Sometimes it's best to leave the past alone. For when biographer Martin Nanther looks into the life of his famous great-grandfather Henry, Queen Victoria's favorite physician, he discovers some rather unsettling coincidences, like the fact that the doctor married the sister of his recently murdered fiancee. The more Martin researches his distant relative, the more fascinated--and horrified--he becomes. Why did people have a habit of dying around his great grandfather? And what did his late daughter mean when she wrote that he's done "monstrous, quite appalling things"?
Barbara Vine (a.k.a. Ruth Rendell) deftly weaves this story of an eminent Victorian with a modern yarn about the embattled biographer, who is watching the House of Lords prepare to annul membership for hereditary peers and thus strip him of his position. Themes of fate and family snake throughout this teasing psychological suspense, a typically chilling tale from a master of the genre.
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.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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November 10, 2003
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