The Blood Doctor, is a chilling tale of ambition, obsession and bad blood. Here, in an exclusive interview, we talk to the queen of crime about the inspiration this blood-curdling book and her life in the murky criminal underworld.
How did you get started in crime writing?I don’t think that I have really ever been interested in crime, but I rather like puzzles. I wrote my first book, which was a detective story as against a crime novel, to see if I could do it, and because I had a good plot I thought it required an investigating officer and really that’s all. I never looked at markets, perhaps I should have done, but I always feel that were I to do that it would be very damaging.
Why did you feel the need to come up with the alter ego Barbara Vine?Before I became Barbara Vine, before I had a pseudonym, I had often left the detective genre and written novels which were crime novels but didn’t have any policemen in them and I rather liked doing that. About twenty years, or more after I had first begun to be published, I had an idea for another sort of book and I felt that it was so different to anything that I had done before. I had the idea for years and had worked it all out in my head but I couldn’t quite make it work. I couldn’t handle it being without coincidence and improbable things. When I did, I realised it would be so different from what I’d done before that I couldn’t publish it as Ruth Rendell and then I took the pseudonym using the maiden name from one of my great grandmothers and my own second christian name. I never made a secret of who it was, everyone knew I was writing under a pseudonym and nobody ever seemed to get used to it, and after all the Vine books I have written I am still asked why I did it.
Where did the original idea for The Blood Doctor come from?The original idea for The Blood Doctor came from my being present at every debate held in the House of Lords on the reform question (The House of Lords Bill). I thought it would make an interesting background for a novel to extend over one hundred and fifty years or so and taking the ennoblement of my narrator’s great-grandfather. I didn’t want it as the main theme because I felt there wouldn’t be enough there to hold the attention of people who before reading it would know nothing about it.
How do you think your fellow peers will react to the portrait of the House of Lords, especially as the events described are so recent?My fellow peers might object very much if anything detrimental appeared about any of them, but nothing does. We are a well-mannered house! I wanted to keep it that way through the book. It’s not a novel about controversy and dissent primarily, but about change and progress and how the public sees things very differently today from one hundred years ago.
Has leading such a busy life made writing more difficult, and have you thought of using your own life in any of your books?When I went into the House of Lords three and a half years ago, I really didn’t know what it would involve, but now I realise that it involves a great deal. I am a working Peer and it is demanding, but I always wrote in the mornings, I have never been one of those writers who could sit down for six to eight hours or more. I write for four hours a day and the two occupations don’t really impinge upon one another. Except that of course everything I do, I think about using in fiction, and yes I will use my experience in the House of Lords as a background to a novel. I might say I am doing it now.
Blood diseases, particularly haemophilia, are central to the plot in The Blood Doctor, how much did you know about them before starting to write the book? Did it require a lot of research?Before I started writing The Blood Doctor I knew a little about haemophilia from reading popular history about the Royal Family, but that’s really all. What I didn’t know then was how inaccurate these books were, almost without exception, on the way the disease works. It invariably results from the female X chromosome, yet all the daughters of a haemophiliac will carry the gene. I came to see how what we heard about haemophilia deriving from the Russian royal family and then from the Spanish royal family was nonsense. Every occurrence in royalty throughout the 19th and 20th centuries results from Queen Victoria and her descendants. I wanted to write a book in which the facts about haemophilia were right, yet, if I could, an exciting novel at the same time. Originally, I meant to call it Bloody Henry, as I considered this an interesting pun of a title, but was dissuaded on the grounds that it sounded too frivolous. I did an enormous amount of research – which I much enjoyed.
Without giving away too much of the book, do you find the central character – Lord Nanther – monstrous or tragic?I don’t really get emotionally involved with my characters, I just create them. Obviously, I intend readers to find him monstrous for a large part of the book but ultimately tragic. I think I’ve made that clear. As is well-known, if readers don’t care, there’s no point in any of it. Henry would have been dull if he had ended as a villain as he began. He has to see his errors and he has to regret them passionately, as I think anyone would who had brought himself to his situation.
Do you read any contemporary crime writing?I read some contemporary crime, and the other day I was sent some Nicholas Freeling. I read a lot of his old work and I think how clever he is and how very well he writes about these European settings in Holland or in France. I really enjoyed it very much.
Could you tell us about books that have influenced you, or ones that you just like?I was looking on my bookshelves, my many bookshelves, the other day for a novel and I noticed that there were three paperbacks side by side and they were the The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, and Ford’s, The Good Soldier. Of these The Good Soldier is my favourite and the others very much among my favourites. They were there oddly side by side, probably because I had re-read them quite recently and put them back next to each other.