cover image THE BLOOD DOCTOR


Barbara Vine, . . Crown/Areheart, $25 (384pp) ISBN 978-1-4000-4504-4

This rich, labyrinthine book by Vine (aka Ruth Rendell) concerns a "mystery in history," like her 1998 novel, The Chimney Sweeper's Boy. Martin Nanther—biographer and member of the House of Lords—discovers some blighted roots on his family tree while researching the life of his great-great-grandfather, Henry, an expert on hemophilia and physician to Queen Victoria. Martin contacts long-lost relatives who help him uncover some puzzling events in Henry's life. Was Henry a dour workaholic or something much more sinister? Vine can make century-old tragedy come alive. Still, the decades lapsed between Martin's and Henry's circles create added emotional distance, and, because they are all at least 50 years dead, we never meet Henry or his cohorts except through diaries and letters. Martin's own life—his wife's infertility and troubles with a son from his first marriage—is interesting yet sometimes intrudes on the more intriguing Victorian saga. Vine uses her own experience as a peer to give readers an insider's look into the House of Lords, at the dukes snoozing in the library between votes and eating strawberries on the terrace fronting the Thames. Some minor characters are especially vivid, like Martin's elderly cousin Veronica, who belts back gin while stonewalling about the family skeletons all but dancing through her living room. Readers may guess Henry's game before Vine is ready to reveal it, but this doesn't detract from this novel peopled by characters at once repellant and compelling. (July 9)

FYI:Vine's most recent novel as Ruth Rendell is Adam and Eve and Pinch Me (Forecasts, Jan. 28).