Sunday, February 27, 2022

Surgeon of Distinction

By Mary Burchell
(pseud. Ida Cook), ©1959

Maxwell Perring was a surgeon with a special distinction about him; “star quality” it might have been called in another profession. Nurse Alma Miles admired his work, but had never thought about him as a man. All her thinking of that sort was centred on Jeremy Truscott—and he was presenting quite a problem.


“You can’t address anyone as ‘sir’ when he’s proposing to you.” 

“Few people, she found, can resist the exquisite temptation of talking about themselves, if a sympathetic audience seems available.”

“She wondered if anyone else had ever been so silly as to indulge in romantic nostalgia over an appendectomy.”

“Don’t praise him too affectionately. It puts a frightful strain on my regard for him.”

Some nurse novels have plots so intricate that it takes many paragraphs to convey the story. This charming story of Mary Burchell’s is not such a one, but she has the talent to execute a simple story that is nonetheless layered and emotionally complex that the lack of story line is no hindrance at all.. 

The plot, such as it is, is that Nurse Alma Miles has been seeing Jeremy Truscott, and has been hoping they would become engaged, when he starts blowing her off—and eventually she sees him going out with Nurse Geraldine Grayce, who had “a withdrawn, almost enigmatic quality which was not entirely friendly.” “She was quite courteous when spoken to, but no actual warmth emanated from her.” To escape from her heartbreak, Alma accepts a job at another hospital working with distinguished Dr. Maxwell Perring. Initially one might be concerned that he is one of those love interests: He has “a quiet assurance which bordered on arrogance, and the faintly sardonic curve to his mouth showed that he was not a man who suffered fools gladly.” He’s a brilliantly gifted surgeon, but he also remembers to tip the waitress: “It’s nice to have someone really knowledgeable at one’s elbow,” he tells Alma after her first day working alongside him. He’s warm, friendly, and respectful gently humorous, and “very good-looking,” of course!

As one of many quite astonishing coincidences in this book, Jeremy is run over right outside Alma’s new hospital, and Dr. Perring and Alma perform the life-saving brain surgery. But when Jeremy wakes up, he does not remember Geraldine, only Alma—and is convinced they are engaged. Sent to his flat, Alma finds a ring with Geraldine’s name on it, and bringing it to Jeremy, he proposes to her. She accepts, in true VNRN trope, because “he must not have his recovery jeopardized by the faintest hint of the situation”—but she is an honorable, honest person with no intention of holding to the lie, and so tells Dr. Perring the whole awkward story, and gives him the ring to hold, because “it isn’t mine. I can’t bear the sight of it. I can’t go on living a lie like this!”

But gossip gets out, as it is wont to do in a hospital, that Alma and Jeremy are engaged. Fortunately, it only takes 15 pages before Jeremy remembers all, and Alma honorably gives him up. Miserable to lose Jeremy a second time, Alma goes out for a walk and wanders into a ballet—and amazingly, Dr. Perring is there alone as well, in the seat next to hers! He takes her to dinner afterward and suggests that she can escape the hit to her reputation by becoming engaged to him, though he is fully aware that she is in love with Jeremy.

She agrees, because she has a deep esteem for Dr. Perring and thinks that marriage to him could be a moderate success—and then we slowly watch the unfolding as an upstanding, honorable woman dumped by a shallow cad but now allied with a like-minded, dependable man evolves in her feelings. There’s a silly misunderstanding in the end in which the hitherto strong and outspoken Alma is inexplicably unable to correct a stupid situation, but this is the only black mark on this otherwise fine, subtle book.

Alma is a worthy heroine: She is an accomplished scrub nurse with a strong sense of humor and (most of the time, anyway) a dignity and backbone that allow her to insist on and command respect. Max could have been one of those older, colder men who are forced on us as a love interest but who are in fact frightening and creepy, but he is finely drawn as a dignified surgeon with a real personality outside the OR. The writing can sparkle quietly, such as when dawn breaks on a heartbroken Alma who had cried all night: “Monday morning came and Alma was still alive.” The only other flaw this book has, outside of the ubiquitous misunderstanding, is the large number of stunning coincidences on which it hinges, but this is such a minor problem in what is after all a work of fiction, particularly in view of the many lovely moments this book offers the reader. How satisfying to find not just a surgeon of distinction, but a book of distinction as well.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Behind Hospital Walls

By Ruth Dorset
(pseud. William E. Daniel Ross), ©1970
Also published as Head Nurse

Lena Mitchell’s life changed when her younger sister Jan came to work for her at Middleboro General. Jan was blonde, lovely, vivacious—but also, Lena knew, lacking the dedication she expected from her staff. When a patient of Jan’s died, Lena could find reason to excuse her—for the responsibility may well have belonged to an older doctor kept at Middleboro by political intrigue. Lena had vowed to aid young Dr. Jim Porter in his efforts to save the hospital from such corruption. To the last, she hoped for Jan’s help. Until Jan turned on her—and made a play for the man she loved.


“Lena made a quick check of his condition and confirmed the fact that he was in a coma.” 

Nurse Lena Mitchell works the night shift at Middleboro General, which is located in Massachusetts, 90 miles north of Boston—and never mind distance actually puts you well into New Hampshire. She has a problem in her younger sister Jan, who also went to nursing school, and who is “giddy and anything but a dedicated nurse. ‘I don’t intend to be one of those self-sacrificing nurses who wear their flat heels out on a hospital floor for fifty years. I’m going to marry me a rich doctor or patient, whoever offers first, and retire just as soon as I can,’” the lovely blonde had confessed on the day of her graduation from nursing school. So when Jan calls Lena, who is the charge nurse of her floor, and asks for a job, these qualities—even more than the minor issue of nepotism—should keep Lena from agreeing. “She really hadn’t had much choice,” we’re told, so Jan gets a job—and upon moving to Middleboro persuades Lena to move into a bungalow with her. Can you say bad idea

Premonitions prove accurate when, upon arriving in Middleboro, Jan immediately puts the moves on Dr. Jim Porter, a “young” man with graying hair who had just lost “a beloved wife” to cancer. Jim, who had been dating Lena, is soon paying Jan a great deal of attention, which does make you think a lot less of him, both for preferring looks to character and for moving on so quickly. And a third of the way into the book he’s proven himself to be even more fickle, dumping Jan to go back to Lena, just days after he’d asked Jan to marry him.

Jan doesn’t exactly help her cause; when she has skipped work to date a former patient who owns a club that is rumored to be “a rendezvous for underworld characters,” instead of firing her, Lena flat-out lies to Jim about Jan’s new boyfriend and tries to convince him to stay with Jan—but the next minute she’s kissing him. When Jan walks in on them, he tells her, “I make no apologies,” but then adds, “you should be wise enough not to enlarge on the meaning of what you saw,” suggesting that Lena means nothing to him. What a guy! Can he have one sister and kiss the other? Jan, anyway, knows a liar when she sees one and promptly moves out of the bungalow, leaving Lena in a lurch with now twice the living expenses to cover. Who saw that coming?

Elsewhere in the plot, Jim has been trying to convince the mayor to allocate funds to improve the hospital, but he is convinced that the mayor is so deeply embedded in corrupt schemes that there is no city money left over for the hospital. Then Lena, on her way to work, comes across a car crash at which the young female passenger flings a suitcase at Lena and runs away, and Lena finds the driver dead. Turns out the man is the assistant mayor, and the suitcase is full of cash—which is promptly stolen out of Lena’s locker at the hospital. How can she and Jim prove the graft that was not really evidenced by the now-missing money? Oh, and narcotics have been going missing for the past few months—could that be tied in? Only marginally, and there’s another bald spot on the tires of this bus.

It’s a fairly predictable storyline that wraps up unsatisfactorily. There’s the unsuccessful attempt on Lena’s life, but she’s had years of professional training to keep cool during emergencies, so she responds by screaming a lot. Then Jan turns out to be even more of an evil louse, but in the end she’s really sorry, because “I didn’t dream it would lead to this; that they’d try to kill you,” she says; she’d just been intending for her generous big sister to eat her heart out as a lonely spinster her whole life. “Can you forgive me?” Lena “smiled up at the pretty sister. ‘Of course,’ she said,” and that might be the worst, except that Jim implies Lena will be giving up nursing, as he tells her, “From now on I have other duties in mind for you.” I’m no fan of William “Dan” Ross, who has a habit of creating shallow, unlikeable heroines (see Five Nurses and Resort Nurse, for two egregious examples). This isn’t his worst book ever, but unfortunately that’s the best I can say about it.

This book was also published under
the provocative title Head Nurse
but with an equally hideous cover 

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Stop-Over Nurse

By Fern Shepard
(pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1968

Brenda Gregory, a nurse, was driving a drugged woman patient to the hospital when their car crashed over a cliff, the patient died in flames which burned her beyond recognition, and Brenda, surviving, suffered injuries which required plastic surgery to her face and wiped out all memory of the past. Gradually she recovered in the confines of Stop-Over House, a convalescent home in a California beach town, and even began nursing again there. Then suddenly her memory returned, and she found she had mistakenly been identified as the dead woman and was unable to prove her true identity. Furthermore, a certain quack psychiatrist who was interested in keeping her dead so she could not reveal what she knew about him was willing to swear to the lie and declare her a mental case. 


“Six miles all told! She could never walk it. She’d fall dead in her tracks.” 

For the first few chapters of this book, I would have bet hefty sums that I had read it before. After a thorough search of my blog, I found a couple of books that could have been sisters to this one (the pretty good Masquerade Nurse and the god-awful Jane Arden’s Home-Coming), but no identical twins. So it was a mistaken identity, which as it happens is exactly what this book is about. Nurse Brenda Gregory had caught her awful boyfriend, psychiatrist Dr. Nelson Ludlow, injecting STP, a hallucinogenic that had its debut in the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in the mid-1960s, into Brenda’s friend Kitty Carter. Stuffing Kitty into the car, Brenda heads for the hospital, but is hit by another car and knocked over a cliff. The resulting crash and fire kills Kitty and leave her body burned beyond recognition, while Brenda suffers amnesia and terrible facial trauma that requires the best efforts of a plastic surgeon, who has given her a different appearance. When the book begins, it’s more than a year later, Brenda is waking up at Stop-Over House, a convalescent home for people with psychiatric illness, and slowly realizes she’s an employee there, formerly a patient, and is known to all as Kitty Carter—seems Dr. Ludlow and her sister Eve had at the time of the accident both identified her as Kitty, and since she had amnesia she had been thinking she was Kitty. The trick is, how is she going to prove that she is actually Brenda if her ex-fiancĂ© and sister say she’s not? I dunno, fingerprints? Dental records? Birth marks? Blood type? Consult a lawyer? Nah. 

Nonetheless, Brenda finds an ally in Kitty’s brother Tom Scott, who is a famous foreign correspondent and who does believe that she’s not Kitty. Tom hatches a plan to catch Dr. Ludlow in the lie: He will tell the press that he has become engaged to her, thereby getting her story into the papers—because her story on its own wouldn’t be at all interesting. The crazy ploy actually works: Ludlow takes the bait and turns up at Brenda’s house to murder her, but it seems that Tom has not bothered to take any precautions once he got the story out. Ludlow nearly succeeds, aided and abetted at every turn by Brenda herself, who first lets the psychopath in—he’s taken so many psychedelics that he thinks he’s the Roman emperor Nero—then fails to telephone the cops or shout for help, sits beside him, and takes the drink he offers her, even though she was “feeling ill with alarm,” all because “she did not want him causing a disturbance.” How considerate! Fortunately, though, two friends of Brenda’s drop by before she’s had more than a small sip of the poisoned cocktail, so she survives.

Next Ludlow tries to kill Brenda’s sister Eve, since Eve was in on the original scheme to misidentify Brenda, and then there’s another hare-brained scheme to get Dr. Ludlow to admit that “Kitty” is really Brenda, and this one succeeds, so everyone lives happily ever after. First, though, we have to a bit of dancing around, with Brenda saying that she thinks Tom doesn’t love her and Tom insisting that he really does. But I will acknowledge that the ending was actually a little sweet.

It’s not the most original of novels, and seems to be not much more than a heaping handful of Florence Stonebraker’s usual tricks—psychedelic drugs, car crashes, amnesia, crazy psychiatrists, and characters named Kitty (see her heroines in Night Nurse, Nurse Kitty’s Secret, and The New Nurse). The writing is fairly perfunctory, with no real amusing quotes to offer you, certainly not what Stonebraker is capable of (Doctor by Day, City Doctor). This is one of four books I’ve read of hers that were published in 1968; an author that busy can’t always knock it out of the park.  William Faulkner churned out what he called “potboilers”—books written largely to earn money—but some of those also earned Pulitzer prizes. Stonebraker will win no awards with this attempt to pay the rent, and more is the pity, since I know she can do so much better.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Nurse Julie

By Mary Mann Fletcher, ©1967

When lovely, blond Julie Blake saved the life of young Rammie Wynant—the frail, neglected son of millionaire Bram Wyant—even the arrogant Dr. Ben Foreman had a few words of praise for her. Certainly Julie was a brilliant nurse. But she was also a woman, and she soon found herself hoping that Dr. Foreman was gazing at her with more than professional interest. And when Julie suddenly found herself being courted by a mysterious stranger, the doctor’s jealous reaction suggested that his interest was not just her imagination. What were Ben Foreman’s true feelings toward Julie? And who was this enigmatic stranger who claimed to be just a beachcomber … but whose sophisticated manner suggested much more? A near tragedy revealed the truth about both men. Now Julie had to discover the truth about herself.


“Any night of the week in emergency rooms of hospitals all over the world brings grief and heartache and harrowing sounds of pain and despair, but Saturday night brings more misery than has a right to exist.”

“Ben Foreman gives me a trachelodynia—that’s a pain in the neck, as if you didn’t know.” 

I really do not understand why there is such a firmly established trope in nurse romance novels in which a moody, mean, distant man is exactly the guy our heroine tumbles for. Why is that a thing? It makes absolutely no sense, and yet here we are, for the hundredth time, meeting “easily the most unpopular doctor at Hope Hospital with the nursing staff, because of his rough manner and abrupt way of talking” and “black moods and general surliness,” Dr. Ben Foreman. One night, alone in the ED, Nurse Julie Blake oversteps her scope of practice and suctions a choking nine-year-old boy. Brusquely shoved aside when Dr. Foreman shows up, she talks to the housekeeper who’d brought the boy in and learns that he’d been eating peanuts, and suggests to the doctor that the kid likely aspirated one. Turns out she’s right, but Dr. Foreman can only chastise her for having taken off her regulation stockings in the hot Florida night. “But somehow every time she was around him, she found her heart beating faster and she had trouble keeping her mind on her work.” It’s hard to understand why a talented, intelligent woman doesn’t think she deserves better.

We are allowed into Dr. Foreman’s crabbed little mind, only to discover a personality deeply in need of therapy. He’s an orphan who had fought hard to succeed but was sponsored in medical school by a single rich man who essentially adopted him—so he certainly could have had it a lot worse. Ben has decided to be an “open-heart” surgeon, and “would have years and years of study ahead of him, as well as additional years of residency. He never thought of girls, never dreamed of marriage—he couldn’t afford such a luxury, not for at least another five years. His hatefulness toward Julie in the emergency room was a defense mechanism,” because he seems to believe that he can have either his career or a girlfriend, but not both. Come to think of it, this is exactly the choice the women are often forced to make: career or marriage? Except that for Ben, it’s a temporary sacrifice, whereas for the women, it’s permanent.

So throughout most of the book, we watch Ben being angry, hostile ass, and we watch her waffle: One minute she’s mooning over him and the next deciding that “she actually didn’t enjoy being with Ben—he was much too disagreeable to her, too likely to cut the ground from under her with a word or a look.” “Why should she be so anxious to please a man who either ignored her or insulted her?” Good question! And one that, unfortunately, we will never find a satisfactory answer.

A hundred pages into this fairly dull book, out of nowhere Ben walks Julie to the bus stop and kisses her goodnight. She’s struck starry-eyed, but the next day she’s off for the weekend to the home of the choking boy from the opening chapter, Rammie Wyant, invited by the housekeeper while Rammie’s father Bram is away on a business trip—a bizarre situation, completely unprofessional for both women. While sunning herself by the beach cabana, Julie meets a beachcomber and spends the afternoon frolicking in the sun with him, then out for a luxe date—“My goodness, twenty dollars for two dinners!” she exclaims. “What are you anyway—a millionaire?” Of course, the answer is yes, he’s Bram, hoping to get Julie to like him for himself, not his money.

Initially it seems like Bram will succeed, but then there’s a hurricane, and Ben and Julie are trapped in the hospital, caring for a house full of patients on a short staff—and even on a good night, Julie and one other nurse manage 17 patients (today, six patients for a night nurse is usually the max). The hospital, which in a side plot is on the verge of being closed down by cold, unfeeling real estate developers eyeing the hospital’s prime location on the Florida coast, is eventually saved as you knew it would be, but by an out-of-left-field bizarre coincidence that felt completely lame. In their joy, Ben and Julie start kissing on the sun porch, and somehow this is meant to signify that “it was Ben that she wanted, had wanted all along,” so there’s another disappointing ending, in which she discards a kind, thoughtful man who is happy to be with her for one who is an unmitigated jerk through much of the book. Author Mary Mann Fletcher seems to like horrible men, as she created several in the D-rated Psychiatric Nurse, a book so bad it might be worth reading. I’m not sure, though, that I find this C-grade book a step up, because in the end I can’t really recommend you spend any time on Nurse Julie.