Friday, July 5, 2024

The Nurse and the Crystal Ball

By Florence Stuart
(pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1969

When Sue Whittier unpacked her suitcase, 3000 miles away from the nurses’ dormitory in Maryland, she found a fortune-teller’s crystal ball under her nylons. It was a friend’s idea of a joke, but Sue—who didn’t believe in such things—wished it could tell her what she was letting herself in for. She had driven to California to be with Dave Harding, the man she had walked out on seven years ago just before their wedding—a dying man now who had written, begging her to come. And she had … Even though seeing David would mean seeing his half-brother, Marv, too—the secret reason Sue had broken the engagement. Still, she was prepared for that. What she wasn’t prepared for was finding another old love of Dave’s at his bedside: Gloria, the blonde he had married on the rebound, the wife who had deserted him two months later and has now returned—with a son she claimed was his. But was it true …? Sue didn’t need a crystal ball to tell her that here was a woman who could not be trusted …


“I am going upstairs to Mr. Harding. If you try to stop me—well, like most nurses, I know a few judo tricks.” 

“In my young years I was never a juvenile delinquent. But it’s never too late to start, even at my ripe old age. So how about us having a little snort?”

“Love and money! She sighed to happily and kept smiling to herself. What more could woman ask for?”

“Just to prove that she was a woman of patience and strong well, Gloria did not box his ears as she longed passionately to do.

When you find a book with a title like this, you can’t help but get your hopes up. So much potential for rollicking, campy fun! Florence Stonebraker can certainly deliver the goods, too, but it must be confessed that the quality of her work is erratic. So my optimism was guarded. And this turned out to be warranted. 

Sue Whittier has left her job and driven 3,000 miles to La Jolla because the man she dumped seven years ago has leukemia and is at death’s door. He had written to her, begging her to come care for him in his final weeks, so sure! But things are little complicated. First of all, there is a crystal ball in her suitcase under a stack of nylons. Remember nylons? I hope you don’t. Secondly, the first person she runs into is Dave’s half-brother Marv, who is actually the reason why Sue left Dave—right before her wedding “she went down to the beach with another man. And that other man took her in his arms. And her dream of forever and ever love with Dave was forever blasted.” Upon her return, she and Marv immediately get into a rather strange argument in which Marv tells Sue to leave but will not tell her why, and then finally, as she is stomping off, he tells her, “I have never stopped loving you.”

Next she meets the surprise guest, Dave’s wife Gloria. He had picked her up on the rebound during a wild few months “with a crowd who spent their time drinking, smoking marijuana, driving to Vegas to gamble over weekends, swimming in the nude,” but Gloria didn’t last very long either. Now, learning somehow that Dave is about to kick off and has a large fortune to dispose of, Gloria is back at the family mansion and has somehow installed herself as supreme ruler over Dave’s mother and Dave himself. The trick is that she has a six-year-old boy in tow named Bobby, who she claims is Dave’s son. Gloria and Bobby are quite the pair—Gloria is a vicious, scheming vixen out to sabotage Sue, while Bobby is an angry, uncontrollable wrecking ball. “It is not as if he were retarded or anything like that, sweetie,” Gloria explains. “Actually, Bobby is unusually bright for his age. His only problem is that he is inclined to be a psychopathic liar, and that needn’t bother you.” OK! But everyone else in the house is kind to Bobby, who transforms under their supervision into a friendly, gentle boy. Sue even gives him the crystal ball, and he starts talking about seeing his dead parents in it. Um, what?

Meanwhile, Gloria has hired a doctor to care for Dave, but Sue suspects the man is a quack. He is prescribing no end of medications for Dave, and has even given a prescription to Dave’s mother Martha, who had seemed fairly healthy until she had started taking the pills as ordered, but woke up feeling dizzy, strange, unable to speak clearly or even walk without falling. Sue advises Martha to “hold the prescription pills under her tongue until Gloria left the room.” Why she cannot just refuse to take the medication outright is unclear, but once Martha starts dumping the meds in the toilet she is feeling spry and energetic again. Dave keeps taking his medication, and is getting worse and worse.

Marv, meanwhile, is trying to kiss Sue, usually after a loud argument in which he grabs her arms painfully, but she is fighting him off and running, at least for now. He keeps exerting everyone in the house to “play it cool” with Gloria, but is not sharing his long-term plan with anyone, so soon naturally decides without any evidence whatsoever that Marv is in cahoots with Gloria, plotting to inherit Dave’s money.

Suddenly Dave decides he is going to make a new will and locks himself up with Marv, who happens to be a lawyer, to create the thing. Exactly two nights later Dave “simply fell asleep, after taking the pills which Gloria made a nightly rite of putting into the tiny plastic box—and he did not wake up.” The rest of the book plays out pretty much as you know it will, including one character going stark, raving mad—a Florence Stonebraker specialty.

There are a lot of irritating aspects to this book. One is the constant suggestion that there are deep secrets at work here: For example, on her first day, Marv inexplicably tells Sue “I don’t feel free to tell you” why he wants her to leave immediately, though the reason is obvious the minute she walks through the mansion door. Marv, brooding in his room after an argument with Sue, “could not figure in exactly what way this money-greedy woman could hurt Susan,” when the obvious answer is that she can’t. When Bobby starts seeing his parents in the crystal ball, Martha declares, “there’s more to his story than meets the eye. We haven’t enough sense to understand what it is.” Yet the most egregious mystery—did Gloria kill Dave?—is left completely unanswered. Is it fair play for an author to throw out a bone that huge and then walk away from it? I spent some time thinking this question over and concluded that the answer is usually no, though I might accept it from an author so gifted that it actually worked (see A Series of Unfortnate Events by Lemony Snicket). So in this case, no. Even the eponymous crystal ball has no impact on the story. I will always have a deep fondness in my heart for Florence Stonebraker, so her failure in this book makes me doubly let down. If you would prefer to avoid philosophical quandaries and disappointment, you won’t need a crystal ball to tell you that you should probably avoid this book.

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