Saturday, December 15, 2018

Nurse of Brooding Mansion

By Paulette Warren, ©1967

Young,  beautiful Connie Bartlett was understandably thrilled when Doctor Fletcher sent her to Ganton Manor, the fabulous Fifth Avenue home of the legendary Gantons. But the thrills began to turn to fear almost as soon as she entered its massive doors. Her patient was to be the great John Ganton himself. But it did not work out that way. As soon as Connie arrived, Tom Ganton, the reckless daredevil of the clan, was brought home from an automobile accident. He became Connie’s patient—and she found herself falling in love with him even as he tried to force her to leave. Then events grew more bizarre. Ganton Manor held secrets of shame and madness, and Connie found herself drawn inexorably into their midst. When Doctor Benton, apparently a cold-blooded schemer, was shot by the emotionally disturbed Fran, he too became a patient. And when Connie began to learn more about what was happening behind the doors that were always closed, she knew she would have to choose between love and duty. But the final choice would be even more difficult than she could possibly realize …


“Even though she was a dedicated practitioner of Florence Nightingale’s art, Connie was 24 and attractive, and she had eventual aspirations that reached beyond the sickroom. Love and marriage, for instance.”

“He’s had a sedative, and he’ll probably konk off any minute now and sleep all night. If he doesn’t, maybe you can amuse him by reading him the obituaries.”

“He took her hand in an objective manner and studied it as thought he’d never seen a hand before and wondered what made it work.”

“I know you aren’t going to hand me a share of the loot because you like the way my uniform fits.”

“You should be a private detective. You ferret out information better than you wind a bandage.”

“He could not conceive of a female’s using her own mind when accorded the privilege of using his.”

“As Connie helped him toward the window, she prattled on as though she’d helped a great many people out of burning buildings and there was nothing to it.”

The title of this book gave me great hope for a campy frolic, and the opening chapters made me think it was going to deliver as we met the saucy Constance Bartlett just as she was setting off for a private duty job at a tony upper Fifth Avenue mansion caring for the wheelchair-bound elderly John Ganton. Upon her arrival, however, she is immediately asked to change patients and care for John’s son Tom, who has just broken his leg in a car crash. And the book goes off the rails, darn the luck.

Her new patient is petulant, immature, and mean, and tries to get Connie’s goat their first day together by smoking pot in his room, which makes her decide that he is “a defiant little boy. His emotional problem was serious.” The next night, however, he kisses her—but then they hear gunshots, and Tom insists she leave the house immediately. Unfortunately, “it was the first time in Connie’s life that she had ever been dominated. She had been in the process of surrendering herself to a man, and thus, she was emotionally under his domination in the manner in which a woman always surrenders her own personality to a man in such a situation,” so she says, “All right, darling. Whatever you say. … You will call me?”

On her way to dutifully pack her bags, she is grabbed by John Ganton’s secretary, Ken Sorenson, carried to her room, and locked in for the night. The next morning, finding that her bedroom door is now mysteriously unlocked, she rushes from the house to the doctor who had assigned her to the job to tell him the story—but while she’s in his office, he gets a call from Sorenson, who reports that Connie had become completely unhinged by a backfiring car and required restraining for her own safety. Bizarrely, Dr. Fletcher completely swallows Sorenson’s story despite (or maybe because of) having worked with Connie for years, and even Connie starts to think “she’d made a complete idiot of herself,” so she goes back to the house for more madness.

Nights are busy at Ganton Manor: That evening she hears loud marching, and in snooping around to find the source of the noise, she discovers that John Ganton is at the center of a Nazi-like cult intending to take over the country—and then the world! mwa ha ha ha!—with an army of 30 men who are drilling in the  basement. She also finds that the Gantons’ doctor, Ralph Benton, has been shot in the leg by another house lunatic, Tom’s cousin Fran, who is in love with the doctor and has an odd way of expressing it. In typical megalomaniac fashion, the doctor quickly spills to Connie that he is the brains behind the personality cult, along with the news that he’s convinced John Ganton to put $1 million in cash in the house safe, and he knows the combination!

As ridiculous as Benton’s decision to tell all, Connie decides to enlist in the plot to rescue her wimpy boyfriend, and plays a lukewarm gangster moll, telling Benton that Tom is wise to the racket, and is gonna squeal to the coppers, see? So Benton asks her to get Tom out of the house for a week so he can get Fran committed to an asylum, and then they’ll split town with the loot. This plays perfectly into Connie’s warped planning: Ostensibly to save Tom, she proposes marriage, because, she tells him, she is “willing to assume” that she’s in love with him—and it makes her feel only slightly uncomfortable that she’s just learned that all the Ganton money is actually Tom’s, inherited from his mother, and that he takes control of the trust fund from his squandering father as soon as he is married. After her proposal, “Connie sensed defeat” in Tom’s eyes. He agrees to marry her, they exchange “a single tender, passionless kiss,” and Tom tells her she has “a mother complex where I’m concerned. You see me as a son.” This is, without question, the weirdest marriage proposal in any VNRN I’ve read. Oh, and Connie fails to mention that she is pretending to join up with a man who is trying to steal Tom’s money, because he might not understand: “Objectively, she had to admit that Tom was not the most reliable person on earth, not the most evenly balanced.” Two pages later we’re told “she had committed herself to her love for Tom. It was a thing she should have questioned.” We readers, who can make no sense of it, heartily agree.

So the tepid lovebirds charter a jet and a series of limos—the lifestyle makes Connie woozy—to North Carolina and are perfunctorily married by a JP. The next day, Connie drags sulky Tom back to the house, her intention of keeping him safe utterly forgotten now that there’s $1 million at stake—admittedly only a small fraction of Tom’s net worth, and a sum he himself doesn’t seem concerned about when she tells him of Benton’s plan (though not her part in it); he just says, “Uh-huh. But there’ll be plenty left.”

Back at the house, Connie is completely let down to find that Tom has not transformed into a courageous knight, that “no magic alchemy resulted. It was as though nothing had happened, nothing whatever been accomplished. The signing of a marriage oath did not change him. What am I going to do?” What she does is go to see Benton, who tells Connie to clear out the safe and drop the dough in a locker at the bus station, leave the key at the baggage counter, and wait for him in her apartment. For once, Connie’s sense does not desert her. “Did he think anyone other than a fool would blindly follow such directions?” One might ask if Benton himself is a blind fool to give Connie $1 million and send her out the door, but we are in so deep with this rambunctious plot that it’s probably not smart to get meticulous at this point.

Connie goes back to her room, cries, puts on fresh makeup, and then empties the safe and goes to look for Tom, who is missing from his own bedroom. She decides “he would be of no help to her. It was a bitter admission, because strength from Tom had been the goal of every move she’d made—a desperate  hope,” one she had not mentioned to the reader until this point, but there I go again, looking for logic in this hopeless mess. She heads to the basement, where a meeting of the neo-Nazis is in progress, to find Tom on stage telling the bootjacks to clear out quick before the police storm the joint. Then he delivers the news to his dear old dad that he’s married now and in charge of the money! Connie rushes to him—but he tells her he’s heard her plotting with Benton and is wise to her double-crossing tricks, adds that she’ll be hearing from his divorce lawyer, and hobbles off.

Making no effort to pursue Tom, she heads back to her room to pack her bags for the third time in a week and curiously decides to intervene in a scene between Benton and a still-pistol-packing Fran (no one thought to take it away from her after the last shooting?). Fran decides to bludgeon Connie unconscious—we’re just sorry we can’t join in the fun—and when Connie wakes up, the house is on fire. She stumbles to Tom’s room, where she finds that he’s fallen and can’t get up, but not before he’d found the $1 million, which Connie had hidden in the drawer where he keeps the maudlin poetry he writes. So now he knows she really does love him, and she helps him to the window so the fire fighters will rescue them and they’ll live richly ever after … especially now that “Tom had proved himself a man!” Though not in this last scene.

The hints of greatness at the start of this book included sparkly gems like, “His nurse turned suddenly disloyal. She rushed off and got married,” and “‘I am Mrs. Bates,’ she said with an economical lack of lip movement,” and “the bed was huge enough to let you sleep with a stranger you would never have to actually meet.” But as the plot and heroine dissolved around us, so too did the writing, and by the end any camp seems sadly unintentional. This story has more holes than a golf course, but I’d be OK with that if I felt like the author was skillfully leading us on a tongue-in-cheek romp. Instead I feel like we were dragged—and her along with us—by a mad circus elephant of a plot. There’s still some fun to be had here, but sadly not as much as there could have been by an author with more talent or interest in this book.

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