Saturday, February 22, 2020

Nurse of Ward B

By Rebecca Marsh
(pseud. William Neubauer), ©1963
Cover illustration by Mort Engle

“You may as well know what everyone else knows,” the associate nurse told Anne. “JULIA STOPE IS OUT TO GET YOUR JOB AND YOUR MAN!” Lovely young Anne Burr thought she had achieved everything when she was appointed supervising nurse of Ward B at McHenry Memorial Hospital. But that was when her problems really began. There was Ada Watkins, the stern chief nurse, a stickler for rules and detail—there was the possessive, handsome resident surgeon—the business tycoon who tempted her with wealth and glamour—and the brilliant, unpredictable young inventor who could make her heart turn flipflops. There was also Julia, clever and jealous, just waiting for Anne to make the slightest mistake—in matters both professional and romantic—so she could carry out her insidious plan.


“Kate can beat me at tennis without half trying. I always think there’s something wrong with a woman who excels at non-womanly things.”

“Anne, don’t try to think; just try to remain beautiful.”

“Never dance with an intern. I think they deliberately step on your feet in the hope of drumming up trade.”

“I blame all these tests of atomic devices for the wretched weather.”

I wish I could tell you what Nurse of Ward B was about. I will confess that I read it on a train to New York with a couple of gin and tonics on board, but I can’t be absolutely sure that’s the reason for my difficulty. This book reads more than a little as if it were by Peggy O’More Blocklinger, author of Disaster Nurse and Door to Door Nurse, which is to say ponderous, pop-psychological, overly methodical, and short on plot. But this I can tell you: Nurse Anne Burr is the supervisor of Ward B, and she is everything God meant when he created woman: beautiful, smart, insightful, a born leader. “Every person you’ve ever worked under here voted you tops in tractability, willingness, understanding, social relationships,” her supervisor tells her as she reveals that Anne is being groomed for the hospital’s top nursing job.

But she is an idiot when it comes to men, and maybe God intended that, too, or the poor dopes might never reproduce. To wit: She’s attached, of course, to loser Timothy Augustine Mahone, an engineer and inventor who declines to get a job, but though he’s dropped a tiny diamond onto Anne’s finger he won’t marry her, because he can’t support her financially. “Hang it, I’m in a box!” Anne explains to a colleague. “I love, he loves, I out-earn him, he won’t let his wife work, and there must be so much in the bank before we risk all on romance.” Her colleague astutely answers, “If you ask me, there’s a guy who doesn’t want to be married.” More on this theme later.

Anne, for her part, has the fatal flaw of insincerity toward her career: “To me, this is only a career I’m following until I marry,” she says. “If Tim proposed tomorrow I’d quit the day after.” Yet the bulk of the book is made up of a blow-by-blow of her managerial studies as explained to the scheming Julia Stope, her main rival for the chief administrator’s job after that good woman announces her retirement. Though Anne immediately declares herself not interested in Mrs. Atkins’ job, we watch her battle with Julia as if it were a tennis match at Wimbledon; every shot is drawn out and the contest lasts for hours. Unfortunately for Anne, Mrs. Atkins decides she is going to transfer Anne to surgery, because she needs to see how Julia would fare as leader of Ward B; apparently Ward A is not an option. Besides, Anne, of course, is a far superior scrub nurse than any other living human being, and everyone in the OR desperately needs her magical touch to put them all to rights. To wit: Dr. Bailey is a disastrously slow surgeon, but Julia invites him to practice on the hospital’s cadavers, and things start picking up!

Of course, after Julia is given Anne’s job as supervisor of Ward B, she turns out to be hopelessly horrible, and on her first day five nurses are on the brink of quitting. The curious thing, though, is that despite their Machiavellian attempts to undo each other, Anne and Julia are not nasty to each other: When Anne gets wind of the rebellion in Ward B, she stomps into Julia’s office after a long day in the OR to straighten everything out in about five minutes—all while Julia, having done time in surgery and recognizing how badly Anne’s feet must be hurting, gives Anne a foot massage.

At the same time, wealthy businessman Harry Underwood, who has become hopelessly smitten with Anne, offers Tim a lucrative job on the same assumption that everyone else has—he doesn’t really want to get married, and the lack of a job is just his lame excuse. Tim accepts, and on his first day manages, à la Anne Burr, to sort out the thorniest engineering problem that had thwarted every other man in the Underwood factory, so he wins a nice bonus and raise. He still comes across as a selfish, deadbeat loser who has the respect of not one other person in the book, but that doesn’t seem to bother Anne, who is “carrying a torch for a man who cares only for himself.” We’re given some false hope when she stops speaking to him after a completely bizarre scene that’s staged as a “quarrel.” VNRNs do at times have scenes with such subtle undertones that great volumes of information are apparently exchanged in a single word. Here we have one such moment: After Tim tells Anne that he’s working for Harry Underwood, his next sentence is, “Marry me tomorrow, Anne.” She whispers, “You ought to be ashamed. And don’t call me; I’ll call you,” and throws her miniscule diamond at him. What??? Thirty-two pages later, she returns to see him, and you’ve completely forgotten these weird two pages, so when she says, “The thing you suggested, Tim, was hardly cheering,” you’re baffled—and if you do remember, it still makes no sense. He answers by telling her, “I don’t want to marry a wheel,” referring to her job. Yet peculiarly, three paragraphs later, “He would have his profession, and she would have hers, and they’d have one another, too,” although he’s not agreed to take her on, no one in their right mind would take him, and neither she nor he has mentioned any reconciliation toward her working after marriage.

Author Rebecca Marsh turns out to actually be a pen name of William Neubauer, who has given us two stellar books in Police Nurse and Nurse Greer. Imagine my disappointment that Neubauer, who has earned two slots in the VNRN Awards for best book and best author, has stumbled so on Ward B. I also am more than a little surprised that Neubauer penned all three of these books. This one does bear some similarities to Police Nurse, but Nurse Greer seems entirely out of character. I’ve got another three of his novels on my shelf, though, so hopefully this one was an aberration. Or, as I have suspected of other authors, he didn’t actually write all the books that have his name (or pseudonym) on the cover (see also Ruth Ives and even the books by Florence Stonebraker under the pen name Thomas Stone). Only time and a few more hours between his covers will tell.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Nurse Elliot’s Diary

By Kate Norway 
(pseud. Olive Norton), ©1960

When Lucy Elliot started dating bright young architect Nigel Enderby, her father was thrilled. He was happily planning to take his daughter’s husband into his own firm. But Lucy didn’t love Nigel. She loved David Clifford, a doctor at the hospital where she was training to be a nurse. There was no sign at all, however, that David loved her. Should she marry Nigel for her father’s sake?


“I thought nurses spent all their spare time with their shoes off, groaning.”

This book is somewhat unique in that it is actually written in the format of a diary, in the first person (which is rare enough as it is). The last book I read by Olive Norton, Paper Halo, was also written in the first person, and was fabulous to boot, scoring the top spot of Best Books at the last VNRN Awards gala. So I had high hopes for Nurse Elliot and her diary, and they mostly came off.

Lucy Elliot is a nurse in training, and she has the hots for Dr. David Clifford: “I wondered why the very sight of him turned my knees to water, even when he was obviously quite uninterested in me. It was all a matter of chemical reactions, I told myself. It had nothing to do with me or my emotions at all. It was purely a mechanical thing, and there was nothing I could do about it.” Of course, she has the usual blinders on about his feelings about her, since he will pull her into the linen closet and pat her hair, or even kiss her when she’s crying because “I had to stop you,” he explains. But nonetheless, she continues to insist that “Dr. Clifford thinks I’m just an incompetent fool.” I can’t really tell you why she thinks this, but maybe something happened early in the book when they were playing golf together—much to my irritation I found that my copy of the book is missing numerous pages right about then, so I can’t tell you who won the game or if any imbroglio ensued. If anyone out there could send me copies of pages 45 to 56, I would greatly appreciate it.

Anyway, while Lucy nurses her forlorn broken heart, she meets patient Nigel Enderby, who once he is sprung from the hospital insists that Lucy go out with him, and only later does it come out that he knows that her father is a prominent architect in the county—and since he is an up-and-coming architect himself, it would certainly benefit him to know the great man. Lucy is definitely only interested in a platonic relationship, up until her father suffers a heart attack. In her eagerness to not upset him—she’s already done so once and given him a second shock—she agrees to his suggestion that she marry Nigel. Suddenly Dr. Clifford is a lot colder than he had been, surely not because he cares about her, though. Did I mention at about this point she loses her diary at the house she and her father had sold, the house she was born in and loved more than anything, and which has been bought by … you’ll never guess … well, maybe you will … Dr. Clifford. You also won’t have to guess who read it; “I had to read some of it to find out whose it was, you see,” he explains on the last pages.

So everything is sorted out in the end, with some surprises from Nigel to make it slightly more interesting. (We know he’s going to turn out badly when (a) he’s announced their engagement in the newspaper without asking her, and (b) when she objects, he says, “You’re not going to turn into one of those awful bossy women, are you? A man does like a pliable wife, you know. I’ve not much time for backseat drivers, I’m afraid.”) But honestly, while it’s a very amusing book with a wonderful sense of humor and a fairly feisty, smart heroine (despite numerous misadventures as a student nurse), the story is not unusual or unpredictable. Norton is a great writer, with lovely bon mots on almost every page, but the plot here has been phoned in. A perfunctory book from Norton is better than almost anyone else’s best works, but there it is. It’s still absolutely worth a read, but still slightly disappointing when you know she can do  better.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

New Surgeon at St. Lucien’s

By Elizabeth Houghton,
pseud. Elizabeth Gilzean, ©1966
Ever since the new surgeon, Mark Castle, had arrived at St. Lucien’s there had been trouble for Staff Nurse Fiona. Mark’s glamourous, spiteful house surgeon, Aurora Kane, did nothing to ease matters—and it was not long before Fiona found herself facing a crisis.
“The Professor was positively licking his lips. I gather she’s quite a dish.”
“It was comforting in a way to be bossed, to be told what to do.”
“No wonder teenagers are aggressive—it’s all this beat music. It does something to you!”
“You’re nothing  but a man-mad little flirt!”
“Pity th scientists can’t bottle sex appeal and sell it. I’d like some sprinkled over me, just to know what it feels like!”
Some books seem to be a collection of VNRN tropes thrown into a salad, and this is one. I swear I’ve read one in which the male protagonist is biased toward the heroine because she has red hair, but I can’t find it. Beyond that, here we have the one where the pair hate each other out of the gate for no good reason anyone could discern, plus the hissing jealous cat always clawing the eyes out of the heroine, and for good measure the car accident with a man she doesn’t love but has to pretend she does so he will get better. The end result is that the whole time you feel like you’ve read this book before.
Fiona Graham is a 23-year-old nurse at St. Lucian’s, and she has red hair, which incoming surgeon Dr. Mark Castle abhors for some reason—“that’s an old story, and not for young girls,” he tells her, letting her, and us, think that he had a bad breakup with a redhead, but the joke is that he didn’t at all! Ha ha! Fiona hangs out a lot with Dr. Colin Ramsay, another surgeon who was passed up for the job that Dr. Mark is taking, so that’s one reason she hates Mark. Colin had proposed to Fiona but she’d turned him down, though in typical fashion she spends the rest of the book wondering if she should marry him anyway—“Perhaps she should have done the sensible thing and accepted Colin’s propsal after all—perhaps love was only quiet affection after all, and not the bright searing flash that the films and magazines seemed to suggest”—until she’s pressured at the end to marry him, when she finally decides to kick.
Mark, it must be acknowledged, is a colossal prick. He’s always snapping at Fiona for stupid things, like when there aren’t any Adson’s toothed forceps because Dr. Kane dropped them all on the floor. Again and again we hear about his pettiness, how he walks fast and “expected her to keep up,” “he always seemed to enjoy tucking a thorn into his remarks,” “she had almost forgotten how brutal Mark could be.” Guess who she’s kissing at the end of the book?
But not before Colin gets in a car accident and finds himself blind and his right arm paralyzed, which everyone thinks is psychological. Mark orders Fiona to pretend she will marry Colin in order to help him get better, or else Colin will die! “Unless you intend to sign Colin’s death certificate, you’ll carry on just as we arranged,” he snaps. “You’ll tell him how much you care, how much you want thim to get better. I don’t care whether it’s weeks or months, but you’ve got to do it. Colin’s got to learn to see again, hear again, and live again—and you’re the only one that can do it!” No pressure or anything, so she goes along, and it looks like the job she loves, working in the OR, is going to be scrapped so she can be Colin’s full-time hand-holder. Fortunately, another young lass turns up who actually does care for Colin, and he won’t mind who he marries, so that’s a quick fix. Then Fiona just needs to be masterfully kissed by Mark and have her knees turn to jelly and we can close the book.
Much of this book is rather dull—in the first half Fiona is lurching from one scolding to another to the point where it’s hard to keep track of who’s angry with her now and why—and then the Colin story stretches much too thin with so many abrupt turns—first his illness is psychological, then he has a late brain bleed and it’s real; his fiancée is first one woman, then another. Plus you’ve seen all these plot devices numerous times before, which wouldn’t be such a crime if they were well done, but here they’re just kind of lying there on the page, struggling to get up like the unfortunate Colin. Author Elizabeth Houghton Gilzean gave us the lovely Next Patient, Doctor Anne, so this book is particularly disappointing. Hopefully she’ll be back to her old self in the next book of hers that we read.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Nell Shannon, R.N.

By Ann Rush
(pseud. Sara Jenkins Cunningham), ©1963

Eleanor Shannon loved nursing and the world that went with it: the crisp white uniforms, the sparkling cleanliness of the hospital, the respect and admiration she earned. But one day the shrill ring of the phone brought her back to face the life she had worked five years to forget: the life in her parents’ home in Fenton, on the wrong side of the tracks. And Nell had to face up to the truth—about Fenton, about her family, about the young redheaded doctor she resented so bitterly, and most of all about herself. If she went back to the old life—would she be forever trapped?


“We may do fantastic things and considering they include crime and sudden death I guess I shouldn’t say it, but I have fun.”

Eleanor Shannon has managed to escape her huge slum-dwelling family of nine by obtaining a nurse’s license and fleeing to the city, to create a lovely little apartment with her own bathroom, charming curtains, and a living room without a bed in it. Part of her break includes changing her name from the Nellie she’d gone by when she’d lived in the Slash—the cute name bestowed upon the town slum she hails from—and going by Eleanor. But she’s been sending checks home to help support the remaining three kids, unlike the other three sibs who have moved out—some leaving no forwarding address—so when mom is stricken with hepatitis, and her drunken father is certainly not going to step up, she puts her furniture in storage and heads home.

Getting off the train, she runs smack into Nurse Novel Trope #5, or rather Dr. Tim Burrage, of the elite family that owns the chemical plant, Slash the slum, and the town in general, when she disembarks from the bus. True to trope, she despises him instantly. “She was remembering Tim Burrage now. He carried a head of flaming red hair as if the were the Prince of Wales. He always looked to be as snobbish as the rest of the Burrages.” Well, we’ll see about that.

Arriving home, she finds the three teenaged kids still living at home shirking school and contributing nothing to the household, which is a slovenly mess. Needless to say, just her arrival imparts a complete transformation in of all three, who immediately start attending school regularly and get jobs (well, the boys, anyway) and cleaning house (well, the girl, anyway). Dad, the well-meaning alcoholic who deeply loves his wife but whose dreams have been crushed by poverty and limited opportunity, goes on the wagon, and the birds start chirping and spring dawns anew.

After wreaking miracles at home, Eleanor gets a job at the hospital and of course has lots of interactions with that snobbish doctor, who as time passes reveals himself as an honest, compassionate, down-to-earth person who, if somewhat sheltered, tries to do well. When she is forced into a date with him—they both have an interest in seeing this new club of dubious reputation where all the kids, including  both of their younger sisters, hang out—he drops her at home and, horrified to find what the homes are like in the part of town his family owns, orders a complete overhaul of the district that begins at 6:00 am the next day, much to the consternation of the residents, who are skeptical about this new-fangled indoor plumbing, electricity, and paint. “Only way I have of pleasuring myself now is meeting somebody at the well when I go for water. Now, looks like I’ll just sit in a rocker and stare at the wall, seeing I’ll have water right in the house,” grumbles one, while another grouses, “It just don’t seem right, going to the bathroom in a place where you got to live.” Darned ungrateful slobs.

Before too long, Eleanor and Tim are involved in a weird sort of mystery in which someone who appears poised to squeal about the drug ring they suspect is being run out of the night club is stabbed, and the perpetrator is immediately murdered. Caring for the almost-deceased narc, Eleanor wades right into another classic trope in which she walks into the patient’s room as someone is about to finish the job on him. Also not entirely without precedent, having saved the day, she immediately kicks her bravery out from under herself and faints.

Waking up, there’s little to do except get Ma home to the slum, newly renovated with furniture given to her by Dr. Tim—which she inexplicably goes ballistic over—and reunite the family, the three lost lambs turning up to join the three still at home plus Eleanor for a rousing homecoming, making the reader scratch her head as to why the family that was mostly disintegrated at the start of the book should suddenly be the model of harmony. All that remains is for Tim to turn up and propose, as well as offer tuition to Julliard and other colleges for the high school kids, for us to close the book.

It’s a fairly perfunctory story, with characters who pop in and out without resolution—Eleanor’s young sister, for example, Eleanor’s main concern of at the start of the book, is completely ignored in the second half, and the struggles of dad the alcoholic are neatly brushed under the carpet. Numerous loose illogical ends dangle as well—why was the guy who stabbed the narc murdered by the man who hired him to do the job? How is Eleanor going to reconcile her hatred for her hometown and family?—so this sloppy story feels unsatisfying in the end. Even what to call the heroine—is she Nell, Nellie, or Eleanor?—fluctuates from minute to minute. Amusing in some parts for its dated atmosphere, Nell Shannon does not have enough to make for a good book.