Novel of the week

The Blood Doctor

Barbara Vine <em>Viking, 389pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0316859931

The pen-name Barbara Vine has allowed Ruth Rendell to escape the strictures of the detective novel and concentrate on the darker peculiarities of human nature. The Vine books tend to focus on a long-buried secret, often within a family, and how its power extends into the present. Her psychological suspense narratives are usually told retrospectively - as in the gripping trio of novels she first wrote under the pseudonym, A Dark-Adapted Eye, A Fatal Inversion and The House of Stairs - and take the form of a confessional memoir, or the researching of a biography of a dead family member. The Blood Doctor follows the latter convention. But there is a difference: this book is unbalanced by Rendell's fascination with the House of Lords.

Genetic inheritance is her main theme here. Martin Nather is researching a biography of his great-grandfather Lord Nather, a specialist in haemophilia, who was given a hereditary peerage by Queen Victoria in honour of his services as physician to the royal family. In Martin's own life, the theme finds topical resonance in the failure of he and his wife to produce a baby. After frequent miscarriages, they eventually discover that they are carriers of faulty genes that will necessitate using modern science to create a "designer baby".

Rendell is fond of addressing topical issues in her books, but this seems far too pat. However, the greater flaw is her long-winded exegesis on the debate over voting rights for hereditary peers. Martin is a peer, having inherited the Nather title. A middle-aged writer with time on his hands, he spends idle days at the Lords; and we are treated, in excruciating detail, to its rituals and ceremonies, complete with quotes from Hansard.

The story of Henry Nather, meanwhile, follows the well-trodden but always intriguing path of Vine productions. Martin knows that Henry's life must have been blighted somehow: it is clear from the decline of his work, his letters, and those of his children, that he became cold and withdrawn in later years. Henry felt terribly guilty about something. But what? Martin is puzzled by the apparent anomalies in Henry's life: by his abandonment of his first fiancee, by his relationship with a mistress, by the murder on a train of his second fiancee and his subsequent marriage to her sister, and, above all, by a missing notebook that will turn out to give the clue to the whole matter. However, all this is veiled in a heavy skein of history, and never quite emerges from it.

This is the first time that Vine has picked a period so far back in history, and too often she falls back on researched exposition, rather than creating atmosphere, as she does so adeptly in her more contemporary novels. Where Vine usually excels is in the vivid depiction of domestic unhappiness - which Henry certainly had - and in tales of ordinary madness. In the bravura opening of her novel King Solomon's Carpet, she showed superbly how she can make mundane experiences seem bizarre and threatening - in that case, the experience of travelling on the London Underground - but in The Blood Doctor we never feel the same kind of immediacy.

In his maiden speech to the Lords, in 1896, Henry said: "Control circumstances and do not allow them to control you." Any Vine aficionado will recognise the irony inherent in those words: in book after book, she has demonstrated the vital role played by chance in our lives; her characters bemoan the twists of circumstance that led to one course of action rather than another. In his attempt to control circumstances, Henry, it will turn out, led himself into evil, and he was punished bitterly for it. Evil is very present in Vine's world-view: there are people who are simply bad, and more often people whose weakness makes them vulnerable to being bad. Henry is punished not by society (as in the Wexford formula), but by his own conscience, a fate more devastating than prison or even death itself.

Rendell's own maiden speech to the Lords was on the importance of literacy. Her writing style is formal, clear and somewhat old-fashioned. Her plot construction is often flawless: expertly patterned with subtle clues and a remarkable ability to spin out suspense and add new twists. Writing as Vine, Rendell does not have the subtlety of her forerunner Patricia Highsmith - she uses much broader brushstrokes to paint character and motive - but she has usually managed to write books that are supremely gripping and unexpected. However, in The Blood Doctor, it is only about a quarter of the way from the end that we really feel excited about Henry's story. Worse still, you can see the pay-off coming for some time.

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