[Miss Beale is inspecting the nurse training school at The John Carpender Hospital]
Miss Beale knew from her own student days what could be done with a couple of white-tipped hat pins… The [hospital] uniform struck her as interestingly out of date. Nearly every hospital she visited had replaced these old-fashioned winged caps with the smaller American type, which were easier to wear, quicker to make up, and cheaper to buy and launder.
Some hospitals, to Miss Beale’s regret, were even issuing disposable paper caps. But a hospital nurse’s uniform was always jealously defended and changed with reluctance and John Carpender was obviously wedded to tradition. Even the uniform dresses were slightly old fashioned. Their skirt lengths paid no concession to fashion, and their sturdy feet were planted in low-heeled black lace-up shoes…
“Right, Nurse,” said Sister Gearing. “So we are faced with the problem of a post-operative patient, already seriously under-nourished and now unable to take food by mouth. That means what? Yes, Nurse?”
“Intra-gastric or rectal feeding, Sister.”
observations: Anyone who has ever read this book should be shivering by now, and looking with horror at that quite innocent picture above. Of all the many many crime stories I have read, and all the gruesome and revolting ways of committing murder I have taken on board, this is the one that gives me bad dreams, because it is so homely and then so horrendous: the poison is going to be introduced into a young woman’s stomach via the gastric feed. She will be killed during a student demonstration, the toxin poured unstoppably into her via tube. There is something absolutely vile about this method.
PD James, grande dame of crime fiction, has died at the age of 94. I think this was the best of her books – they got longer, and more diffuse, and more pretentious as she went on. I mentioned favourite policemen recently: if there were to be a list of my least favourite ones, her Inspector Adam Dalgliesh would be right up there at the top, with his wonderful poetry, his miserable face and (in this book) the realization that someone must have been a person of taste because she has one of his slim volumes.
But this and the even earlier Cover Her Face (on the blog here) are both excellent reads, which stand up well over time. The atmosphere and details of the student nursing home are wonderfully done, and the long blowy walk from the main buildings on a dark stormy night is very creepy. Only Christianna Brand, in Green for Danger, made a hospital seem more sinister.
There are a few problems with this one – I’m not convinced all the timings and ages work out correctly, and the ballroom dancing scene is pointless and unpleasant. The murder coming above makes for a startling opening section, but it’s hard to imagine the guilty party choosing this method. But it’s not the day to carp about PD James – she achieved much, wrote well, took her place in the establishment, and gave people hours of enjoyment.
The picture is from the Ministry of Information, and shows exactly the process featured in the book, at a hospital in Surrey.