pages later her guilt is completely resolved.

In the interim, however, Glenda makes friends with several students, curing them both body and soul, particularly Jeanie Fields, who is in a wheelchair after a car accident. She becomes so close to Jeanie that she begins dating Jeanie’s brother Paul, a quiet, hard-working man, who keeps house, cooks, and does the dishes, on top of caring for Jeanie, since the pair are orphans. Paul soon falls in love with Glenda, but she’s not sure, because when he touches her “there were no butterflies flitting about, no lightheadedness, no sudden need for air.” This is another literary saw that author Arlene Hale is fond of: The ordinary good guy would be a better husband than the hunky guy who makes your pulse race but who ultimately turns out to be shiftless and undependable. I, for one, don’t buy it.

The part of the hunky heartthrob in this case is played by Elliott Hunter, who is fond of smooching Glenda but “wouldn’t be caught dead doing anything more than making coffee. He had an idea it would make him a sissy.” Savvy readers know that this is a clue that Glenda should run! Except in the next paragraph he’s starting a fire and turning down the lights, so, all right, maybe we can stay a little bit longer.

Elliott is fond of making derogatory remarks about the school, the students, the headmaster, you name it, and soon we learn that he is conspiring with the sexy English teacher Sheila Conway to oust the headmaster and take over the place. Glenda learns of the plot, but for some mysterious reason feels she cannot divulge it to anyone because Elliott asked her not to, even though she thinks he is a dirty louse to betray poor Mr. Patterson like that. Her conflict is rendered all the more paradoxical—to us, certainly not to the one-dimensional Glenda—because it is clear that the headmaster is doing a bad job running the school; as just one example, there’s no money for an extra nurse when the flu epidemic breaks out and Glenda is forced to stay up all night for days on end to care for all the ailing girls. All Glenda can think about is that it would positively kill old Mr. P. to be relieved of his job—but then, we are puzzled by her lack of concern for the fact that it might well kill him to keep it, as he has a bad heart that is going to fell him at literally any moment. In the end, Glenda circumvents her peculiar oath to silence by leaving her diary on her desk and asking Mr. Patterson’s devoted secretary to watch the office for 15 minutes, and when it is revealed that the secretary has perused the telltale volume, Glenda is shocked! Because she had not intended for that to happen at all! I think we are supposed to like her better for her total obeisance to her strange honor, but I would have liked her better if she had done it on purpose.

The book wraps up exactly as you think it will, and after Glenda’s final confrontation with Elliott, she finds that when she kisses him (OK, you’re wondering why she did at all) it’s still exploding rockets and firecrackers, but she pulls away, thinking, “This sort of excitement wouldn’t last. It had a way of dying out.” And then, when she next kisses Paul, guess what?!? “For the barest moment, the sky tipped crazily.” Zowie! Maybe the steady, dull guy can be exciting after all!

The writing isn’t terrible, and there aren’t too many loose ends (what is the story about little Betsy sneaking out late at night? Why does Elliott hate the school janitor so much?), so it’s not the most infuriating VNRN I’ve read. But in School Nurse Arlene Hale has done it again, and what I mean by that is that she has turned out another completely perfunctory, ordinary book without the least bit of interest. It’s not a bad book, mind you, but it is completely pedestrian in every way, one you will soon forget and be none the worse for it.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Woman Doctor

By Peter Baldwin, ©1963
Cover illustration by Tom Miller

Louise—fourth-year medical student at New York’s Central General Hospital—serious, dedicated, most brilliant woman in her class, with a great future in medicine and an unswerving devotion to it—
Elsie—a classic “dumb blonde,” a vapid playgirl with an astonishing talent in bed, living for good times—
Worlds apart—except that both were the same woman!


“Do I detect an acquisitive female gleam in your eye in connection with this paragon of all manly virtues?”

 “She still could not administer hypodermic infections of any sort with the casual indifference of her male colleagues. Her hands were as expert as theirs, but her native femininity was offended on each occasion. Then she came to realize that her instinctive reaction of fear and revulsion was probably deeply Freudian in its origin. As a woman she must find it unnatural and somehow horrible to be thrusting anything into another person. Hers should be the passively accepting role. Not the aggressively penetrating role.”

It’s a curious coincidence that I read this book immediately after Doctor by Day: Though Woman Doctor is a real nurse novel, being the story of medical student Louise Standish and how she manages her romantic and career adventures, its sex scenes make it a close cousin to that other lovely but more-sensual-than-your-average-VNRN masterpiece.

I don’t believe any of the nurse heroines I have encountered to date have enjoyed a sex life outside of marriage, so Louise is exceptional in that she has had not one but two boyfriends! Unfortunately, that along with the marginally lurid cover illustration and the frankly lurid back cover blurb make me think this is supposed to be a smut book. Oh, and there’s also a pair of lesbian lovers, so that may cinch the deal. But the sex in this book is oh-so-far from today’s contemporary romance novel, so the label feels less than adequate. Let’s call it a cross between smut and VNRN—and actually a smidge more the latter than the former—and get on with our review.

Poor Louise has some pretty spectacular sexism to contend with as a woman medical student. Of course, she’s internalized quite a bit of it, too, and when she hooks up with her first boyfriend, “gloried in being his prized possession, almost his slave. She eagerly accepted him as her master … This was a basic part of her femininity, she felt, and she strove to fulfill her duties and serve him.” She spends a lot of time trying to reconcile her two callings: one, the brilliant doctor she is clearly on the path to becoming, and the other, a subservient wife and mother. “Maybe she was only meant for love and babies and dependence,” Louise thinks at one point. “Maybe she should not attempt to take on the perpetual study and the terrible responsibilities of being a doctor. Was the strain too much for her? Was that why she was always irritable and restless lately?” The choice seems obvious to me, but I do have the luxury of living a quarter-century after Louise. Which isn’t really a whole lot of time, in the grand scheme of things, but what a difference it has made.

In an attempt to relieve the stress of her studies, Louise goes to a wedding reception and there meets a reporter. She decides to play a little game, and pretends to be a sublimely stupid blonde. “One thing that I always think is so nice about weddings,” she babbles to Don Bailey, “it’s always a man and a woman who get married. That keeps things sort of even, I always say.” Don is in raptures over the Yogi Berra–like inanities that drop from her lips—that and her “lovely face and gloriously nubile body”—and takes her to dinner, and from there to bed. Well, it was the sofa, actually, but no matter, it’s a place no VNRN heroine has dared to go before. And the next day, Louise can concentrate better, is so much more relaxed and sweet, and buckles down to her studies with new vigor. If the rest of the nurses knew what a miracle drug sex was, I’m sure they’d all be doing it!

Louise’s arch-nemesis is hospital chief Dr. Horace Wilmerding, who absolutely despises women doctors. Though Louise is in the running to be the top student in the class, he is going to refuse her the residency post she wants more than anything when she graduates in six months on those grounds alone. While most of the book is about Louise’s successes with patients and her growing relationship with Don, her battle with Dr. Wilmerding also mounts through the story, to the point where the bad doctor is going to deny her the post and possibly even refuse to allow her to graduate unless she becomes his mistress. Further complicating the plot is the fact that his daughter Helen, whom he has forced into marriage, has recently awoken to the fact that she is a lesbian and has entered into a relationship with Louise’s longtime roommate, Joan.

The lesbian relationship in this book is handled in a very two-faced fashion. On one hand, it’s called no end of horrible things: “a sickness,” “deviate tendencies,” an “aberration.” But at the same time, when Joan and Helen get together, it is a devoted relationship. “She, too, needed a sympathetic partner and mate with whom to seek comfort and release,” Joan decides, and Helen tells her, “What you and I have will be really beautiful. So gentle and loving.” When Helen asks why it’s wrong, Joan trots out the old saw that “love is meant to lead to babies and the continuation of the race.” Helen, however, concludes that her love for Joan is better than heterosexual love, because she is not just an “animal” intending to procreate, her love is “concerned with giving and receiving beauty.” Joan, though torn, in the end agrees to a relationship with Helen, thinking, “let the so-called normal people have their primitive instincts, but for now she would welcome the chance to enjoy sensuality on a higher and more stimulating plane,” and after the pair consummates their relationship, we are told that “a new and beautiful way of life had been inaugurated for both of them, no matter what else might intervene.” When Louise catches the two in flagrante delicto, however, she is so disgusted that she cannot look her former dear friend in the face. Clearly Louise, while avant garde in some important respects, is still disappointingly backward in others.

The book wraps up in a number of unusual ways. Louise’s problems with Dr. Wilmerding are unfortunately solved by Don, not Louise herself, when he confronts the doctor and discovers the man’s Achilles heel—a weakness that comes across, after his many evils, as completely unbelieveable. Some of Don’s negotiating strength comes from his belief that Louise doesn’t really need the internship or diploma, as he tells Dr. Wilmerding that he will be marrying Louise next week and she will be dropping out of medicine, but as a wedding gift of sorts he wants her to have those two notches in her belt before she takes it off forever and dons an apron instead. In the end, Louise does decline the residency, but for completely different reasons, and in the last chapter takes an unpredicted turn in her relationship with Don, which partially makes up for her earlier maundering about “the wonderful feminine pleasure of submitting herself, body and soul, to the man she loved.” It’s an only partially satisfying close, but in light of this book’s several unique qualities, it is nonetheless a milestone in nurse novels.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Doctor By Day

By Thomas Stone (pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1944

Doctor Anthony Collier voluntarily renounced catering to a stylish clientele, and set himself up as a general neighborhood practitioner. His aim was service rather than success. He didn’t realize that certain of his patients would demand service of a kind he hadn’t anticipated, and that idle women and neurotic men didn’t frequent only specialists’ streamlined offices. A frivolous blonde office assistant with a “fixation” on the doctor; a boy afraid of the draft; and a jealous fiancée were a few of the cases Doctor Tony was called upon to treat. And in the course of his treatments, he sometimes found himself personally as well as professionally involved in his patients’ affairs.


“I suppose I can stand it just once—being admired for my sterling qualities of mind and character. Just so it doesn’t get to be a habit with men.”

“Men think up much snappier stories on a full stomach.”

“I suspect the psychiatrists are all wet when they say sex is at the bottom of the happy marriages, or the unhappy ones. Why does it never occur to them that coffee is at the root of the problem? Imagine a man ever leaving a woman who could make coffee like this.”

“When Betsy Jane dreamed of High Romance, she didn’t mess with it. She really went to town.”

“Now look—what were we talking about when my fiancée blew in like a wild tornado, and called you a slut, and the two of you mopped up the floor with each other?”

“Rita looked like a gal on sinful pursuits bent, and as if having made up her mind to it, she’d sin or know the reason why.”

“If he cut out dames, think of the time he’d have for so many of the things he had always wanted to do, but had never seemed to get around to. Reading up in the classics, for instance, in his spare time.”

I wish I could tell you that this is the best nurse novel I have read all year, or possibly ever. Doctor by Day is, without question, an utterly fantastic book—but unfortunately there is not a nurse or female doctor in sight; this book is about a male doctor and his various girlfriends, so it does not count as a nurse novel. But it’s just too good to let go without shouting from the rooftops that everyone reading this should instantly hop over to Abebooks and procure a copy. I’ll wait.

Now that you’re back, let me explain: Dr. Anthony Collier is engaged to sultry tease Rita Shreve, a wealthy and controlling woman who wants to transform Dr. Tony from a general practitioner into a highly paid, glamorous consultant. He loves Rita and yearns for her badly, but is increasingly displeased with the pressure she is putting on him. On one epically bad evening, Tony’s secretary puts the moves on him, and he brushes her off. He then takes a call from a piano playing milquetoast with an overbearing mother and a terrible fear of his upcoming draft into World War II. Tony, fed up with the weeping youth, suggests that he lose his virginity, which will make a man out of him. Rather than follow this interesting advice, the mopey lad takes himself home and attempts to commit suicide by shooting himself in the shoulder, bringing the wrath of the boy’s mother down upon Tony. In an attempt to do right, Tony goes to the boy’s house, where he finds his cast-aside secretary feeding false information to the distraught mother and the boy suffering from a minor flesh wound. He also finds neighborhood gal Kathie Downing, who owns a tea room and is on hand to lend support. She steers Tony away from the situation before it escalates further and brings her back to her house to help buck him up. Once there, though, he realizes that she is a beautiful, vibrant, kind, intelligent woman who understands him much more than Rita, and he convinces her to allow him to spend the night with her. Yes, like that—a unique plot twist pretty much none of our VNRN heroines would indulge in.

Back at the home of the suicidal boy, the secretary is finally setting off for home herself, thinking about what more she can do to destroy Tony. A clever lass, she decides to drop by Kathie’s home just to see what’s what, lingers before the kitchen window for a while, and then goes home with a satisfied grin on her face. Early the next morning, she drops a dime to the home of Rita Shreve, suggesting that her young man would be so glad to see her, if she could dash over to this little cottage right away. Well, needless to say, when Rita arrives, fireworks ensue. This does put a bit of a damper on the love blooming in Tony’s heart, and crushes Kathie, though she is a tough, realistic lass and wastes no self-pity and few tears on the situation after Tony bodily drags Rita from the house.

It’s just a matter of time before everything is sorted out between these three, but in fact it really doesn’t matter how all this is accomplished. Because in Doctor by Day, author Florence Stonebraker has absolutely outdone herself. She should have won a Pulitzer Prize, or some similar major literary award, for insanely brilliant writing in the genre of hard-boiled fiction. Every page has a beautiful turn of phrase or a fabulous description: “He thought of Rita’s apartment in that exclusive and frightfully expensive building on The Strip. It had been done by an interior decorator with a French name, mincing ways, and a national reputation for achieving strikingly unique effects. And it looked it. It was so unique, and so definitely Hollywoodish, and so expensive looking, that you felt like making a low bow when you went into it, and apologizing humbly for daring to sit on the delicate, salmon-colored upholstery.”

At the same time, the writing also very evocatively describes the growing love between Kathie and Tony without inspiring nausea and the dry heaves, itself an extremely remarkable feat (says the intrepid guide who has read more than 250 of these books): “She had a way of looking at you, and walking right into your life as she did it. There was a warmth about her, and a sweetness. You wanted to tell her things.” The writing evokes a slightly softer Dashiell Hammett: sharp, witty, and intelligent—and at the same time charming, beautiful, and sweet. This book is an undiscovered classic, and (alongside her other outstanding work, City Doctor) permanently solidifies Florence Stonebraker’s reputation with me as the pantheon of pulp romance novelists, nurse themed or not.