Sunday, May 28, 2023

New Orleans Nurse

By Diana Douglas 
(pseud. Richard Wilkes-Hunter), ©1974
Cover illustration by Allan Kass

When beautiful Melinda Fontane Excepted a new assignment during Mardi Gras time in New Orleans, she found her patient to be a charming, if enigmatic, man. She could not understand the veil of secrecy which surrounded his case. But when the doctor in attendance turned out to be handsome Garth Woodward, an old friend of Melinda’s, she was warned that her patient was a target for murder, and that she, too, could be in danger. That was all Garth would tell her, but he kept a close watch on his lovely young assistant—close enough to rekindle Melinda’s deep feeling for him. Then, suddenly, midst the swelling frenzy of the Mardi Gras, all disguise is dropped, and Melinda learned to the real identity of her mysterious patient—and discovered to the true face of love …





“First time I have ever had an attractive nurse to sit up with me, and I’m put to sleep.”


“I’m used to wounds. Remind me to show you my scars sometime.”



I am generally not a fan of nurse novels written in the 1970s, nor am I fan of author Richard Wilkes-Hunter. So this novel, which falls into both categories, was not likely to impress. It lived up to my expectations. Melinda Fontane is a nurse from New Orleans who once had a crush on Dr. Garth Woodward. They had dated briefly, but then he had gone off to start his private practice, and she had quit the hospital in favor of private nursing, leaving no forwarding address. They meet completely by accident when she is hired to care for the same patient he is watching over, a mysterious Mr. Wallace who has multiple sclerosis. Garth immediately tells her that he had tried to track her down but had been unable to find her—and she is strangely angry when he says that he thought she might work for him in his office. “So that was the only way he thought of her—as a nurse. Wasn’t that typical!” So she is particularly chilly to him every time they meet, which is guaranteed to win him back.


She—and also the readers—are given little information about the patient, apart from the fact that he has MS and therefore should not be driving and apparently needs constant vigilance lest he actually try to do something for himself, which will apparently set off a relapse. This is another one of those instances of VNRN “medicine” where the treatment may be worse than the disease. We also find out that Mr. Wallace has quite the coterie of government agents guarding him from an assassination attempt. But Mr. Wallace is a terrible patient—and an even worse person to try to guard—as he is constantly ducking out for adventures like lunch in New Orleans with his nurse in tow. On the luncheon escapade, Melinda drops by Garth’s office only to meet his very pretty office nurse Lisa, and immediately becomes enraged by the fact that Garth has been known to lunch at the intimate little bistro nearby. “His receptionist had been with him, Melinda decided jealously. She was sure of it.” That bastard!


So she subjects him to more unjustified needling, but the man bravely takes her aside and asks her what he has done to annoy her. She makes a number of snippy remarks that paint a clear picture of her jealousy, and he explains that though he has been out with Lisa, he does not care for her the way he does for Melinda. Unfortunately, she still cannot bring herself to be anything but horrible, and he is on the verge of giving up and walking off when at the very last minute she pulls herself together and begs him to come on the deep-sea fishing trip that Mr. Wallace is planning—though it is sure to cause a relapse!—and he accepts.

This is actually one of the more enjoyable parts of the book, as it appears that from author Wilkes-Hunter’s descriptions that he actually knew something about and greatly enjoyed the sport. Melinda herself is quite the expert and teaches Garth to fish, and he lands a 250-pound marlin. But he still doesn’t have much in the way of sea legs and nearly falls overboard, snagged at the last minute by Melinda. “But she finished up in his arms against the cabin wall. There did not seem to be anywhere either of them wanted to go from there, and someone had to take the initiative, so she did,” we are told in a cute turn of phrase. She gives him a “victor’s kiss” that quickly threatens to get out of hand until a speedboat sweeps in from out of nowhere and begins shooting at the party, wounding one of Mr. Wallace’s security guards.

Then it’s back to the mansion, where Melinda is attending Mr. Wallace, who swears this time, “I would not endanger you or any of the others again,” as he folds away the day’s newspaper headlined “1973 Mardi Gras Best Ever.” No one in this entire organization has the brains of a gnat, including Mr. Wallace, who continually falls for the stupidest ploys by the bad guys to capture him. Off to Mardi Gras he sneaks, with the car of security guards and Melinda in hot pursuit. Naturally she is the one who finds him—and he is easily lured into a trap and captured by the evil villains. Honestly, they could have pulled up in a white van and asked him if he wanted to see a phone booth full of candy around the corner and he would have climbed right in.


Everything turns out exactly as you know it will, with little excitement, clever writing, humor, or intelligence. Melinda has the unfortunate tendency to get pissy about inconsequential incidents, and is barely redeemed by her real strength of character—she always stands up for herself and her patient, and her extreme competence at boating and deep-sea fishing is the cherry on top. The “secret” of the ending is telegraphed on the first page, and it’s a long 157 pages to finally wind it up. Only four of the 14 VNRNs by Richard Wilkes-Hunter that I’ve reviewed have earned better grades than this one, but with a C+, it’s still, unfortunately, not a book you’ll likely want to bother with—and not even the Best Ever Mardi Gras is going to change that.



Saturday, May 20, 2023

Nurse Craig

By Marcia Ford
(pseud. Ruby L. Radford), ©1953
Also published as Dixie Nurse

When Nancy Craig set her heart on becoming a nurse, she had no idea of the petty intrigues that surround a large hospital, nor did she realize that a pretty young nurse is often at the mercy of a tyrannical and frustrated supervisor. Unjustly fired from the hospital, Nancy returned to her hometown, leaving behind all her dreams—and the man she loved. But a new life opened up for Nancy when she became the private nurse to a wealthy elderly woman who, because of her generosity, enabled Nancy to build a children’s hospital and to make her biggest dream come true.


“You could make a dying man get well with that smile.” 

“Nancy’s heart always ached for a man at a time like this. There was so little that they could do to help, and their emotions were generally so inhibited by a fear of seeming weak that she knew they must suffer even more than a woman.”

Nancy Craig wants to be a pediatrics nurse, but no positions ever seem to open up. She spent her first year after graduating doing private duty nursing, then accepted a job at Downer Hospital, where she did her training, in the hope of improving her chances if a pediatrics job becomes available. Unfortunately, there she must suffer at the bony hands of Miss Phillips, the bitter spinster head nurse whose unrequited love for Dr. Barrow has transformed her into a crabapple. She especially hates Nancy because Dr. Barrow has taken an avuncular interest in Nancy’s career for years, and when a patient of Nancy’s vomits one morning, Miss Phillips whisks the vomitus off to the lab for analysis (it was not the salmon mousse)—and when the results are in, she declares that Nancy has given the patient the wrong medicine and fires her on the spot!

Nancy believes that she did not make a mistake—which means that Dr. Barrow, who had changed the patient’s medication order that morning—must have goofed his orders, but that “might ruin his reputation as a physician if it became known,” because no doctor has ever made a mistake before. Curiously, Nancy decides that rather than clear her name, or even have a conversation with Dr. Barrow to alert him to his possible error—which, left unaddressed, will only be repeated—she will take the blame for him, and decides to pack her bags and head back to her home town.

That means she is leaving Dr. Terry Fenton, the hard-working but dirt-poor pediatrician she has fallen for. He is one of those dopes who decides, “I can’t even look at a girl, or think of having a home of my own till I’m free of debt.” At least Nancy has the gumption to snap, “No girl would be worth having if she wasn’t willing to take you as you are!” and when he answers that his wife shouldn’t have to work, she bats that away with equal aplomb: “Oh, be your age, Terry! Suppose the girl doesn’t want to give up her career any more than you do? All women want to work and be independent these days.” You do have to admire Nurse Nancy Craig.

Except that she also has some annoying tendencies, such as to be a bit, well, uptight. When Terry comes to dinner at Nancy’s house, she—and her entire family, it must be confessed—is horrified when the maid brings a dishpan to the dinner table to clear the dishes. She also has a tendency to get very snappish at poor Terry at the least provocation, such as when he asks about other young men in her orbit—which she should, of course, take as driven by jealousy and seek to reassure the poor boy, but instead, “she was seething too much inside to trust herself to speak.”

Not long after she’s home, her father drops of a heart attack, and then she and the doctor conspire to finish him off by not allowing him to even sit up in bed for a month—even playing with his stamp collection is deemed too strenuous, and if the man doesn’t throw a major pulmonary embolism, it won’t be her fault. So she stays on for weeks, spoon-feeding Dad and reading him the newspaper. Nursing is hard work! But finally Dr. Barrow steps in to offer her a job nursing wealthy Mrs. Marshall (the poor dear has no first name) back in Summerton, so she can go home to her apartment—and Dr. Terry. There she gives vitamin B-12 shots and makes the woman take naps twice a day. And she dates Mrs. Marshall’s grandson Bert, who is a nice young man but something of an adventurer, and so has no appeal to Nancy—but he’s rich and handsome, and soon insecure Dr. Terry is convinced that Nancy is going to marry Bert, or Dr. Barrow. Nancy, of course, doesn’t help the man at all when he voices his concerns, snapping, “Why should I miss a good dinner or a show, to sit home waiting for the telephone to ring?” before gathering her “seething emotions” around her like a fox fur stole and flouncing out.

It’s not hard to figure out how the book is going to end—even if it weren’t telegraphed on the back cover blurb—and though that’s not a fatal flaw, the final scene lands pretty flat. Nancy herself is an admirable character, but the situations in the book often seem so flimsily contrived, with over-the-top reactions to a mild situation (such as Nancy’s horror that her sister Ellen wrote to Dr. Terry! The slut!). The story unrolls with few details of interest outside of the litigious way they practice medicine (Nancy saves a woman from strychnine poisoning by giving her morphine), and there’s just not much here to keep one’s interest. You could do worse, but if that’s not a great reason to read this book, I don’t have much else to offer you.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

The Nurse and the Star

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1963

Star Disappears after Romantic Fiasco Exposed: Hollywood – The Eve Stacy-Rix Blake romance fell apart “live” on coast-to-coast TV last night. In an unexpected bit of audience participation, Blake’s wife rushed on stage and claimed her man. Miss Stacy left quickly and her mysterious whereabouts are still unknown … Where was Eve Stacy? There were fantastic stories, lies, rumors. Everybody guessed, but nobody knew for sure—nobody except Kay Harrell, R.N. Deep in the tropics, Kay thought she was rid of “Eve Stacy” forever. But how long could she hide her glamorous past when the handsome, cynical Dr. Fleming was more than just curious?


“How’d we ever luck onto anybody that looks like you to work in this Back o’ Beyond?” 

“What a perfectly loathsome get-up! You should go on strike against wearing such hideous garb. It’s revolting!”

“The big shots who are so important, swaying vast companies, throwing their weight around, shattering empires with their lightest word. But strip ’em down to a hospital gown and tuck ’em into bed, and they are sniveling babies, as any nurse knows.”

“Being in love is not a gloriously happy experience.”

Nurse Kay Harrell is one of numerous VNRN heroines who’d had the accursed luck of being noticed by a Hollywood director and become, briefly, a rising starlet. This detour is not one that readers will understand, because it doesn’t sound like anything Kay had especially wanted or enjoyed: “She had been like a creature molded of wax, pulled and pushed and twisted this way and that. Often, after the wardrobe department had finished with her, she looked in the mirror and felt quite sure that the seductive, alluring creature that looked back at her couldn’t possibly be Kay Harrell. And of course she wasn’t.” But she hadn’t been alone; the publicity department had fabricated a romance for her with also-rising Rix Blake, and we are given no hint of Kay’s feelings toward him except that when his heretofore unknown wife turns up, Kay had fled Hollywood and taken a job at Mercy Hospital on an unnamed Caribbean island (possibly the Dominican Republic).

Here she instantly develops a deep, boundless hatred for Dr. Anson Fleming, who absolutely deserves it. Aware of her past (despite the lying cover lines), he is convinced that she has come to the island with no other purpose in mind except to seduce Dr. Richard Marston, the wealthy hospital chief who happens to be married. It might help that Valerie Marston is an unbelievably horrible person half his age, one who despises the hospital and the island, and appears to have a severe untreated personality disorder, screeching during her introduction to Kay, “I hate it here! I hate it!s And I’m beginning to hate you!” before falling tear-stained into her husband’s arms and whimpering, “I didn’t mean that, Lover! I adore you! I couldn’t live without you, even if you do keep me locked up in this horrible place with all these horrible natives.”

Kay could never interest Dr. Marston, we are told, because the man is hopelessly devoted to his wife: He “just worships the ground she walks on” even if everyone admits she is “a child,” mentally about 16, who “lives in a dream world she created herself and is very cross if anyone tries to slip in a faint hint of reality.” Valerie is also the most frighteningly racist character I have ever encountered in a VNRN (I cannot reprint the truly despicable lines she utters in this book) who has somehow managed to convince her “Mammy,” who is a native of this country, to come with her and suffer her patronizing insults and serve as housekeeper and cook, finally proving satisfactory after months of training: “Now she does what she is told,” Valerie triumphantly reports. Another success for the patriarchy.

Dr. Fleming—who casually lets drop early on that he was in prison for a year for malpractice, a startling detail that is immediately dropped, never to be seen again—takes every opportunity to all but call Kay a slut every time she passes Dr. Marston a kelly clamp or goes for a walk alone at night, even threatening her “unless you’d like to have your neck broken, stay away from the chief!” Pretty much everyone at Mercy Hospital is insane—as is Kay for continuing to work there.

Dr. Fleming concocts a weird idea that he and Kay should pretend they are in love so that Dr. Marston won’t leave his wife; somehow it seems he believes that Dr. Marston would not trespass on another man’s woman even if he has no qualms about straying from his own wife. It only takes Kay 40 pages to let everyone know this is not true. Then there are vague mentions of voodoo, about the only explanation of which we are given is that it is “a very real and very filthy evil” and somehow the hospital is battling voodoo with modern medicine. Then a woman shows up with her husband, who has been cursed by Old Nick, the local witch doctor, who tied a rope around the man’s leg that no one bothered to remove so now gangrene has set in and the man dies. Old Nick starts hanging around the hospital in a mask at night, apparently after the man’s wife, and now half the staff has fled in fright. Valerie’s “mammy” Maria departs as well, but not before delivering a sound telling off to Kay: “You come here, you treat us like dirt. This is our country. You come here and want to make slaves of us again. Did we ask for your help? Did we send for you? Did we ask you to treat us like we are not humans? You come, you force your ways on us. You tell us all that we do, all that came before you were here, the way we live, is wrong. No, we did not send for you. Go away and leave us to our own ways.” Maria is the smartest, most honest, and most clear-eyed character in the book.

But everyone Kay tells this to only sneers or laughs that probably most of the natives are glad for the help. They wouldn’t know because they never asked—nor are they likely to start inquiring now—but what a shocking thing for the outrageous old biddy to say! “Why the blazes don’t we get out and let them wallow in their poverty and disease and superstition?” snaps one doctor’s wife—and then she decides to train the wife of Old Nick’s deceased victim to become Dr. Marston’s new maid. “She’s so eager to learn and grateful to all of us. So why don’t we give her Maria’s job? She’d take loving care of the chief.” Another problem with ungrateful staff solved!

Kay eventually breaks down and tells the unbalanced Dr. Fleming that she loves him, so at best she wins points for assertiveness, but there’s absolutely no reason why she should love such a dangerously unstable person, any more than she had for loving Rix, or abandoning Hollywood in such an extreme fashion just because a fake romance was publicly revealed as exactly that. The only thing that could possibly make any sense of Kay’s flight and Dr. Fleming’s horrible treatment of her is if, in an earlier draft of the book, Kay had actually had an affair with Rix and was fleeing the scandal when she ran off to the ends of the earth, and if Dr. Fleming had known of it, in which case his concern for Kay’s interference in Dr. Marston’s marriage would be legitimate. But who knows?

But the truly horrifying racism that a number of characters—including Dr. Fleming, who snarls that the locals “breed like flies”—exhibit is even more unacceptable when the other characters vainly try to knock it down (one local doctor points out to Dr. Fleming in the “shocked silence” that follows his remark, that they also “die like flies” and that “it is our job here to cut down on the death rate rather than the birth rage,” but his wife immediately apologizes for her husband’s “impertinent” remark. Why would author Peggy Gaddis have Maria and the local doctor make such excellent points against racism only to have the main characters dismiss them so cavalierly, and without any acknowledgement of their complicity and participation in a racist system, and continue on unrepentant with their own racist attitudes? It’s utterly bewildering—but not unexpected from Ms. Gaddis, who enjoys a large sprinkling of racism in her novels, and who also likes to play both sides of every argument without choosing one side or the other. And so as I urge you to give this very bizarre and disturbing book a solid chuck into the trash, another donation from the White Doctor Foundation goes into the mail.