Friday, June 14, 2024

The Midnight Wards

By D.K. Jennings (pseud. John Glasby), ©1967
Cover illustration by Henry Fox

Throughout the world, large hospitals are much the same; exuding an aura of medicinal efficiency, men and women who supervise the lives of their patients, overseeing a hubbub of intense activity that goes on around the clock. At the old and elegant St. Stephen Hospital on the outskirts of London, it had been a fortnight of the usual minor incidents, common in such a complex of wards and isolated departments. To Veronica Devlin, just beginning her hospital work as a nurse, everything seemed much larger than life. The doctors, surgeons and ward sisters were either gods or ogres and her small mistakes were great tragedies. Then the resident surgeon, Ralph Conway, found himself facing a crisis which threatened not only his career but the whole future of the hospital, a crisis which meant he had to challenge the authority of Sir William Carruthers, the senior surgical consultant, and attempt to uproot policies and ideas which were as old and as established as the hospital itself and somehow, Veronica found herself drawn, against her will, into this personal conflict of ideologies.


“Someone ought to pass a law against night duty.”

“You have the makings of a fine nurse, provided you learn to keep your own emotions under tight rein and do only as you are told.”

“It seems that fate has decreed that all of the emergency cases happen between midnight and 6:00 in the morning.”

“That is the main trouble with some of the younger men who come along, wanting to become surgeons. They see themselves in white coats, walking through the wards, adored by the female patients and idolized by the young interns. But it isn’t all like that. After a while, you find that each operation takes a great deal out of you. Not until it’s over do you realize just how much.”

First off, I have to tell you that this is not a nurse novel. Our nurse, Veronica Devlin, is a peripheral figure, and the story centers on Dr. Ralph Conway, hero young surgeon battling the dinosaur senior doctor who is gradually choking the life out of the prestigious hospital he runs with an iron grip. Frankly, Veronica is robbed of the credit she deserves in curing the patient central to the story, so I wondered if author D.K. Jennings was a man. Guess what—I was right!

In the first chapter a man is struck by a car and brought to the hospital, but he is suffering from amnesia—which came on before the car accident. Naturally, he is not carrying any identification. On duty in the ED are Veronica and Ralph Conway, who further clinches this book’s status as not-a-nurse-novel because he is married! Since Mr. X’s leg is broken in two places, he is likely to be stuck in the hospital for months. “In a way, it is a good thing. It may enable us to do a little detective work and try to find out who he is,” Ralph tells Veronica. 

Another patient, Sylvia Monaghan, has been admitted as a suicide attempt after taking too many sleeping tablets in the middle of the night. Ralph is convinced that she is “not the suicidal type.” But Dr. William Carruthers, the aging medico who runs St. Stephen Hospital, is convinced Sylvia is a danger to herself—not only that, but if she is not transferred to a psychiatric ward and is left on the general ward, “she could prove not only an embarrassment, but possibly a menace to the other patients,” he declares dramatically. But Ralph convinces Dr. Carruthers to leave Sylvia where she is, at least temporarily.

Meanwhile Veronica is put on night duty watching Mr. X. He is mumbling in his sleep, of course, and “she thought she caught the name Clarke repeated several times.” Ralph, going above and beyond the call of duty of a surgeon, checks with the police and finds that a jeweler named Vincent Clarke was beaten during a robbery the same night that Mr. X came in, and though the assailants were masked and Mr. Clarke has no way of identifying them, “one of them could have been our mystery patient here,” says Ralph to Veronica. So she hits the streets and starts knocking on doors, and finds an old woman who saw Mr. X walk out of an alley—and at the other end of the alley is Vincent Clarke’s jewelry shop! Back at the hospital she reluctantly reports her findings to Ralph, though she nonetheless argues that Mr. X could be innocent. Ralph wonders, “Had she fallen in love with that man?” But he does encourage her to “stick with your convictions, Veronica. I for one would not want to change them.” So he is due a little credit.

Then Veronica obtains permission from Ralph to take Mr. X out of the hospital in a wheelchair, though she does not mention her plans to bring Mr. X to the first place he remembers. Though nothing comes back to him, Mr. X directs Veronica to push him down the infamous alley, so they end up in front of Mr. Clarke’s now-boarded-up shop. He suddenly remembers being in the trashed jeweler’s shop and seeing Mr. Clarke lying inert over the counter—and the shock is too much for him and he passes out. Now Ralph is in hot water: “All of this publicity is having a bad effect on the reputation of the hospital. Some of the things he does are little too radical from my way of thinking,” says the hospital matron, though these “radical methods” are not really explained. Ralph is called on the carpet by Dr. Carruthers, and when Ralph defends Veronica, Dr. Carruthers bizarrely threatens not to give Ralph the top hospital job when he retires next year.

Undeterred, Ralph stops by Mr. X’s room, and Mr. X tells Ralph that he has remembered the names John Forrester and Redbourne. Ralph recognizes Redbourne as the name of a small village 30 miles from London, so the next day he and Veronica head there for another illicit detective trip. This book occurs so long ago that their only option is to stop in at a pub and ask if anyone knows John Forrester, and as it happens his parents live across the street! In no time flat Mr. X’s identity and backstory are laid out. “Another shock might prove sufficient to send the mind toppling over the brink of the abyss that led to insanity,” Ralph thinks, so he invites Mr. X’s mum to come back to London with them, goes straight to Mr. X and in five sentences explains all. Fortunately the shock does not prove sufficient to send Mr. X's mind toppling over the brink of the abyss; instead he remembers everything and is reunited with his mum and Veronica, so next Ralph goes to visit Sylvia Monaghan and puts to right all her psychiatric problems. Then he pops by Dr. Carruthers’ office for another enlightening chat and finally goes home to his wife, whom he is seeing for about the third time this whole book. Has anyone ever mentioned that it is really rough being a doctor’s wife? Though Ralph does try to give Veronica a little credit for Mr. X’s recovery, his wife is insistent that it is all due to him, so he smiles and leans back in his chair. I hope he doesn’t hurt himself patting his own back.

Throughout the book we do spend occasional pages with Veronica, following her concerns about Mr. X and watching the pair fall in love, though the uncertainty of his identity and past activities makes their relationship somewhat tenuouseven if we have a pretty good idea how it will turn out. But we don’t see enough of her to make this book worth reading, if it’s a true nurse novel you are looking for. It’s not a bad book in general, but without a strong, independent, female heroine to spend your time with, I’m not sure what the benefit is in reading it. But I am a little biased in that respect. Try it for yourself, if you don’t mind a rather hackneyed plot and a slightly arrogant, self-centered main (male) character, and see what you think.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

A Nurse’s Strange Romance

By Arlene Hale, ©1964

Meredith Michaels, R.N., had three loves in her life: nursing, and two young doctors. Dark-haired, intense Ryan Quinn she had loved since they first began training together. Steve Baxter, big, blond, full of the joy of life, had been the perfect balance for the inseparable threesome. Now they had the chance to open private practice together with Meredith as office nurse—and life seemed complete. Meredith, in fact, was engaged to Ryan. But something happened. Ryan became steeped in gloom, and even Steve’s former gaiety seemed forced. Meredith was distraught. But then, in the middle of the crisis, and with the wisdom she never dreamed she possessed, she grasped on a solution that had been staring her in the face.


“The hospital frowns upon interns and nurses smooching in the hallways.”

“That blush makes you different from any nurse on the floor. You are the only one that seems to respect some old-fashioned chastity!”

“Long may she walk with her cute little wiggle!”

“What a tasty looking neck!” 

“Maybe it’s not as exciting to diagnose old Mrs. Cleaver’s arthritis as it is to make smears for some important test in a research lab but it is important! At least to Mrs. Cleaver.”

The author of this very stupid book, Arlene Hale, is something of a thorn in my side. She was ridiculously prolific—I’ve reviewed 27 of her VNRNs so far and she has written at least a dozen more—but her average grade over those 27 books is a pathetic C+. Here we have yet another snoozer—well, it might be a snoozer if the leading man weren’t such an ass, but as it was it just made me mad. Meet Ryan Quinn, a “deep, dark, secretive” driven type who, though the author tries incredibly hard to depict him as a misunderstood soul, is borderline psychotic. As we open the book, Ryan and his best friend Steve Baxter are four months from completing their residencies, at which point they will go into practice and start earning an actual salary. But “payment is being demanded,” Ryan tells Meredith. “I will have to quit and go out and find a job, pay them off.” I am not even going to start on how absurd this situation is, but it’s definitely indicative of how the rest of the book is going to go.

To wit: Nurse Meredith Michaels, who has been dating Ryan Quinn for years now and is all but holding her breath until he drops on one knee and opens the tiny velvet box, has magically inherited a tidy sum from a deceased aunt. Her first inclination is to quit her nursing job and go back to school to become a teacher. Is this her long-denied dream finally coming true? No! Meredith loves nursing! But Steve and Ryan have bizarrely been badgering her to trade her nurses cap for blackboard chalk. “You are a pure descendent of Florence Nightingale, no doubt. But they need teachers too. Desperately,” Steve tells her, because nurses are just a dime a dozen! (And the financing of her nurse’s degree remains a secret.)

Ryan’s misfortune turns out to be Meredith’s salvation, as now she can give her money to Ryan and remain in the career she loves best! Ryan, the selfless wonder, hesitates less than ten seconds before accepting. Then he has the balls to tell her that he is “too honorable to make plans to be married until every penny had been paid on his debts,” and furthermore he is accepting a research position that pays very little, so its likely to be years before that happens. Of course, if he married Meredith, his debt would be expunged, but that point is overlooked by everyone, even Meredith.

Alas, this is not the end of Ryan Quinn’s perfidy. He leaves for a new job far from Meredith and does not ask her to come work at his new hospital with him, so she remains at City Hospital with Steve, who takes every opportunity to kiss her and make wildly inappropriate remarks to his best friend’s girlfriend. For Ryan’s part, immediately upon arriving at his new hospital, he instantly falls in love with Dr. Carol Simmons and dates her for months, taking her out to restaurants he cannot afford (when he had been too poor to go anywhere with Meredith except to her house, where he had eaten dinners she had cooked for him, and presumably paid for as well). Naturally Ryan does not bother to tell either woman about the other, and it’s nearly Christmas before he fesses up to Carol. He has the nerve to be flabbergasted when she is jealous, but placates her by promising to spend Christmas with her, even though he has already promised the day to Meredith. Then the swell guy is unable to tell Meredith that he won’t be coming home after all—much less that he doesn’t love her and is seeing someone else—until the day before Christmas, when he calls her and lies to her about a patient who he claims needs his attention through the holidays.

As it turns out there is such a patient, Betty Walters, a lonely, pathetic waif with leukemia, and now Ryan drags this poor woman into his miserable clutches as well. He starts to pay “special attention” to her: “At odd moments, he would drop in to see her and say a few words to her, tease her gently and lay the foundation for a relationship that went beyond the normal one of patient and doctor.” Betty, who has only months to live, falls in love with Ryan, and her bullying, equally psychotic brother Bruce blackmails Ryan into marrying Betty: If he refuses, Bruce is going to assault Carol, and if Ryan goes to the police about it, Bruce will have one of his friends do it. Paralyzed with fear, Ryan lets the situation ride for weeks. Eventually Carol hears hospital gossip that Ryan is spending too much time with Betty.  When she confronts him, he insults her: “You’re being female. Jealous! It doesn’t become you.” Just wow. At least Carol has the sense to break up with Ryan—Meredith is still home waiting by the phone.

Steve, clearly pining for Meredith, decides to open a clinic and invites Ryan and Meredith to join him. Bizarrely, Ryan agrees—and when he moves back home, he kisses dopey Meredith, and she’s thinking, “He hadn’t said he loved her. He hadn’t asked her to marry him either. But it was all there in undertones and she could wait. She had already waited this long.” And she is going to wait a lot longer. Because he’s sneaking back to see Carol to tell her what he never told Meredith, that he loves her. Then he heads over to see Betty, kisses her, too, and asks her to wait a little longer to be married to him, thinking, “He did not really want Betty to die and yet her death would mean his own freedom.” I cant believe author Arlene Hale thinks this guy is a reasonable love interest. 

Ryan flees back to his hotel room, but Bruce follows him and beats him to a pulp. This finally convinces him that Bruce really means business, so Ryan—this guy just never stops—calls Meredith, tells her hes been in a car accident and asks her to wire him $500, which he then uses to pay for the wedding, which goes off the next day. The cake is not even crumbs before he has fled back home, where he goes straight to Meredith’s apartment and tells her he loves her and wants to marry her! When she says, “I am not sure I believe you anymore, Ryan,” for the first time showing some actual sense, he says “Darling, you must! You have always trusted me, always believed in me. Don’t stop now. Don’t you know I need you, that I’ve always needed you? Don’t doubt me now. I couldn’t endure it! We’ll be married whenever you say.” To which she replies, “Darling, let’s be married on my birthday. Next week!” And now he is back to hoping that Betty dies in the next few days so he won’t become a bigamist. So to atone for the huge mess hes in, he goes straight to Carol’s house where he kisses her—and then tells her he is being married to Meredith.

Meredith breaks the news to Steve the next day, and now Steve is going to pieces. “His idea was to take the bull by the tail and spin him until he crashed into the wall and broke it down, or a woman by the hair and—” and now he is racing to Meredith’s apartment, bursts in, grabs her and kisses her though she beats at him and protests, “but he would not let her go,” instead telling her that he loves her, too. Guess what—she suddenly realizes that it’s Steve she is in love with.

Honestly, I just can’t go on. Let me just say that Meredith Michaels is a pathetic sap, Ryan Quinn is a self-absorbed psychotic, and Steve is a self-absorbed, domineering bully. Don’t waste your time with this trio. You might take them as an object lesson not to waste your time on any more Arlene Hale books, either, and I wouldn’t fault you in the slightest.