(pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1964
Jock had once tried to commit suicide because of his frustrated love for Nurse Ruby Compton. Now he was her patient in a psychiatric clinic and his emotional struggle was starting all over again. Ruby didn’t love him, but she pitied him too much to push him out of her life—even though his mental instability could make him dangerous. Even though being kind to Jock was ruining her chances with the doctor she really loved.
“What’s the use learning fancy words if you don’t trot them out to show how smart you are?”
“Ruby hated the current rage for pants, but she had to admit that Connie looked like a doll in them.”
“You mean I should marry a character who bores me to death, then spend the best years messing around with pots and pans and babies while he struggles through college? And turn into a worn-out old hag before he lands a job that really pays off? Uh-uh. All the fellows I know are pretty much like George. They’re poor, they bore me stiff, and all they’ve got on their minds is going to college for the rest of time and learning a lot of stuff so they’ll be big shots—some day. And they really want to marry just to have some girl around to cook and clean and make life easy for them, while they sit glued to their books. I can’t see it.”
“You’d be surprised how many patients we get who have cracked up simply by driving themselves to make more and more money to buy more and more things which they didn’t really need.”
Ruby Compton is, to my eye, about as deranged as the patients she cares for at the Olive Hill Psychiatric Clinic. Her ex-beau, Jock Jordan (and what a name!), tried to hang himself six years ago when his rich father broke up his relationship with the less socially endowed Ruby, and has since nursed a major obsession with Ruby while living so recklessly that his antics on the freeway resulted in a multi-car crash that left several people critically injured and one killed. Instead of heading straight to jail, Jock’s father managed to get him committed to the booby hatch, but now his time is served and Jock is going home. And insisting that Ruby escort him on the 100-mile drive. Given the fact that she’s had no compunction about serving as Jock’s nurse, it was a long shot that she would agree with her boyfriend, hospital physician Nat Casey, that it would be best if she skipped that trip.
So off she goes—even bringing her 17-year-old sister Connie on the trip. The jaded Connie has designs on the wealthy Jock, and it comes out that she’s even been visiting him on the sly in an attempt to land herself a rich husband. “So what if he is a psycho?” she asks. “If Jock were to fall in love with a cute girl, get out of that place and get married, I’ll bet he’d be as normal as anybody.”
Of the actual road trip, which has been built up for 55 pages, we get not a sentence: After Ruby’s final argument with Nat, the next sentence has her pulling into Jock’s father’s house. Joe Jordan is away on a business trip, though, and Jock’s stepmother Dorothy refuses to allow Jock to come into the house, instead steering him and Ruby—Connie has been deposited at a local hotel—to the gatehouse: “I’m scared of crazy people,” she explains. But Ruby insists that they be allowed to stay in the main house. Once back in his old room, Jock is “brooding and staring, like someone in a stuporous daze,” and Ruby is concerned that this might be one of Jock’s “depressed spells which, once or twice, had come close to being a psychotic breakthrough.” Her solution is to take Jock and Connie out for dinner. Connie is all in favor of this plan: “Hey, it is okay if I douse myself with that perfume that Mom says smells like a hussy’s boudoir?” she asks her sister. But out at the restaurant, when Connie begs Jock to dance, Ruby reminds her, “He’s not supposed to dance. Doctor’s orders.” Because we all know that dancing can cause psychosis, especially the Wahtusi.
So while Connie finds someone else to boogie with, Jock takes the opportunity to beg Ruby, again, to marry him. When she refuses, he asks if she’s in love with someone else—and she lies to him. But when Connie returns to the table and is again rebuffed by Jock, she decides to settle the score by telling him that Ruby is engaged to Dr. Nat. Jock responds by taking a trip to the loo and not returning. In another dramatic jump between scenes, we are back at the oceanfront Jordan house, and Ruby spots someone swimming—gosh, who could that be at this time of night? Instantly she is powering through the waves, dragging Jock’s limp body back to shore, and pumping the salt water from his lungs. The paramedics arrive and bundle him up to bring back to the house (not the hospital), and now Ruby has another disaster to cope with: Mrs. Jordan, and she is pissed. “Lucy tells me what that lunatic has been up to: trying to kill himself again, making trouble and disturbance for everyone,” she shrieks, insisting that it’s out to the gatehouse with Ruby and Jock. Or not; Ruby insists that Dorothy go to her room: “Must I remind you that I am a psychiatric nurse? I have been trained to use force when it becomes necessary.” And it does become necessary, so Ruby seizes Dorothy Jordan in a judo hold and locks her in her own bedroom. What a gal!
Nat shows up unexpectedly, fortunately before Mr. Jordan gets home, so he can break the news about all the goings-on. Amazingly, Pa Jordan lets everyone stay, and in the morning has a heart-to-heart with Ruby in which he offers her $1 million if she will marry Jock. Next thing we know, the whole gang is back at Olive Hill, and Ruby is actually, amazingly, thinking over the offer: “Even if there is no more than once chance in a thousand, I must see that he gets that chance,” Ruby tells Nat. “I cannot have it on my conscience that I might have saved Jock from a living death, and did not.”
Only a bout of pneumonia keeps Ruby from eloping with Jock at once. But that gives Connie time to cook up a plan to prevent the marriage—yes, Connie, the girl who at book’s open deplored poverty, now declares that “what she really wanted was to marry some nice guy, love him to death, have a cute little house, and kids, and all the stuff most girls wanted.” So off Connie goes to see Dorothy, and tells her that $1 million of her husband’s precious fortune will slip through her fingers if Ruby marries Jock. Dorothy instantly reaches for the little pearl-handled revolver she keeps hidden amongst her underthings and hops into her black Caddy with the red leather seats to pay Jock a visit. She tells Jock about the bribe—and that Ruby is planning to go through with it, then have him committed to an insane asylum, annul the marriage and run off with Nat. She offers him her car and some money—$60, the cheapskate—but Jock’s not that dumb. He grabs the gun instead, knocks Dorothy down—poor Dorothy seems to have a “kick me” sign on her back—and heads for Nat’s office, just as Ruby herself is trotting down the Olive Hill corridors with the same destination. Oh, how will it all end?
The four or five final paragraphs of the book are actually quite sweet, but the perfunctory and plodding 17 preceding chapters are a hard slog. When the heroine holds multiple enormously flawed opinions, it’s hard to feel very sympathetic toward the little dunce. Florence Stonebraker pulls out a few great scenes in this book, but Nurse Under Fire is no match for her best works (i.e. City Doctor, The Nurse and the Orderly, Runaway Nurse). I love Florence Stonebraker enough that I could never just dismiss one of her books as not worth reading, but I do have to say, sadly, that you needn’t put this one at the top of your reading pile.