No 405 Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark

Aiding and Abetting is a curious little novel. It was Spark’s penultimate novel, written six years before her death, and is a fictionalised account of the fate of the infamous Lord Lucan.

In London, in 1974, Lord Lucan — or “Lucky” as he was called by his friends — bludgeoned his children’s nanny to death with a lead pipe. The killing was accidental in so far as Lucan had actually intended to kill his wife. Undeterred, he tried to kill her too but she escaped with severe head wounds. A ‘professional gambler’, Lucan had debts all over London and his wife was about to leave him, although his motive can only be assumed as Lucan escaped. He fled after the attacks and has never stood trial. He was declared dead in 1999, but in the intervening period was frequently sighted across the UK and as far afield as Africa. Disappearing right after the attacks, he never stood trial. His wife’s version of the story has become the official one. In the quarter-century since the murder, he’s been frequently “sighted,” sometimes in Africa.

Spark takes a circuitous and often farcical look at what might happen if Lucan were to reappear after 25 years.

Dr Hildegard Wolf, an unlicensed psychiatrist based in Paris, has an unusual psychiatric style. She talks about herself, while her patient listens and this has made her a sought-after physician for inexplicable reasons. She has a loyal clientele, one of whom claims to be the fugitive Lord Lucan. Things get a bit more complicated when Hildegard takes on another client, who also claims to be Lord Lucan. Are they both lying? Is one covering for the other, or are they both in cahoots?

The plot thickens when, after an admission that money is running out, the pair begin to blackmail Hildegard. It turns out that the doctor is also on the run from her past, as she was previously a fraudulent stigmatic and miracle healer in Bavaria called Beate Pappenheim, who made off with many believer’s funds.

As Hildegard goes on the run from her two Lucan’s, they chase after her, but they are subsequently being pursued by two old acquaintances of Lucan’s who are writing a book about his disappearance. The narrative is convoluted and often ludicrous as it follows the players from Paris to London; Scotland to Mexico and eventually to darkest central Africa, all in the pursuit and the obfuscation of truth.

Spark does not seem to be interested in holding either Lucan, or Hildegard to account for their crimes. Instead she concerns herself with the nature of fakery and the motives of Lucan’s friends and confidants – his aiders and abetters – who helped him evade the law despite the fact that he owed many of them money and was considered an unpleasant man, to say the least.

There was a kind of psychological paralysis, almost an unconscious conspiracy to let him get away. It was not only that he was a member of the aristocracy, a prominent upper-class fellow, it was that he had pitched his life and all his living arrangements to that proposition. His proposition was: I am a seventh Earl, I am an aristocrat, therefore I can do what I like, I am untouchable.

Despite the brevity of the book, Spark’s plot is elaborate, veering wildly from character to character, never seemingly anchoring to a central point. There are some entertaining sequences including a visit to an Abbey in Scotland, which ends in a car chase across the Highlands and the regular reappearance of some of Hildegard’s disgruntled patients.

The book is intricately plotted and requires attention from the reader in order to piece together what is happening and to whom it is happening.  The theme of fakery and the question of what or even who is real, is subtly explored, if sometimes drowned (literally) in the imagery of blood, but the ending, with its racist overtones is jarring to the modern reader.

My main problem with Aiding and Abetting is that at its heart is the story of an innocent woman – Sandra Rivett – who was mercilessly killed, and the amused and sardonic tone can often seem not just poorly judged, but heartless. The story of a criminal on the run for years is certainly ripe for amusement but there are times when the thought of the woman who was Lord Lucan’s victim, pulled me up short and made me question the overall tone of the book.

Speak is undoubtedly an assured writer whose prose sparkles and whose plot is satisfyingly intricate, however Aiding and Abetting left me a little cold.


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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

27 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I mean, I’m never that comfortable with Spark, so … I also don’t like fictionalisations of real life, and this sounds a bit cruel and cold-hearted, as you say. But good to know what to avoid!


  2. Hmm, I don’t know, I haven’t read it, but from what you say, isn’t Spark alluding to the suspicion that there is no mystery about Lucan, that powerful people knew where he was and were covering it up and muddying the waters so that he could not be brought to justice? (As of course he should have been).
    Could the satire and light tone be a way of writing this so that she couldn’t be sued for slander?


  3. I’m sure I’d feel the same sense of discomfort. I’m never keen on books that are based on true events recent enough for the participants or their immediate families to still be alive. I remember disliking Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher for similar reasons. Whatever our views of her as a politician, she was also a mother and grandmother, and her death was too recent to be made fun of.


  4. What a wild story! I’ve never heard of Lucan but even as I read your review I found myself wondering how funny this book could be when there is a real woman’s death at the centre of the true story.


  5. I recently read a book by a university professor who teaches true crime classes, and he makes the point of how literature glorifies the killers and the mystery behind them but in doing so diminishes the victims. Ever since reading it (“Bookmarked: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood” by Justin St. Germain) I’ve been uncomfortable with situations/plots/tone you describe here. I like Muriel Spark’s work, and I read this one a long time ago — your review brought it back to me, and I remember thinking it’s not one of her best.


  6. The only two Muriel Spark books I’ve read (Miss Jean Brodie and Far Cry From Kensington) are what I’d both call “odd little books.” I’m sensing a theme here, LOL. I’d never heard of this true story either. How appalling! The strange tone would put me off a bit too.


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