Sunday, January 7, 2024

Nurse in Jeopardy

By Rose Dana
(pseud. William E. Daniel Ross), ©1967

Beautiful Nurse Mavis Eaton had come to the quiet seacoast town to develop another talent: painting. But she was soon deeply enmeshed in a strange and terrifying struggle that involved a handsome young doctor and a brilliant mysterious stranger.


“I declare that half of my practice is tending to summer incompetents. They come down here and stay out in the sun until they’re boiled lobster red, work in their gardens until they get heart attacks, overeat and get every kind of gastrointestinal complication imaginable! I wonder if they realize how much healthier they’d be if they just stayed at home and took it easy?” 

“I wouldn’t trust her with an undersize lobster.”

“Just because I happen to be neurotic enough for two is no reason I should be in a hurry to share my neurosis with some unfortunate girl.”

“Romance! It louses up everything!”

Nurse Mavis Eaton is one wildly lucky nurse—her dying patient, Mrs. Maltby, bequeaths her a year’s salary and a house on the Maine seacoast, which she accepts without hesitation, though I think the ethics of that are just a bit sketchy. Her dream is to work on her painting, hopefully to develop enough during her time off from nursing to decide whether she has the talent to pursue painting professionally. Moving into the small town, she meets local GP Dr. Timothy Ryan, who somehow manages to practice medicine though he his blind, and the other medico, Dr. Bill Rutherford. “He’s tall and blond and looks like those men in the shirt ads, a real serious young man,” we learn, and soon Dr. Rutherford has convinced Mavis that working a few days at the understaffed hospital in Bristol will help her paint better when she does have time off. She also is befriended by Stephen Metcalfe, once a lawyer but now a gadabout, living in an outbuilding and renting his family house to a man from California. “I am the modern equivalent of one of those misunderstood holy men—the hermits,” he tells Mavis modestly. He has a propensity to say absurd things like, “I am the lonely ghoul of the Metcalf estate, abhorred by all and sundry in the village.” If he talks like that to them, it’s no wonder.

Other locals include German-born John Ulrich, who moved to Maine before World War II. He is known to have been a Nazi sympathizer and is suspected by the locals of assisting the Nazis. “You know they caught a lot of spies that arrived here on the Maine coast from a submarine. But they had to have someone here to help them; someone they could trust. And I always thought John Ulrich was that man!” her cleaning woman tells her. Upon meeting Mavis, John says that prowlers are sneaking around his house and gives her a tin box with photos of his family and a newspaper in German that he says holds notices of his brother’s death in World War II, and asks her to keep it for him and mail it to his sister in Germany if he dies. Sure, she says, because she takes everything that total strangers give to her. Soon there are footsteps in the snow outside her house … what else could it be except that someone is coming after Ulrich’s box! Maybe it’s Hans Heinke, another local expat German, who was a prisoner in the German concentration camps during the war. Discussing John with Hans, Mavis thinks “his attitude toward John Ulrich remained very strange,” because it’s difficult to understand why a Nazi sympathizer might be disliked by someone who was in a concentration camp. “Hans still has a sort of complex from being in that concentration camp. It leaves a mark on a man. In his case, he takes a pretty downbeat view of life,” Steve tells Mavis. Hmmm, I wonder why?

Soon Steve is dropping unpassionate kisses on Mavis, who is not reported to have much feeling about the matter; she seems to have more response to a kiss from Dr. Rutherford. All that is essentially parenthetical to the story, and halfway through the book John Ulrich is bludgeoned to death. Now the question of who did it takes over the book. Mavis “wouldn’t want to cause trouble” by pointing out to the police that the dead man’s last word was Hans’ name, but Dr. Rutherford prevails upon her to tell the cops this and the fact that John had given her a box, which they promptly come to collect. Everyone falls under Mavis’ suspicion, and for the rest of the book we are either following her around the hospital or casting nervous glances at the neighbors.

Neither the mystery nor the romance held much interest for me. Few of the clues that Mavis considers are ever satisfactorily explained away, and the holes in the story are many and large. Even the mystery about what Mavis is going to do with her life remains unclear; at one point she decides, “She wouldn’t become a great artist overnight. It was going to take long months and perhaps years for her to perfect a technique individual enough to make her mark in the roughly competitive art world,” a realization that should have been obvious from Day One, but even with this idea suddenly dawning on her, she never declares what her ultimate career intentions are. Her final choice for a boyfriend is not satisfying and frankly doesn’t really even make sense to me, since just pages earlier she had been convinced the man was involved in the murder. Dan Ross, here writing as Rose Dana, has never been one of my favorites, and this book did little to change my opinion.