Saturday, May 9, 2015

Guest Blogger Barbara Leavy's Tribute to Ruth Rendell: a Discussion of "The Blood Doctor."

I’m off to Mykonos and wanted to leave you with something to remember me by.  Something to keep your mind off the sort of posts I’ll be writing once I land and get an up close and personal feel for the situation known as Greece.  In other words I was a man in search of ying for my yang.

Then it hit me.  Who better to reflect on the serious side of crime fiction than Barbara Fass Leavy, a friend to many of us here at MIE.  And so I asked—no make that begged—her to write something.  For those of you who don’t know Barbara, permit me to briefly introduce her.

After teaching traditional courses in English literature to college students for twenty-seven years, she took it upon herself to design and teach classes in crime fiction.  Retiring two years later, she made our genre the focus of her continuing passion for research and writing, producing a full-length study of “The Fiction of Ruth Rendell: Ancient Tragedy and the Modern Family” (rev. ed. Poisoned Pen Press, 2012).  This fall, Poisoned Pen Press will publish a collection of Barbara’s essays.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Barbara has written analytical essays on two of my Andreas Kaldis novels, (“Murder in Mykonos” and “Sons of Sparta”), but she’s wisely regained her stature in the community by also doing one on Annamaria’s “Strange Gods.”  I’m sure Barbara can provide links to her essays to the so inclined. Thank you, Barbara, and welcome. 

Ruth Rendell

When it was announced in January that Ruth Rendell had sustained a stroke and was in serious condition—followed by weeks of silence—it was sad but not surprising to learn she passed away last weekend.

I had spent several years intensively reading the novels—yes, I call them novels not mysteries—of Ruth Rendell, aka Barbara Vine.  My effort culminated in a study of her books, pure literary criticism without any use of biography to support my analyses. When I sent a copy to Rendell at her home in London, the gracious praise she sent back was beyond anything I could have hoped for.  Rendell and I e-mailed back and forth over the years, but we never met. And so the closest connection for me remained her books, though I continued to follow reviews, interviews, and readers’ responses to her fiction.

Aside from her fine writing, I was impressed by her subtle ability to treat her themes on multiple levels. And I was fascinated by the way she drew upon ancient tragedy to portray the disturbed family relationships found throughout her work.  I defy a reader not to relate to some of these family dramas.

Ruth Rendell was an extraordinarily prolific writer. When I published my study she had published 48 novels, more than 20 as part of the popular Kingsmarkham series featuring Inspector Reginald Wexford, 13 standalones by Barbara Vine, two novellas, and several collections of short stories. More fiction followed the release of my book and a posthumous novel will soon be released.

Between 1985 and 1990 three separate lists of the 100 Best Mysteries ever written (compiled by H.R.F. Keating, the Mystery Writers of America, and the Crime Writers Association) all chose Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone (1977).  Perhaps because it is the only Rendell book that can be read as social criticism, in this case of England’s class system, though I have argued strongly against such a reading.

Rendell readers who belonged to clubs, such as the ones on Yahoo and Facebook occasionally post their favorites and the lists vary greatly.  I place The Blood Doctor second on my own list of favorites; a close friend and Rendell enthusiast places it first.  I have it from a reliable source that it was one of Rendell’s favorites as well. It therefore always comes to me as a surprise that some readers will gratuitously say The Blood Doctor is a book they don’t like.  Some claim not to like the characters. Neither did Rendell’s narrator, who was writing a biography of his great-grandfather, the blood doctor who was among the coterie of physicians Queen Victoria surrounded herself with.  The last two words in the book are “Bloody Henry.”

This is my attempt to make The Blood Doctor, admittedly not an easy read, accessible to more readers. I offer it as my tribute to Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine in the hope that I might help bridge at least some of the gap between the author’s regard for her own book and the response of so many of her readers.

Not only was Rendell a prolific writer but also a voracious reader. Allusions therefore abound in her books, sometimes lines of poetry that are not even enclosed in quotation marks.  The Blood Doctor can be read as an extended allusion, for it is Rendell’s version of the Faust legend, a story that for centuries has drawn writers, artists, and composers of operas.  

There are so many versions of the legend that no one summary can encompass them all. The popular understanding of the story is that of a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for something he badly wants but cannot attain on his own.  Often this is knowledge of the hidden secrets of the physical universe and the power that would come from having it.

If Faust is seen as a latent scientist, he was in earlier ages erring in two ways.  The natural world after the Fall became the domain of the devil, and penetrating too far into it would mean consorting with demons. Second, the desire to acquire what has been forbidden knowledge involves the sin of pride, the Faustian figure replicates the sins of Lucifer who could not bear to be anything but first in God’s favor.

Among the many versions of the Faust story, the most renowned twentieth-century retelling is Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which I would argue was the model for The Blood Doctor and when I suggested this to Ruth Rendell, she did not deny it and said she was flattered to be compared to Thomas Mann. 

Her book contains a significant clue.  Toward the end Rendell’s narrator, Martin Nanther, and his wife—following their continuing investigations into Henry Nanther, the blood doctor—have some leisure time before catching their plane to England.  They choose to spend it among museums and, though they do not go to the Thomas Mann Archives, its potential as a choice is emphasized in the book.

Doctor Faustus is a complex and difficult book about a composer, suffering from syphilis, who makes a pact with the devil that for the 20 years before the disease kills him he will produce great music. During Mann’s time a controversy existed over the relationship between illness and artistic creativity, and Mann was repelled by the supposed connection (see The Magic Mountain). After death the composer will have lost his chance for salvation and during his lifetime he will not know love.   

In The Blood Doctor, Martin Nanther, the narrator and writer of non-fiction is also a hereditary peer in the House of Lords, holding his seat for life because his father held it as well.  Reform of the House is a significant sub-plot, because a large number of life peers will lose their seats and the privileges that go with it. 

Late in her life Ruth Rendell was made a Baroness, a life peer (no one will inherit the title or her position in the House) and chose to sit on the Labor side, remaining an active member attending sessions of Parliament. There is, of course, a strong element of history in Rendell’s sub-plot, but it should also be remembered that inheritance and heredity are major themes in her writing.

Martin Nanther’s income from his position as a life peer is important to him, even though it would not be enough to support him, much less a family.  He therefore does free-lance writing and begins a biography of his great-grandfather, Henry Nanther. 

Henry was one of the physicians at the court of Queen Victoria, the doctor treating the blood diseases suffered by Victoria’s children, who by their marriages spread hemophilia through the courts of Europe. 

Henry is haunted by the example of William Jenner, also one of Victoria’s physicians, who made his mark on science by establishing how typhoid could be distinguished from typhus.  It became Henry Nanther’s obsessive ambition to make such a breakthrough on hemophilia.

When Martin begins his research on his great-grandfather, he was confronted with several mysteries.  Henry had lamented late in life that he had blighted his progeny in advance.  When young, he’d become engaged to a woman whose mother had brought her to him because of excessive menstrual bleeding. (Women, according to Rendell are not only carriers of hemophilia; they suffer a mild form of it.)

When Henry’s fiancée is murdered by a stranger on a train, he proposes to her sister, giving her the ring her dead sister had worn. As his wife, she gives birth to four daughters and two sons, but her husband is generally indifferent to them all.  Until a third son, George, is born, on whom he dotes.  

It is probably possible to discern from even this partial summary what Martin Nanther is going to discover about his great-grandfather, but the step-by-step investigations are fascinating.  And like Mann’s Faust figure, who in defiance of his pact comes to love a little boy sent to live with him, Henry Nanther’s young son becomes his punishment for Henry’s symbolic, if not literal, pact with the devil to be recognized for doing as much good for the world as Jenner.

The roles of these young boys are but one of several close ties between Mann’s and Rendell’s versions of the Faust legend.

One of Rendell’s persistent themes also found in classical literature has to do with the family curse, and the passing down from one generation to another of physical and psychological diseases that blight their lives, spreading geometrically into many of the characters in The Blood Doctor—each life strongly affected by the blood doctor.

I have tried to briefly present the narrative shape of The Blood Doctor, formed as it is by the Faust legend, in the hope of making this rich book and its extended allusion to Mann’s book less esoteric to Rendell’s readers.

I hope it helps. Thank you, Ruth Rendell.

Barbara for Jeff—Saturday


  1. You are a dangerous woman, Barbara! As is ALWAYS the case, this encounter with you has led me to add more titles to my already impossibly bloated TBR list. I will reread Doctor Faustus, and I will read The Blood Doctor.

    Welcome to MIE! I hope you will stop by often. Respect for our genre from a scholar like you gives us heart. I know I speak for my colleagues here when I say that we are writing novels, and it is instructive and beyond delightful to have your thoughts about the literature of crime.

    1. I so flattered to have been invited to be a guest blogger and hope I am invited again.

  2. Ruth Rendell's short stories on audio cassette tape are the reason I still possess a tape recorder. Read by Edward Fox, they are a delight. I've read all the Rendell books, often twice to try to gauge the construction. I am now hunting out my Barbara Vine books, so thank you Barbara, Ruth.... and Barbara!

  3. It is always so nice to meet other Rendell enthusiasts. Do you have two or three favorites. I think the construction varies widely. In Asta's Book, for example, an account of a trial for murderer is written as if it were in the Famous English trial series. The Blood Doctor is written in the present tense. A Dark-Adapted Eye, on most Rendell Readers' favorite list, the ending is most unusual and ambiguous. And it starts with the execution of the supposedly guilty one--but maybe not guilty. Enjoy your rereadings.

  4. Thanks so much for this. Off point but you're the person to ask, so I'll put out my question. I want to re-read a Ruth Rendell / Barbara Vine but can't for the life of me remember the title or which name she used - the plot takes place in the countryside, at an old house and the crime takes place where a commune lives in the hippie 70's and that's the backstory - sorry not to remember more. Any idea? Thanks, Cara

    1. It is A FATAL INVERSION by Barbara Vine (1987). It would be one of my top ten. Aside from Senta in The Bridesmaid, Zosie is one of the scariest women in a Rendell book.

  5. Ruth Rendell is one of my favorites. Truly a giant in crime fiction whose work as you noted transcends genre. Thanks for this look at her work, Barbara!

    1. Thank you Lisa. I appreciate your response.


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