I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Shroud For a Nightingale by P.D. James

This is an early CID Adam Dalgliesh of the Scotland Yard mystery that opens with a nurse, Miss Beale, an Inspector of Nurse Training Schools to the General Nursing Council goes to Heatheringfield, England, out in the country where the John Carpenter Hospital has been since 1792.  The nursing school is in the Nightingale House, an old haunted Victorian House that, in many people's opinions, is quite inappropriate for a nursing school in that the windows, while pretty, do not allow enough light in, and it is drafty and the rooms are not the optimal sizes for what is required.  Miss Beale is quite good at her job and at having the ability to size up people rather accurately. 

Now, let me take a moment to explain the medical community in England at that time.  I have no idea how it is now, but if you do, please feel free to comment below.  In nursing, you go from Nurse to Sister, if you head up a ward or become a teacher, and then, if you are lucky and become head of the hospital nursing staff, you are called a Matron.  The highest a non-nurse can achieve is surgeon, which are referred to as Mr. A Dr. is a step below that and is generally a simple general practionor.  Those that are a Mr. look down upon those that are mere Drs.  as being inferior and less knowledgeable. 

Miss Beale is sat with Sister Rolfe, a middle-aged nurse there, Mr. Courtney-Briggs, a surgeon, and Matron Taylor, who has a reputation for excellence to the point that some wonder why she doesn't head up a place in London.  Some people, thinks Miss Beale, may not want to live in London.  The clinical instructor, Sister Gearing,  is filling in as a teacher because a bout of flu has hit the hospital and many nurses are in bed with it, including Nurse Fallon, who was supposed to act as patient for the demonstration of insertion of a gastric tube and pouring what will be milk for their purposes down the throat.  Nurse Pearce is instead acting as the patient and Miss Beale notices that she seems rather scared, but later puts it down to not liking being the patient when others inform her that she is always like that.  The other student nurses present are: Nurse Dakers, a conscientious  girl who knew her facts and was hard working; the Burnt twins, who were performing the procedure and were seen as rather competent; Nurse Goodale, whom Miss Beale sees as quite an excellent student;  Nurse Pardoe, a girl who is too pretty for her own good; Nurse Harper, a sullen girl.

As soon as the milk goes down the tube and hits Nurse Pearce's stomach, she jumps up gagging and Matron Taylor yanks the tube from her throat.  However, it is too late.  Even with all the medical help right there, she dies of poisoning from disinfectant wash that had been put in the milk bottle.  No one knows what to make of this.  Was it a murder attempt, and if so upon whom?  Nurse Fallon was supposed to be the patient, but everyone seems to have known that she was in the hospital with the flu.  Someone did see her that morning running from the school, which is odd, considering she had a temperature of 103 degrees.  What could she possibly have needed so badly that she had to come back?  Nurse Pearce was not very well liked.  She was rather pious, and holy-than-thou. It wasn't that she was religious; you could accept that about a person, but rather that she saw herself as a judge over others. She was known to have blackmailed others and believed in the punishment fitting the crime. 

The police believe it was a complete accident and do nothing.  Nurse Harper leaves.  She is engaged to be married and her father was only indulging her my letting her go to nurse school when she was never going to practice.  Then, on the night that Nurse Fallon returns from the hospital, the twins wake up to go and get a drink of cocoa at around 2am and see Sister Bremfett, the ward nurse who is known to drag patients kicking and screaming from the jaws of death, whether they want it or not, and takes it as a personal affront when a patient dies.  She has just come from the hospital where one of Mr. Courtney-Briggs's patients had a relapse and had to have surgery, so she went to set the patient up for the night.  They also notice the light under Fallon's door and think about asking her for a cup of cocoa, but realize that Fallon, a private person, might not appreciate a disturbance.

The next morning at breakfast, no one has seen Fallon, so Nurse Drakers goes up to check on her and discovers her with her empty whiskey glass in her hand, dead from poison.  Everyone believes it to be a suicide, especially when it is discovered that she is three  months pregnant.  The police call in Scotland Yard anyway, just to cover themselves, as two deaths, so close to each other have occurred at Nightingale House.  Dalgliesh arrives and does not believe this to be the case, but that both girls were murdered.  Some even try to convince him that Fallon was the one to poison Pearce and in a fit of guilt, committed suicide. 

James writes serious mysteries, but this one has a very hilarious scene in it that had me about falling off the couch with laughter.  Matheson, the Sargent who is working with Dalgliesh on this case is sent to interview an older woman who might have information relevant to the case.  She is about to go out to a special ballroom dance hosted by her class. To get the information he has to go as her partner.  It is lucky that he is a rather good ballroom dancer.  As the evening wears on, she refuses to give him information.  Then the spotlight dance comes, and she is the Silver Award winner.  He has had a few to drink and is ticked off at her, so he decides to have fun with the dance and mess around with it.  When he realizes how much this dance means to her, he tells her to start talking or she'll end up on the floor.  The more she talks, the better he dances.  I do not think I've ever seen a cop get information from someone this way before.

The more Dalgliesh investigates this crime, the more secrets he uncovers.  Recent ones, as well as ones from long ago.  Which ones are the important ones?  Was Pearce killed because of her blackmailing schemes and was Fallon killed by the father of her child, who may be the surgeon, a man she had an affair with her first year?  This house was already haunted by one ghost, no it seems two more have joined it.  Is the killer finished and will he join the dead too? 

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