Thursday, November 25, 2021

A Strange Case for Dr. Rolland

By Jeanne Judson, ©1962
Cover illustration by Lou Marinelli 

It seemed like a routine call when young and attractive Dr. Teresa Rolland was summoned to see a patient in the slums of Manhattan’s West Side. But later she was glad she asked for a police escort—especially since he turned out to be a handsome and attentive plain-clothes man named Bill Fraser. For when she arrived, Teresa found no patient. Instead she found herself caught up in a case which demanded not only her skill as a doctor, but all the wisdom of her woman’s heart …


“If I’d wanted a really easy life I’d have studied dermatology. That’s the best racket of all. People with skin diseases seldom get well and never die, at least not from their disease.” 

“Who would want to marry a doctor, anyway? Always smelling of iodoform and things.”

“If only one could take them away from their parents and give them to people who need children, people of wealth and culture. We could soon change the world. Believe me, Doctor Rolland, environment is everything. Heredity means very little.”

“When men talked about women leading normal lives, she knew they were referring specifically to having babies.”

“He had confused liberality with generosity. He had given his niece and nephew everything they asked for, but they had never asked him for companionship or understanding or love because people, especially young people, never do ask for those things. They only hope for them.”

I am a fan of author Jeanne Judson, who has given us three A-grade novels out of five reviews, so it was with enthusiasm that I picked up this book, spurred on by the Lou Marchetti cover illustration. And if this book is slightly outside the VNRN norm, what with a female doctor and a “mystery” for a plot, neither of these aspects contributed much beyond an initial flash of interest that rapidly faded as it became clear that neither would offer much to think about. 

Dr. Teresa Rolland is a “pediatrist,” old by VNRN standards at 26, and just starting her first year in practice in New York City, on one of the 10th Streets near Fifth Avenue. Jenny Dorian is a “beatnik” who is married to a musician and has a five-month-old son, Jerry, who is a patient of Dr. Rolland’s. Jenny’s uncle, John Flemming, calls up Dr. Rolland to ask about Jenny and, in a huge breach of ethics, the doctor tells what she knows of the Dorian family.

And then we drop that story line and move into another prong—the “mystery,” if you squint hard enough at it—which involves a 3:00 am call to Dr. Rolland from a shady address on West 43rd St. requesting her immediate attention. Concerned about the “anything but reassuring” neighborhood, she calls the police and asks for an officer to meet her there and act as bodyguard, apparently not an unusual request. Sergeant Bill Fraser shows up and escorts her into the building, where she meets a gypsy family that is apparently unaware of why the doctor has been summoned—the mother produces a healthy but tired two-year-old, and after she agrees the boy is perfectly normal, Dr. Rolland heads for home. Days later, though, the mother Isobel Flame shows up on the doctor’s doorstep saying that her family has sold her son into an illegal adoption, and the purpose of the early-morning call was to have a witness of the boy’s existence, should the family deny he had ever been born, and—if he ever turns up again—another person who can identify him.

Numerous hints already having been dropped by John Flemming, along with a completely random lunchroom encounter with a talkative stranger who suggests that “if only one could take children coming from bad backgrounds away from their parents and give them to people who need children, people of wealth and culture,” it doesn’t take long to spot the metaphoric red neon arrow lighting the way to John’s friend Lila Vale, who is in the market for a child identical to little Johnnie Flame, or to figure out that Johnnie is the son of John’s estranged son Jerome Flemming (Flame was the pseudonym he used to publish his poetry), who had died of pneumonia shortly before Johnnie was born.

Now we can turn our attention to Dr. Rolland’s ringless fourth finger. The police sergeant makes a valiant and reasonable effort, while John Flemming and Dr. Rolland’s gadabout officemate offer more lackluster options, if they themselves seem far less plodding than poor always-stern Sergeant Bill. But since Isobel is a gypsy, she can read Dr. Rolland’s cards and let her know that when a fourth man, who kisses her after a page and a half of conversation, is her real love, and we learn that “Isobel had told true.”

The only aspect approaching interesting in this book is the discussion of adoption. Isobel is pressed on several occasions to give up her son to the shallow, foolish Lila Vale, who admittedly has a habit of losing interest in everything after a week. Predictably, Lila loses interest when it becomes increasingly clear that Isobel is not going to give up her son and says, “You know, I’m rather glad I can’t have the baby. He wasn’t much fun.” Though she quickly comes around to the humane point of view, even Dr. Rolland “thought for one minute that all the wealth in the world could take the place of Isobel, no matter how poor she was.” The story could have been more interesting if Lila had been a valid potential mother, and we could have had some discussion about parenting and wealth and class, but unfortunately author Judson ducked this deeper subject, just skimming the surface with comments like, “He would go to the best schools, have the best food and clothing that money could buy.” Designer clothing obviously doesn’t equal good parenting, but we never hear that from Judson. Even Man Number Four—“though his heart wasn’t in it,” a lousy cop-out—makes an attempt to persuade Isobel to give up her child; he is actually Lila’s lawyer, and we could talk about whether a person’s lawyer should attempt to accomplish their client’s bad decisions, but we don’t. Only honest Sergeant Bill never doubts Isobel as a parent, and his good heartedness earns him no credit with Dr. Rolland. The fact that Isobel is a gypsy also lends a tinge of racism to the entire incident—no one is asking the dumped Jenny to give up her boy, and it isn’t until Isobel has rejected all exorbitant offers that they tell her that as Jerome’s widow she is now quite wealthy, and can give her son all the same luxuries that Lila Vale can.

Perfunctory, obvious, and dull, this book is far from Jeanne Judson’s best. It’s only the sixth one we’ve read of a dozen nurse novels she seems to have written, though, so maybe we’ll do better next time. It’s just especially sad to see buried here the bones of a good book that we were never given.

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