Saturday, September 16, 2023

Ann Kenyon: Surgeon

By Adeline McElfresh, ©1960
Cover illustration by H. Rogers 

Ann Kenyon was young, beautiful and a brilliant surgeon. In the operating room, she was in superb command—but the outside world was different. No longer could Ann pretend to love Dr. Brill Crayden, so skillful, so cynical, so cold. To get away from Brill, Ann went to distant Ledbie Memorial Hospital, to find herself plunged into a battle that threatened her professional name and her personal reputation with vicious slander. Only a dedicated doctor would have challenged the powers blocking progress at Ledbie. Only a passionate woman would have fallen in love with a man claimed by another. Ann Kenyon was both—could she avoid paying the price in heartbreak?


“Women have no business being that damned efficient.” 

Ann Kenyon has a classic VNRN problem: Her boyfriend is kind of an ass. Also, he’s named Brill, which for me might have been an insurmountable obstacle right out of the gate, but she’s stuck by him, good lass, up until page 7. There she’s criticizing Brill’s lack of dedication and the fact that he makes callous remarks in the OR like that he thinks the pulmonary tumor they’re removing is malignant. It’s not much of a sin, because usually a doctor should have had that conversation with the patient and their colleagues well before they’re making the first incision, but apparently it’s just not done that way at Rocky Head General Hospital on Long Island. (At this hospital they also utilize three surgeons at the table and have a fourth standing by, just in case one of them is incapacitated, so they definitely have an odd way of doing things.) Then she admits she has come to “resent his claim upon her time,” and she’s looking forward to a week’s vacation alone. But before she goes, she has a wonderful date with Brill—except that he asks to spend the night in her apartment. She turns him down, but somehow this scene is also something of a major game-changer for her feelings for Brill.

Then, on her train ride, she sits next to a psychic who suggests the train is going to crash and seven people will be killed. Guess what happens next! The prophesy comes true, and the psychic is killed, but Ann gets off with just a fractured femur. This means she’s laid up in a tiny hospital in Ledbie, Indiana, for months, recovering with her leg in traction. Magically, after she’s finally able to get up and around, she’s completely mobile within a few weeks, and signs on at the hospital when she is offered a job by the chair of the hospital board of directors, Helen Ledbie, who makes all the decisions about the hospital. Helen’s stepfather, Dr. Emerson Lyle, runs a luxury practice and takes his hospital patients elsewhere, but he influences Helen to avoid putting any money into the hospital, which is slowly disintegrating into an antiquated heap. So it’s not clear why Ann has accepted the position, even if she is now chief surgeon. Unless it has something to do with Dr. Peter McDonnal, but he’s all but engaged to Helen.

The problem is the gossip that starts circulating about Ann, and that she seems to walk in on it fairly often. First it’s suggested that she’s been hired to push the senior doctor out, and then when Peter starts taking Ann to a wooded lot he’s hoping to build a house on—and kissing her—folks around town are not pleased that he’s “steppin’ out” on Helen. Then Ann joins him in his fight with the hospital board to approve funds for numerous changes, and you’d think he’d be able to convince his other girlfriend to go along with it, especially after the train crash left the tiny hospital overwhelmed and incapable of managing the influx of patients. If another tragic accident were to happen, that would surely change Helen’s mind!

The prose is salted with McElfresh’s trademark “mental ligatures,” italicized exclamations of Oh, God! and frequent mentions of occurrences behind Ann’s sternum, which makes the writing somewhat irritating, though these tics are not as overwhelming as they are in some of McElfresh’s other books. The story is fairly benign, but the cast of characters is enormous and difficult to keep straight, and some of the politics of funding the hospital seem bizarre—as do aspects of the plot like the psychic on the train. The ending is unusual because Ann has not actually landed the man, but does seem prepared to fight for him—and, let’s be honest, will likely win. In the end, you could spend your afternoon with a worse book, but I can’t tell you that you’ll be especially thrilled to have an afternoon with this one.

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Nurse on Terror Island

By Doris Knight, ©1967

A darkly handsome man of wealth, a young pop singer of international fame, a fiancé four thousand miles away, a beguiling 8 year old boy … all these helped to complicate the life of pretty Nurse Avril Andrews. She had received her nurse’s cap only a few hours before and was on her way to Orestes Island to care for young Domingo, the ward of the handsome and powerful Ramon Orestes. She hardly expected to become the fiancée of two men and find herself in love with a third, and then lose her heart completely to the convalescing little Domingo. Neither was she prepared to face the terror which gripped the entire population of the island. She found herself being drawn inevitably into the web of fear …


“Are you still shaky from the shark episode?” 

It is staggering how many people are drawn in by the eight-year-old Domingo Montes, a foundling left in a church doorway and raised by a nanny in London but for some reason flown to Mexico City to undergo an orthopedic surgery to lengthen a leg left shortened by polio. (A lot of good that surgery did him, because he is completely forbidden to use the leg, or even get out of bed very often.) In Mexico he is recovering under the care of Avril Andrews, who is just about to graduate from nursing school. She, too, is a Brit, and had decided to take the last year of her training in Mexico, much to the chagrin of her fiancé Derek, who is “tired of playing second fiddle to her nursing career,” but at the same time doesn’t seem all that interested in actually proceeding with the wedding. 

Domingo is going to spend his convalescence on Orestes Island, owned by Ramon Orestes—well, all except a pesky ten acres, on which some meddling oil company has located a few gushers. The ten acres, Ramon has discovered, belong to Domingo, though Ramon cannot figure out how Domingo came to own them, much less give permission for oil companies to start drilling (actually Ramon showed less interest in this question than I did), and neither will we! But the kind-hearted man has adopted Domingo and is bringing him to the island for more unclear reasons, though he had not seen Domingo since the boy was three. This kind gesture surely has nothing to do with the fact that Ramon is intent on owning every square inch of the island—though it supports a goodly population of natives, so it’s not clear to me how that works—and preventing the oil companies from having at the island, because “I wish to bar the outside world from wiping out their childlike happiness in small things,” he explains to Avril, who finds this attitude only “somewhat paternal, somewhat overbearing.” And Avril will be going with Ramon and Domingo as nurse, though since the poor boy spends most of his life in bed under the supervision of the nanny, it’s not clear what the point of having her along is—until we arrive at the island and Ramon tells all the locals that he is engaged to Avril.

Well, this is news to her, and why he felt this ploy was even necessary is yet another unexplained mystery, because all we learn is that the islanders “want a queen! If he did not promise them a bride, he might lose the respect of his people.” So Avril goes along with it somewhat reluctantly, but more so when she discovers that world-famous pop star Sunny Martin, whom she had met very briefly when he ducked under her restaurant table in Mexico City to escape hordes of screaming girls who were chasing him, has also turned up on the island. He, too, has some unexplained devotion to Domingo, and Avril starts to wonder if he is the boy’s father—but again, even if he were, how would he know this was the boy left on the church steps so long ago? And if he’s so devoted to the boy, why did he, also a British national, come to Mexico City to see him, when he might have done so a few months earlier with much greater convenience in London? This book is indeed full of endless mysteries.

Then a witch doctor named Donna Santos decides she also wants possession of the poor kid, to train to be a witch doctor too. She’s thought to be nearly 100 years old, so why has she suddenly become interested in taking on a protégé who is not likely to have reached puberty when she kicks the bucket, and why is she picking out Domingo for her pupil? She’s even threatened to toss a deadly hurricane onto the island if Ramon does not hand over Domingo to her—oh, and he has to marry Avril tomorrow to boot, just because. Avril refuses to go along with it now that Sunny has shown up, though he is sneaking in through the window to kiss her and arranging secret rendezvous, again for no coherent reason; he tells Avril, “I had a fancy to come early, unexpectedly, and nose around a bit.” He seems to be looking for Domingo’s birth certificate, but since this involves talking to a lot of locals, his presence on the island is hardly a secret—and he’s tipped off by a mysterious woman in a church who tells him to look in Guadalajara, and then she’s gone, never identified, never explained.

Meanwhile Ramon is desperate for Avril to go through with the wedding because if she doesn’t, the superstitious locals will freak right out! They’ll lose their heads so completely that the havoc would be worse than any hurricane that might or might not strike the island! Another question is that why, if none of the main characters believe in voodoo, they all jump to do Donna’s bidding—and why all her detailed predictions come true.

There are more bizarre coincidences and plot twists to endure—including a shark attack, foiled bizarrely by Sunny, who saves the day in a manner barely survives being chased by teenaged girls—before this complete jumble of a book comes to a strange close, with Ramon leaving the island and vowing to return “with the woman he loved”—and we’re not sure who that might be, unless he’s referring to a woman he married 18 years previously who had abandoned him shortly after their marriage and whom he’d divorced but nevertheless has been fruitlessly trying to track down ever sinceyet another extraneous, unexplained plot twist. 

Terror Island gets its name from two previous hurricanes—both “inflicted” by Donna on the island for someone’s misdeed; the woman’s ability to predict the weather could have made her a lot of money as a storm forecaster, because she’s not actually a witch, but what if she actually is? The book can’t seem to decide—but I can think of a number of descriptives that would suit the island better, like Bewildering or Insane or Weird, as unfortunately “terror” is much too strong an emotion to be incited by this book; at most I’d say I was perplexed. The bizarreness of this book isn’t even amusingly daffy, like some (Harbor Nurse and Nurse at the Fair spring to mind) VNRNs I’ve experienced. I’m left to wonder if a title like Nurse on Hot Mess Island would have sold more copies?