Bloody Good, I Say
The Blood Doctor
Barbara Vine is the pen name of British author Ruth Rendell, a psychologically subtle mystery writer known for relentlessly tightening the screws of interior dread. Instead of staging a Texas chainsaw jamboree, The Blood Doctor, recently released in paperback, uses the history of research into hemophilia to explore a character cursed with "a passion for blood."
The protagonist, biographer Sir Martin Nanther, is researching his great-grandfather Dr. Henry Nanther, a physician and early hemophilia specialist so highly respected that his patients included Queen Victoria and her children. Because Vine is incapable of writing a book that doesn't make your skin crawl, it's not surprising when Martin unearths dark secrets and then even deeper, darker secrets about this first Lord Nanther. (Yes, the string of characters named Lord Nanther becomes Monty Pythonish at times.)
Before we knew about genes and DNA and the complexities of biological inheritance, blood was held accountable for most of our traits both good and bad. And blood, or heredity, drives Vine's plot. Never one to support a complex theme on just one leg, Vine adds two others.
Martin sits in Britain's House of Lords as a hereditary peer, although his title originated with scholarly great-grandfather Henry rather than some armor-clanking Dark Age warrior. In contrast, life peers such as Sir Paul McCartney receive their titles by means of personal achievement and can't pass them on. To the Brits, there's a big difference. The story takes place during the 2000 legislative saga that stripped hereditary peers of their right to sit in the House of Lords. Martin is torn between relief at shucking the archaic silliness and melancholy at seeing the hereditary peers plod into the twilight like dinosaurs.
But Vine's most emotionally wrenching variation on the theme is the single-minded determination of Martin's wife to bear a child in spite of multiple miscarriages, and her refusal to be happy otherwise. By turns, Martin is willing to give up anything to accommodate his wife and resentful at her lack of attention to him or anything else. Having a 20-year-old son by a previous marriage, he has no desire for a new baby, but he trudges through medical purgatory pretending he wants one. It's a stunning portrait of a marriage faltering under the burden of obsession.
Vine's observations of human behavior are so keen, so free of cliché that we often recognize traits we've sensed but never quite defined. Of one character Vine writes, "It's extraordinary the smug satisfaction people like her derive from being unkind to babies." Aha! She finally pinpoints what's so off-putting about punitive parenting guru Dr. John Rosemund! At other times her characterizations, which assume a British grounding in art and history, fall on American ears made deaf by reality shows and video games.
A novel based on genetic inheritance patterns may well demand an enormous cast of kinfolk, but keeping track of the bleeding characteristics of 50 members of Martin's extended family can get as tedious as counting Gregor Mendel's peas. Fortunately, the book includes diagrams of family trees.