Martin Nanther is a member of the British House of Lords, having inherited his title from his great-grandfather, Henry. Physician to Queen Victoria, Henry specialized in hemophilia, the disease that Her Majesty was known to have passed to her son, Leopold, and other descendants. While the House of Lords considers a Bill to abolish hereditary peerage and Martin's much younger, second wife is obsessed with becoming pregnant, he escapes into his slow research for a biography of Henry

His patient genealogical investigations uncover deaths in infancy of several young boys in his own family, and Martin soon realizes that hemophilia (rather than the family's legendary tuberculosis) is the cause. Was that irony merely a coincidence? Or was hemophilia in his own lineage the impetus for his grandfather's research and position in life? And why was the disease hushed? Was it possible that his grandfather deliberately sought a bride with the trait in order to investigate it in his own progeny?

Martin soon finds himself wondering if this well-respected, medical man actually committed murder, or was he merely waylaid by unexpected love? Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the answers prove so surprising and so disturbing, that Martin decides to abandon the biography of his ancestor, even as he learns that his inherited peerage has been revoked and that his next child will soon be born.


Written convincingly in the first-person, male voice by a distinguished crime writer, herself a Life Peer in the British House of Lords, this sumptuous novel possesses impressive scientific and social credibility. Blood, bleeding, inheritance, allegiance, and family ties are gracefully interwoven. The vivid but myriad cast of characters--some real and some fictitious--is daunting, but an indispensable family tree is a consolation. Medical understanding of hemophilia is accurately explained for each period in the two centuries under consideration. The problems of historical life-writing are compellingly told, replete with their attendant paraphernalia of letters, newspapers, hostile interviews, and fragile clues; they will be familiar to any reader who has engaged in the process.

The depressing effect on Martin of his wife's obsessive pursuit of pregnancy is an important consequence of medical technology on the life of couples. His reticence both to reproduce and to reveal his hesitation to her resembles the grotesque aspects of inheritance writ large. The mysteries in this novel are manifold: the character of the doctor; a diagnosis; a death that may or may not be a murder; and the nature of historical research. It reminds us that on one level, every novel is a mystery; indeed, every history can be one too.

This excellent book is not a run-of-the-mill mystery. Strangely, many media reviewers gave it only middling praise. I imagine that the author's reputation as a crime writer caused editors to seek readers who specialize in crime; they may have been disappointed not to find a clear dilemma with bodies and gore on page one, perhaps even they were bored. But "we," most definitely, are not.


Barbara Vine is the pseudonym of Ruth Rendell.


Viking (UK) and Shaye Areheart (USA)

Place Published

London & New York



Page Count