I was looking forward to Helen Nielsen’s The Fifth Caller (Morrow, 1959) from the Grier-McBride collection–the library catalog lists “Lesbian physicians–Fiction” as the second subject. Alas, only a completionist collector like Barbara Grier would put this rather dull mystery with its few elliptical references to sapphic tendencies in her lesbian library.
The Plot: Dr. Lillian Whitehall has been found dead in her office and all evidence points to her nurse. Nursie can’t defend herself, because she was found unconscious on the beach with her wrists slashed and has no memory of what happened that day. Tall, square-jawed D.A. Investigator (I’m sorry–I’ve already forgotten his name) thinks Nurse Anna is awfully pretty though, so he doesn’t arrest her right away, but instead trots a series of witnesses into her hospital room in hopes of jogging her memory. There’s a lot of “Mrs. Griswold bumped into you at 10:42…the doctor’s brother says he saw your car at 2:05…if the doctor went to the bank at 4pm…” and so on. Ho hum.
If you can make it to page 221, as I valiantly did, you’ll discover the murderer was the gas man. Seems the doc was quack pyschologist, and by a crazy coincidence, the guy who came to fix the faulty pilot light was a former patient with some unresolved issues. Did I mention I didn’t care?
The only thing that kept me reading were the faint hints the author tossed out like some hack pied piper to keep me following along: “Men, yes. It was always men that she [Dr. Helen] hated.” or even better, “it was a very close attachment [between nurse and doctor] and very close attachments between women seldom work out.” and most suggestive: “Anna Bardossy [the nurse] was too young and vital to live indefinitely in an unnatural world.”
There were also references to a “shock-sensation ending” which made me imagine that some jealous ex of Dr. Helen’s was going to show up in the final pages and the whole lesbian subtext would be brought into the open. Alas, my imagined plot did not materialize. There was no real hanky-panky between Dr. Helen and Nurse Anna, just a one-sided crush, inappropriate in the context not only of their work relationship, but also because Dr. Helen had sponsored Nurse Anna’s immigration from Communist Hungary. This last was the only reason strictly straight Anna put up with Doctor Helen as long as she did–she actually had a Hungarian boyfriend she was planning to marry, except that he had a heart attack the very same day Dr. Helen got bludgeoned with the clock, and that’s why Nurse Anna slit her wrists. Now you know everything I do.
Drinking: Coffee, pots and pots. The book takes place over 24 sleepless hours, and the D.A. Investigator and his sidekick, the wise doctor, are constantly brewing up a fresh pot.
Homo Psychology: Dr. Helen had a bad husband and felt like Nurse Anna was her “spiritual daughter.”
Comment: In addition to the fact that this was a complete failure as a lesbian pulp, it was a time-table mystery–my least favorite kind. Although I put in my time with both Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, I could never stomach the endless poring over train schedules, or the calculations on how long it would take the prime suspect to nip over to the victim’s and knock her on the head and then nip back to his card game. It seems a pity for mystery writers to do all that careful plotting when readers like me just skim over it, eyes glazing.
Probably my favorite part of the book was seeing the original bookplate with a woodcut of an owl that said “ex libris Helen Bennett and Barbara Grier”. To prevent any possible error, someone had written in blue ballpoint cursive, “property of Helen and Barbara, September, 1959”.
Which got me thinking. The SFPL’s pulp collection is named after Barbara Grier and her last girlfriend, Donna McBride. But is this quite fair when clearly earlier girlfriend Helen also did her share of the collecting? It just seems all wrong to me, and not the least because it mimicks that whole hetero couple thing where you pretend previous involvements never happened, as opposed to the (infinitely more civilized) lesbian tradition where you invite previous involvements to your commitment ceremony potluck. Or call a collection “the McBride-Grier-Bennett collection.” It has a nice menage-à-trois ring, doesn’t it?