Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Love the Physician

By Hilda Nickson, ©1960
Cover illustration by Jack Harman

Doctor Laura Travers had always mothered and taken charge of her young sister, and when an unfortunate episode threatened to ruin Jacquel’ne's life she was only too willing to give up her job in London and help her sister to make a fresh start. So they retreated to a remote Norfolk village, where things at last seemed to be soring themselves out—but would they ever be able to escape from the past forever?

GRADE: B

BEST QUOTES:
“A raging torrent is always more interesting than a frozen lake.” 

“One’s follies were never committed in complete isolation.”

REVIEW:
Dr. Laura Travers has raised her younger sister Jacqueline since Laura was 16 and their parents were killed in a car crash. Through sheer grit and determination, despite having no money, Laura was able to put herself through medical school while supporting Jackie. Whether she always was or was forced to be, though, Laura is now “cool, self-sufficient and rather domineering … apt to take charge of people and situations.” She’s taking charge again now—because Jackie had gotten herself mixed up with a con man, Dennis Logan, who had used Jackie as a decoy in his swindling schemes, and Jackie had only barely been found innocent at the trial that had sent Dennis to jail. To escape the publicity, Laura quits her job in London and applies for a position in a small village in Norfolk.

At the interview, Laura is bafflingly outraged to discover that Dr. Adam Strickland, her would-be partner, is a young man. She’s overtly rude to Adam when she thinks he is an imposter, and barely less so when she discovers the truth; she speaks “coolly” three times during their four-page interview. She condescends to accept the job, though “their relationship might well be stormy.” And that’s putting it mildly! She is usually rude or seething when they speak, all the while convinced that Adam is falling for Jackie, and she works assiduously to promote the relationship. Nonetheless, he’s already kissing Laura and pulling the pins from her hair in chapter three. It’s the patented love-hate relationship in classic proportions.  

Contrast the angry Laura with Adam, a flimsy sort who campaigns for a seat on the town council by delivering stand-up comedy routines instead of speeches; “life to him is one long joke,” she thinks. He’s relentlessly pursued by town rich girl Pauline Brimsden, whose father is the business leader in town and the council representative responsible for squashing plans to install a town sewage system. Adam drifts along with Pauline, and when rumors run through town that he is engaged to her, he makes no attempt to correct the story even to Laura when she refers to Pauline as his fiancĂ©e.

Then Laura, encountering numerous sore throats and stomach aches in town that she chalks up to poor sanitation, decides to crusade for a public sewage plant and starts to make headway among other town councilors. When Adam finds out about Laura’s campaign, he loses his cool, bizarrely furious that she hasn’t consulted with him before starting her efforts. “Of all the bossy, domineering females I’ve ever come across!” he shouts, apparently forgetting that Laura had tried to discuss it with him, but he’d been playing with a wind-up toy clown during their entire conversation and had told her she should not expect him to get “hot under the collar” about the situation because “I’ve been brought up with it,” before dropping the conversation altogether to answer a telephone call from Pauline. When Laura curiously decides to apologize, Adam is won over: “Was this the real Laura Travers? This soft-voiced woman with the humble, contrite expression?” Why must her “real” personality be the meek one, and why is this so much more attractive?

There’s another man in town, Alec, who hangs around the Travers sisters as well, and Laura tries to convince herself that she should marry him, almost as hard as she works to push Jackie and Adam together. The writing on the wall is so staggeringly large, however, that Laura’s incessant worries and maneuverings quickly become tiresome and hypocritical—one minute she’s happy Jackie is holding Adam’s hand, and the next she’s furiously convinced that Adam is just playing games with Jackie and is going to break her heart—and all the while “she could not understand the ache in her throat and in her heart.”

Eventually Dennis escapes from jail and turns up in town with a gun and a letter written by Jackie that makes it sound like she was involved in his schemes, so the sisters are essentially being held hostage. How will all this sort out? If you guessed, as I did, that somewhere along the line there would be a car crash, you’d be right!

The problem with a character like Laura Travers is that we are supposed to disapprove of her assertive nature. We’re told she’s a “fiery-tempered shrew” who likes “to boss you and organize you and generally run your life. It won’t be long before Dr. Travers tries to run the village.” “Bossy” is a pejorative never used to describe a man—men are just exercising their natural leadership skills. But it’s peculiar here that Adam doesn’t really seem to have any, and just drifts along—even in his moment of triumph, when he’s re-elected to the town council, it’s shy Mr. Baxter who requests a committee to look into a sewage system; Adam only “reluctantly” seconds the motion, he states in his big speech, saying that he’s promised a rich man on the town council not to bring it up, “And so, even if the whole of Westhorpe dies of typhoid fever, I have my promise to keep. I will drop the subject and leave it to those of you whose consciences have recently been stirred, very appropriately, by a woman, new to this village. Gentlemen, the matter is entirely in your hands.” Somehow this makes him a hero of the town.

Ironically, in the end, it is even suggested that soon Laura will be elected to the town council. Is she a success for having put the sewage system across? Is she unlikeable for her assertive character? Sadly, I think the truth of the story is that even now, sixty years after this book was written, strong women are both—successful and accomplished, perhaps, but also struggling with the stereotypes that cause others to disapprove of the very qualities that bring them success. If Laura had been more like Adam, a go-along-get-along kind of person, she and her sister would have been wards of the state, Laura would never have been a doctor, and the town of Westhorpe would still be pooping in their drinking water. But Laura would have been so much more admirable and charismatic!

In the end, if you can tolerate Laura’s steamrolling endeavors in her personal life and her sister’s, ignore the bigotry she generates in others when she campaigns for a better town, and overlook the success Adam paradoxically achieves when he literally refuses to try, you might find this book more enjoyable than I did.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Love ... the Surgeon

By Hilda Pressley, ©1961 
Cover illustration by Bern Smith

Badly hurt by an unhappy love affair, Sister Beth Anderson tried to avoid further disaster by adopting an aloof coldness toward men. Would the kindly consultant, Owen Hastings, make her change her mind—or, as she became unwillingly attracted to the philandering R.S.O., Andrew Longford, would history repeat itself?

GRADE: B

BEST QUOTES:
“On duty, you give an impression of being one of those entirely dedicated women whose only use for the opposite sex is for ministering to them, whose nature in general matches the stiff starchiness of the uniform she wears.” 

“Not that I do much to be talked about, but you never know—I might want to some time.”

“I never met a man yet who didn’t know how to wriggle out of something he didn’t really want to do.”

REVIEW:
The start of this book made me a little bit nervous. Nurse Beth Anderson, the head nurse of the Men’s Surgical ward, is a snippy, embittered woman, having been dumped by her fiancĂ© for her best friend. This has left her “headed straight for the category of soured old maid,” as she is a harsh taskmaster of the young nurses on her ward and is cold and aloof with the doctors, especially Dr. Andrew Langford, the new surgeon, who insists on being introduced to every young nurse—and then seems to be dating a good number of them, even if they are literal teenagers (albeit shortly to age out) and he is about twice their age. This nurse heroine type is one that is wearisome because they are generally unsympathetic, so it’s quite hard to like them, or to look forward to spending another 100-plus pages with them. 

Fortunately, Beth starts to evolve quickly. She unbends enough to make friends with one of the surgeons who is recovering from an appendectomy on her floor, mostly because he is kind and calm and almost inhumanly even-tempered. Owen Hastings is the nicest man alive—but really that’s the best she can say about him, that he’s really nice. Their friendship grows slowly, and soon she is befriended by a nurse on another ward, Dorothy Hughes, who is looking for someone to share a flat with. Owen helps them find one—conveniently located nearby his own apartment, so he can always drop by—and soon the two women are hosting dinner parties and having people over for drinks and conversation, even that bounder Andrew. Now Beth is thinking that she might be in love with Owen, though when he is around “she felt no quickening of her heartbeat or any other emotional disturbance.” And after on of their early dates, “she was glad he made no attempt to kiss her. If he had, both the evening and their whole relationship would have been spoiled.”

As much as she disapproves of Andrew, Beth still goes out with him from time to time, and even if they argue a lot, she still seems to be gradually warming to him—and he to her. As their friendship warms, so too does the one between Dorothy and Owen, who seem to whisper together when Beth is out of the room. When Owen has to leave town for two weeks on business, Beth and Andrew spend most of their evenings together, and soon Beth’s heart, which never thumped for Owen, is pounding for Andrew. But when Owen comes home and proposes to Beth, she accepts—and when Andrew snubs her cruelly in the following days, she soon figures out with whom she’s actually in love.

It's a fairly predictable story right from the beginning, but it was actually pleasant to watch it unfold. Owen and Dorothy are the calm, pleasant characters we’re told they are, though Andrew doesn’t have much life to him, and certainly not persuadingly inducing Beth’s tachycardia. Beth’s growth back into a caring human being was believable, even if her reason for having turned into a popsicle wasn’t, and the final disaster that brings everything to rights is a bit much. Still, it was an enjoyable story, and a worthwhile companion for an afternoon.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Nurse in Residence

By Arlene Hale, ©1968 


Lovely April Douglas grew up haunted by the disappearance of her father. What kind of man was he? Why had he left his wife and infant daughter? Had he really perished at sea, his body never found? That ghost of the past now came to trouble April again, turning her dream of a job as nurse in a luxury rest home into a nightmare. Sign after sign pointed to her father’s having returned alive, yet the handsome architect who claimed April’s heart only mocked her belief that her father was somewhere tantalizingly near. Even the attentive young doctor who kept coming out second best in April’s affections would not help her in her hunt. And now April was forced to face not only painful doubts about her father, but about all the men in her life, as she wondered if she would ever know a love that did not fail the test of her need.

GRADE: C

BEST QUOTES:
“It was good to let Reon tell her what to do, to lift the burden from her shoulders.” 

“What goes on in that nurses’ office, anyway? I thought you were there to look after patients, not have necking sessions with the doctor!”

“Don’t be a flirt. Ain’t becoming in a woman, and it gets a man in a peck of trouble.”

“You don’t know how it is when you get old, April. You start looking back and see all the mistakes you’ve made—and if ti’s not too late, you try to do something about them.”

“For the rest of the day, I want your mind on nothing but me. Okay?”

REVIEW:
It’s an impressive talent that can fill 160 pages without really saying anything at all, and Arlene Hale is just such a writer. Nurse April Douglas is an orphan, only child of a woman with no first name who died ten years ago. Her father was a sailor who she believes died when she was five—but then she gets a visit from Maude Pringle, who had been her mother’s best friend. Maude has suddenly decided to visit April to give her some breaking news—her father, Frank Douglas, may still be alive! Ten years ago he was seen in Britton Beach, the very town April is now living in! You see why Maude rushed right over! 

April is dating architect Reon Wheeler, and the pair tell each other that they’re in love, but he’s a distant sort of guy who’s busy a lot, plus he works with this hot interior designer named Olga. April has another man hanging around, though, Dr. Keith Foster, and he’s always grabbing April and pressing his fingers painfully into her arms and kissing her even when she tells him not to. Nothing says true love like sexual assault, so we are not surprised that April’s knees have an annoying tendency to go to jelly when he’s around. Soon she’s kissing him back and going out to dinner with him when Reon is in New York “on business” with Olga. On one of her dates with Keith, he tells her he loves her and proposes. “I don’t like being unfaithful,” she tells Keith, and then the pair kiss a lot.

Then crotchety Sam Sullivan moves into the old folks’ home where April works. She tries repeatedly to make friends with the old goat, but he is just not having it. Finally she can stand him no longer, and huffs, “Why do you reject every overture of friendliness I make?” in her usual informal, folksy way. 

Then April decides she’s going to spend all her savings to try to track down her father, without any real explanation of why it’s so important to her. “We could get acquainted,” is all she has to say about it. Then someone breaks into her apartment and gets into a box in which she keeps personal items, and moves an ivory statuette that her father had once sent her mother from the top of the pile to the bottom! That’s the end of that, and then April finds a clue, a letter from her father headed “aboard the SSBR.” This very skimpy clue is supposed to help the detectives find a ship her father had been on, locate other crewmen and interview them to see if they know what happened to Frank Douglas. Then some flowers mysteriously turn up on her mother’s grave, sent from Britton Beach. “Did she dare to suppose it might be her father?” She did! And then it turns out the janitor in the old folks’ home has a tattoo that says SSBR—with her mother’s name, too! Before she can act on this clue, however, Reon is trapped in a building cave-in, and has to be dug out—but it turns out that Olga the interior desecrator is more worried about Reon than April is.

Nurse in Residence is a longish story with nowhere to go and no real engine to drive it, since we’re never really given much understanding about why April is so insistent on tracking down her father. Maybe it’s understandable, but a paragraph explaining her need would have been helpful. The scenery along the way is also fairly dull, as the “clues” are fairly lame, and it’s hard to see how they can be helpful—papers shuffled in a box? Flowers sent to a woman’s grave ten years after her death? It was hard to care much about this fairly dull “mystery,” much less its central romance, so it’s hard for me to recommend that you spend much time with it yourself.

 

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Registered Nurse

By Paul Ernst, ©1960

Nurse Carol Bond was a witnessed to death! She had arrived at the scene of the accident seconds after the two cars had crashed head-on. The victims—wealthy George Caldwell and his lifelong friend, Henry Ebon—died a few minutes later. But which man died first? To the heirs the answer was worth $1,500,000. But to Carol it marked to the beginning of frightening events that threatened her career-- and her life. For someone who would stop at nothing—even murder—put this pretty young witness into a very well-built frame.

GRADE: B+

BEST QUOTES:
“This was a girl who could carry her own suitcase and handle her own hysterics.” 

REVIEW:
The inside cover blurb for this book declares it “combines suspense and romance in a compelling novel,” and this is a very accurate description. Front and center is a mystery about who is trying to frame Nurse Carol Bond, while in the background a romance blooms between Carol and a young attorney trying to clear her name. Throughout we are treated with some really fine writing by an author who was known for penning the original 24 Avenger novels. At the end of the day, though, it’s more mystery than romance, so I feel compelled to mark it down slightly. 

Nurse Carol Bond is on her way home from work as a private duty nurse on the evening shift when she happens upon a car crash. Two men from one of the cars lie on the pavement, rapidly shuffling off this mortal coil. There is another woman who pops up to help Carol tend the victims, who are both dead within 15 minutes of her arrival. But who died first? And why would anyone care? Well, one of the men, George Caldwell, was a very wealthy businessman, while the other, Dr. Henry Ebon, was his not-so-rich best friend. Caldwell’s will leaves his very large estate to Dr. Ebon, but if the doctor predeceases him, the estate goes to his extended family. And Carol is quite certain that Caldwell died first, of a sucking chest wound.

The next day, a delivery boy drops off a luxurious mink stole at Carol’s apartment. Carol’s best friend Arlene—the wise-cracking, smartass type—tries to help Carol figure out who might have given to her: “I’ve got it. A grateful patient. Someone whose fevered brow you’ve cooled recently.” A few days later, Carol receives a notice from the bank in the mail stating that her account has been credited with a cash deposit of $1,000. What could all this be about? Summoned to Caldwell’s attorney’s office that afternoon, it quickly becomes clear: Someone who might have benefited from Caldwell’s estate is using these anonymous gifts to throw suspicion on Carol’s testimony. The attorney for Dr. Ebon’s estate, Andy Stewart, quickly comes to appreciate Carol’s veracity, and her figure. Soon he is leading to chase all over town for clues and suspects, with Carol acting as Dr. Watson.

It really is a very entertaining book, with excellent writing from the first paragraph: “Cocked up at a crazy angle was a single beam, piercing the midnight sky like a slanted finger.” Carol is a sturdy, competent character, who “did not have that nice firm little chin for nothing.” She can figure a few things out for herself and isn’t just led around by Andy in their pursuit of the truth and the guilty party. The answer to the mystery is not easily deduced, and the plotting moves along at a good pace, but not so fast you can’t follow each development. Again, my only real problem with the book is that the romance is the most predictable and boring aspect of it, revealed in fairly plain prose such as “Carol was beginning to think that perhaps they added up to something more than average.” And I really wish we had spent a lot more time with bestie Arlene, who was by far the most interesting character in the book. If you are looking for a VNRN that is not at all the usual fare, this book exactly fits that bill, and if the ending is sealed with a charming kiss, we can only wish that there had been more of that elsewhere in the book.