“It’s a terrible thought. To murder anyone. You must have to hate them intensely, and there’s someone going round hating like that. It frightens me.“
Nurse Jessica Biggs is the backbone of the small rural hospital where she works. Her colleagues value her skill and efficiency as a nurse, yet her harsh manner has won her no friends either inside or outside the hospital. Plain, poorly educated, and aging, Sister Biggs knows that she cannot rely on anyone else to secure her future. Her position offers her access to sensitive information, things that her patients would not want anyone else to know. Sister Biggs knows how to keep a secret…for a price.
Epitaph for a Nurse is a straightforwardly pleasing story of blackmail and murder, built around a perfectly realized antiheroine. Ostensibly the reader is meant to dislike Nurse Biggs, but her plight is real and her hamfisted forays into crime have a fascination all their own. Soon, however, she finds that the events she has set into motion are no longer within her control. The murder investigation that results is unfortunately less intriguing than the long buildup to it; only a twist in the solution keeps the second half of the book from being completely predictable.
It is the first half of the story, spent with Sister Biggs, that is the most compelling. Anne Hocking is willing to spend as much time as necessary in setting up a volatile situation, and it’s hard to imagine a more dangerous combination than nursing and blackmail. Though the forbidding Sister Biggs’ “scanty ginger hair” has never attracted any admirers, she has started to dream that her professional rapport with Dr. Dominick Scott may lead to something more. When she discovers Dr. Scott is actually falling for his beautiful and troubled patient Catherine, Sister Biggs realizes that a lifetime of playing by the rules has left her with nothing. Her one faint hope of marriage has vanished. With no advanced degrees, she cannot move forward in her profession. She’s on the wrong side of forty, with nothing to show for years of struggle.
Unbeknownst to her colleagues, “Jessie Biggs, in fact, lived a secret life. Outwardly, she was the hard, ultra-efficient, not too amiable woman who did her duty rigidly in the hospital. In her own room, she indulged all the longing for luxury which conditioned her private outlook.” Her room is where she indulges in fantasies of a different kind of life, a life of beauty and romance (though her definition of beauty includes such things as a bedside lamp shaped like a Scottie dog, “which emitted what light was able to emerge through its transparent eyes”). It is her quest for security that leads her to blackmail, and her desire to luxury that leads to murder.
Hocking gets some laughs from the specific details of Sister Biggs’ awful taste, but her desires for marriage, leisure, and a pleasant home of her own are certainly relatable, even if her methods for obtaining them are slightly unorthodox. Her illegal enterprises bring Sister Biggs a newfound confidence that help her to land a boyfriend (who may have ulterior motives of his own) and a new flat, which she can almost afford.
The ironing board folded into the wall and looked like a cupboard, bookcases turned into tables, a fitted dresser looked like a bookcase, beds let down from walls, practically nothing betrayed its proper purpose […] Sister considered that though there was a high price to pay for all these luxuries, they were worth it to her. She must and would have them.
In her desperation to secure the flat, Sister Biggs takes some big risks, which include approaching Catherine Jerrold, the unhappily married former patient that Dr. Scott has been so attentive to. Now Catherine’s husband is the one who is ill, bedridden with a mysterious complaint that Dr. Scott claims he is unable to identify. With her professional and criminal lives dangerously intermingled, Sister Biggs has created an explosive situation. There is no telling how far matters will go.
It is not too surprising that murder results, though not until the reader has had time to consider many intriguing possibilities. Unfortunately, however, the murder removes most of the suspense from the story. Inspector William Austen is perfectly amiable, but has only a handful of suspects to sort through. Even the blackmail victims are either colorless or outright unpleasant; it’s hard to feel very sorry for them.
Based on the titles of her other books, Anne Hocking would appear to be a big fan of poison. Though a different method is employed here, Hocking still finds room for a strange non sequitur that finds Catherine making a strong argument in favor of murder by poison.
Poison is generally supposed to be the worst of all the methods of murder, but why? The poisoner plans, true, but so do other deliberate murderers, and death by poison is rarely cruel. The victim dies swiftly as a rule, often in sleep, without fear, without pain, and the poisoner isn’t often there to watch him die.
Is Catherine hinting that her husband’s illness may not be entirely natural, or is the author simply defending her favorite murder method?
Epitaph for a Nurse is good fun as long as it stays with Sister Biggs and the bleakly comic rise of her criminal empire. The murder mystery plot is more lackluster. Sister Biggs may not be appreciated by her coworkers, but here she is the star of the show—the book loses its interest whenever she is out of the spotlight.
Saturday Review, April 11, 1959
Pleasant semipuzzler, told in words of one syllable.
Epitaph for a Nurse (also published as A Victim Must Be Found) is out of print, with one used copy in English available.