Monday, May 19, 2014

the last book I read

The Blood Doctor by Barbara Vine.

Martin Nanther is a writer and, as Lord Nanther, a hereditary peer entitled to sit in the House of Lords. This right derives from his inheriting the peerage bestowed on his great-grandfather Henry Nanther by Queen Victoria - Henry Nanther having served as one of the Queen's senior physicians for many years.

Martin plans to write a biography of his great-grandfather, his interest having been piqued by some old documents which came into his possession after his mother's death which reveal some interesting titbits from Henry's personal life: he kept a mistress in London for many years, and married his wife Edith only after having previously been engaged to her younger sister Eleanor, that engagement ending when Eleanor was brutally murdered and her body thrown from a train.

Henry's medical speciality was diseases of the blood, and so he was invited to be Queen Victoria's resident expert on the so-called "royal disease" of haemophilia, from which her son Leopold suffered and of which her daughter Alice was a known carrier, Alice being responsible for infecting the Russian royal family as well.

Martin's suspicions are aroused when he starts researching his family tree for the biography, since several branches of it seem to feature sons who died very young, including Henry's own son George. This has a particular resonance for Martin as he and his second wife Jude are trying to conceive a child, but Jude has suffered a series of traumatic miscarriages. Is there some similar "bad blood" in the Nanther line?

Martin's family research leads him to various family members he had never even known existed, and to Switzerland, where pioneering studies of haemophilia were done in various isolated mountain communities, and where Henry was known to have been on several walking holidays in the mid-19th century. Is there a link between this and the mysterious early deaths of some of the male Nanthers? And who killed Eleanor? Was Henry involved? And if so, why?

You'll recall from the other Vine in this list that there are various themes that run through a lot of the books, and many of them are present here - the events that form the book's central puzzle (there is no "crime" in any meaningful legal sense) are over 100 years in the past and have to be uncovered by careful research involving lots of poring through letters and diaries, and there's a bit of homosexual subtext in that it's suggested Henry chose to do the things he's eventually revealed to have done after the death of his, hem hem, "close friend" Richard Hamilton in the Tay Bridge disaster in 1879.

The Vine books don't stand and fall on the quality of the central mystery, and just as well - I couldn't at this point tell you what it was in any of Asta's Book, The House Of Stairs or The Brimstone Wedding, though I read and enjoyed them all. The Chimney Sweeper's Boy's central protagonist having to flee and assume a new identity after accidentally giving his brother a blowjob in a sauna sticks in the mind, for some reason. The revelation of what Henry has done here is neither especially surprising nor at all plausible, but in a way it doesn't matter.

This is the most recent of all the Vines I've read, and they do seem to have gradually bulked up over the course of her career - the early ones are all around 300 pages, The Chimney Sweeper's Boy and Asta's Book are over 400 and The Blood Doctor is a beefy 466 pages. To be honest rather too much of this is taken up with meticulous family tree reconstruction that has the reader constantly diving back to the explanatory chart at the front, and none of which is as exciting as all the (literally) gory detail about haemophilia and its transmission. There's a lot here about "blood" in all its literal and colloquial senses - haemophilia, Martin and Jude's struggle to conceive (which turns out to be due to an unrelated genetic disorder), the House of Lords and the abolition of hereditary peers.

It's very good and very readable, but if you want some Vines I would suggest you try some of the earlier ones - A Fatal Inversion, The Brimstone Wedding, King Solomon's Carpet and No Night Is Too Long would do for starters.

1 comment:

The black rabbit said...

You'll forgive me if I don't join you.
I have already dined. And I never read...... ........ ehhhhhVine.