Biographer Martin Nanther turns detective when he attempts a life of the great-grandfather who earned the family its peerage and its curse—in Ruth Rendell’s tenth suspenser under the Vine byline (Grasshopper, 2000, etc.), a meticulous tale that moves with the balefully majestic force of a submerged iceberg.
Intrigued by a letter in which his subject’s youngest daughter claimed half a century after his death that “Henry Nanther did . . . monstrous, quite appalling things,” Martin soon finds that Henry’s life is shrouded in mystery and fatality. One of Queen Victoria’s physicians, an expert on hemophilia, he seemed the pillar of rectitude even before he took his seat in the House of Lords in 1896. Yet the death of his medical-school friend Richard Fox Hamilton in a celebrated train wreck seems to have killed Henry’s humanity. He kept Jemima (“Jimmy”) Ashworth as a mistress for eight years, discarding both her and beautiful, wealthy aristocrat Olivia Batho when he became engaged to Eleanor Henderson, then reacting to Eleanor’s murder by marrying her sister Edith. Why didn’t Henry propose to the incomparably eligible Olivia, and why was he in such haste to marry his fiancée’s sister? As Martin patiently traces the story of Henry and his family through letters, diaries, travels, and interviews, his descent into the well of the past unearths unnerving parallels between Henry’s story and his own. Married to a younger woman desperate for her own children but prone to miscarriages, watching the House of Lords prepare to annul membership for hereditary peers and so turn him out to pasture, he finds no refuge from his present sorrows in researching the life of an ancestor who turns out to be both pitiable and truly monstrous, the architect of a crime that has outlived him for generations.
A dense, dazzling exploration of the biographer as detective, and of the truism that blood will tell.