By Ann Gilmer (pseud. William Daniel Ross), ©1964
“V” is for Virginia … missing when needed on call … because she was nursing her fiancé … fresh from a drunken brawl.” The cruel verse appeared on the Brentwood Hospital bulletin board the day after Ruth Crane assisted at an emergency operation in place of the regular OR standby nurse, Virginia Roberts. It was the first in a series of “poetic” attacks on various members of the hospital staff—and there was no clue as to who was responsible. But the trouble at Brentwood began at a time when Ruth was already disturbed by something else, something more personal. She suspected her friend, Helen Sherwood, was in love with Dr. Jim Leinster, the brilliant young surgeon Ruth planned to marry. Was it Ruth’s imagination, or was Him beginning to respond? Then the bulletin board poet struck again, and Ruth forgot her suspicions. Because this time his target was Jim, and the charge so serious it could destroy him …
“Perhaps it wasn’t reasonable to expect a girl as attractive as Helen to be too reserved and solemn.”
“This is why nursing is not an overcrowded profession. Word has gotten around that it isn’t all handsome doctors and gay pulse-taking.”
“You look very sweet in a uniform, Miss Crane. You should wear one all the time.”
Ann Crane is not actually an Emergency Department nurse … or a surgical nurse, so it’s a little baffling why Dr. Jim Leinster should call for Ann in the middle of the night in a snowstorm to assist in a lobectomy after the usual scrub nurse, Virginia Roberts, didn’t answer her phone when she was on call. His reason for choosing Ann is never explained—maybe the fact that she’s his girlfriend has something to do with it?—but after her single performance passing instruments, she’s asked to join the surgery staff. There she’s on hand to witness the repercussions after a really lame poem slandering Virginia is found tacked to the main lobby bulletin board, with crowds of people clustering around to read it and not one of them thinking to pull it down, not even the nursing supervisor who discovers it. Virginia is accused by the “poet” of staying home to assist her husband after a drunken brawl rather than Jim in the OR, and the following morning Virginia quits in tears.
The next target is a kindly old repairman, who is accused of stealing supplies. He admits to the charge even though it wasn’t him, because he thinks it’s his son-in-law and wants to protect the younger man. That’s the end of that plot thread, because then a nursing student is accused of being married, which apparently is against regulations, and everyone is worried that she’ll be expelled from the nursing school—what kind of a world was that, when a woman’s marital status could get her barred from school? (She’s just suspended, but sadly she attempts suicide over the whole mess.)
In between all the lunchroom discussions of who the bad poet might be, Ann is worrying about her boyfriend Jim’s inability to pop the question. “There’s nothing I want more than to ask you to be my wife,” he doesn’t exactly explain. “I have a valid reason for delaying things. You’ll understand later.” When the mystery is revealed, it’s not clear why delaying things would make a difference, but there’s not a lot about this book that is clear. For example, the setup of Ann having this great friend in Helen as a best friend is completely destroyed by the fact that Helen is mean and unfriendly. Jim calles her “jealous and spoiled. And at the hospital quite a few people think she’s hard to get along with.” Ann herself agrees that Helen is spoiled, “but she’s been wonderful to me.” If she was in the past, she’s not once in this book.
Eventually, when Jim is targeted—and you knew he would be—his secret is brought to light: He’d been in a bad car crash as a college student and had become a “goofball addict,” as it is so adorably phrased, hooked on barbiturates to manage the post-concussive headaches (clearly the Sacklers hadn’t started pushing OxyContin when this book was written). Though he’d managed to finish his undergraduate degree, medical school, and years of residency, when he’d finally become an attending physician he ran into trouble because the pills made him sleep a lot, so much so that he didn’t answer the phone when an emergency case was brought in and the patient died, another implausible detail in a wildly implausible story—there’s no other surgeon available in the entire hospital? He’d gone to rehab and recovered, but now that everyone knows that he is a recovered addict, his career will be ruined! But Ann reminds him he’s been practicing in town long enough to have built up a solid reputation—and then the phone rings and it’s a woman asking him to remove her gallbladder when he has a free minute, so you know everything is going to be all right.
When the mystery poet is revealed, the answer is as stupid as everything else in this book. The reason why this person would have wanted to target all these people, how they got the information, none of it makes any sense. But when I realized that Ann Gilmer is the pen name of William Daniel Ross, that was the first thing about this whole book that made sense. This is the eleventh book of his that I’ve read—the majority of them earning C grades—and the muddled, ridiculous plot, the flat characters, the constant contradictions (even the distance Ann lives from the hospital varies) all fit perfectly with Ross’s prior work. If the mystery poem element adds a small degree of interest to this book, when the answer is revealed, I just felt like a chump for caring, since it’s clear that Ross didn’t care enough to put together a reasonable motive for the crime. Valentine has proved yet again that it’s a terrible publishing house, with the second-worst overall GPA for its books (only Magnum, which also specialized in horrible covers, is worse, with a D+/C- average*). If this alarming cover illustration doesn’t warn you off, let the author finish the job.
* On the flip side, Perma Books takes the top prize with a B+ average, while Harlequin, Pocket Books, and Bantam tie for second with B averages.