Cover illustration by Allan Kass
When Dr. John Rentoul drove Michelle Banfield home, it seemed the start of a romance between the tall, handsome surgeon and the beautiful, gray-eyed nurse. Then, suddenly, out of the night rushed a car driven by a man intent on murder. In its wake lay a girl whose memory had been destroyed, and whose face was so disfigured it would take all of John Rentoul's surgical skill to mend it. As Michelle watched the miracle of restoration, John, like the Greek sculptor Pygmalion, fell in love with his creation. It was only then that Michelle sensed the evil person behind the lovely mask being formed. What could she do to save the man she loved from a fascination that might destroy him—and ruin her own chance at happiness...?
“Cosmetic surgery is as necessary to humanity as—as the appendectomy.”
“If there’s one thing murderers insist upon, it’s privacy.”
When we meet nurse Michelle Banfield, she is walking into the office of Dr. John Rentoul, who is looking out the window onto the San Francisco Bay. “He always stood by the window at the end of the day’s surgery, while he waited for her to bring his coffee,” which is among an OR charge nurse’s essential duties, apparently. Dr. Rentoul made all his money by doing cosmetic surgery, “surgery of vanity,” the doctor ruefully tells Michelle when he speaks of the lack of respect other doctors have for his line of work. Undeservedly so! Michelle snaps, “An aging woman who wants to keep a little of the beauty she once had can be suffering from a psychological need that only cosmetic surgery can heal.” Um, therapy might work too, and last longer, but maybe not.
Anyway, to assuage the guilt of his wasted talents, he moonlights at Bay General Hospital, doing reconstructive surgery on accident victims, but for the amount of time he’s spending at Bay General, it’s hard to believe he has a full-time career elsewhere. Especially after he almost literally runs into the patient who comes to occupy most of his time. Driving Michelle home from work, in what could be the start of a beautiful friendship, their car is almost involved in a crash in which a taxi is deliberately slammed by another car. The taxi driver is killed, and the woman in the back seat with all those bags of cash beside her is badly injured, her face completely destroyed.
The patient is rushed to their operating room, where Dr. Rentoul begins the months-long process of rebuilding her face, which involves completely swathing it in bandages the entire time. Unfortunately, when she awakens from her first surgery, the patient is found to have amnesia, “caused by a hysterical response as she realized and feared what was about to happen when she saw the car charging her taxi.” Right. Curiously, no one seems to be seeking her, and no one is reporting a ton of cash gone missing. The patient decides to call herself Beverley, though Dr. Rentoul call her his “puppet” and sees himself as Pygmalion creating his own Galatea, a pretty high-class reference for an otherwise pedestrian novel. Dr. Rentoul is “giving you a face most men would consider attractive,” Dr. Rentoul’s partner tells Beverley. “You already have a beautiful body to go with it—so what more could a woman in your situation expect?” Respect would be a nice start, but it is the 1960s.
The mystery, of course, revolves around Beverley’s true identity, but a side plot involves a local abortionist who is killing the young women that go to him—or her! Our nurse Michelle is actually not deceived by Beverley, deciding she is a sinister character who is using Dr. Rentoul and his growing infatuation with her for her own ends—yet her true identity begins to come to light when a patient next door to Beverley mysteriously has her oxygen levels adjusted from their previously inaccurate setting to the right one, thereby saving the patient’s life. Michelle has her suspicions: She “remembered how, during the first examination when John Rentoul had suggested incising the endotracheal airway for anesthesia, Beverley had known what a tracheostomy was. Michelle was sure of it. She had been terrified at the thought of having a hole cut in her throat through which to breathe.”
Eventually Beverley’s face is perfected through microsurgery, which is laughingly described here as being literally microscopic: “The finger movements of the surgeons were so slight that they could seldom be seen by the naked eye. And they used equally minute needles and thread. Absolute concentration was essential.” While everyone else is eagerly wondering how this superhuman surgery will improve Beverley’s eyelid, “she had been thinking of what it might do to John. She had read somewhere that tension from the degree of concentration needed for microsurgery was almost unbearable.” Perhaps it’s not jealousy that makes her suspicious of Beverley’s months-long amnesia, or why “something niggled at the back of her mind.” What the niggler is we never find out, but in the end a vicious murderer crashes through the hospital window in Beverley’s room to kill her. Her new face hasn’t been enough to hide her, because Michelle had told some rude, shouting boor who’d phoned the hospital to ask if a woman who’d been in a taxi crash has been hospitalized there that yes, indeed, they do have just such a patient! Oh, wait, no, she didn’t: “I was careful about that,” she tells police Lt. Harding. “I simply told him that if he came to the hospital and asked for me, I’d take him to her.” And never mind that the fellow’s taken several months to get around to inquiring, you still have to admire his persistence.
Curiously, when Michelle disarms the intruder, Beverley loses her cool, grabs the gun, knocks poor junior resident Dr. Sinclair unconscious, and flees the hospital, apparently feeling no gratitude to the doctors who gave her a gorgeous new face—“she was certainly no ravishing beauty” before the accident, apparently. Her methods aren’t any more effective than her would-be attacker, as both are quickly captured by Lt. Harding’s officers. Beverley is actually Mrs. Friedman—no first name, poor thing—an intern MD who lost her license for stealing drugs that induce uterine contractions, apparently set on a career as a criminal abortionist even fresh out of medical school. And one of her victims had turned out to be the girlfriend of a crazed thug who swore revenge, though Mrs. Friedman turned out to be a better assassin than he was.
The curious thing is that when the whole escapade is explained in the hospital chief’s office afterward, it turns out that Dr. Rentoul had been aware of Lt. Harding’s suspicion of Beverley and had agreed to help with the investigation. So it is especially odd that he spent so much time and care rebuilding her face, and that he seemed to be falling in love with her. “It was odd the way I felt about her, Michelle,” he pathetically attempts to explain. “I believed that Harding’s suspicious had a sound basis right from the night of the accident. Yet, as I watched the surgery bring shape and life and expression to her face, I was attracted, too.” So despite this weird twist in Dr. Rentoul’s character, Michelle agrees to a date with him on the last pages, and “it was as though Michelle had come home to where she had belonged.” Back to serving him coffee in his office?
The book is fairly perfunctory, without interesting writing or plotting to keep it going. There’s a lot here about facial reconstruction surgery, which fills the pages, and the story line about Dr. Rentoul falling in love with this woman solely based on her appearance—which he is giving her himself—despite his suspicion of her lethal hobby would be too hard to swallow if you haven’t read more than 300 other VNRNs in which men repeatedly do similar stupid things. And if you hadn’t spent years in the company of real-life American men. Michelle is a cipher throughout most of the book, mostly just witnessing the activity around her until she uncharacteristically leaps into action at the end to disarm the thug. I was also surprised that Beverley would jeopardize her disguise by aiding another patient; I’d be more convinced if she’d instead acted to bump off someone who might have been able to identify her—and it would have been easy enough to put one of her former patients in the next room. Lastly, I'n not sure why this book is called Nurse Deceived when in fact the nurse was not deceived one bit. All in all, this book is unsatisfying and uninteresting, and you should not be deceived into reading it.