The seventh Earl has been missing since the night of 7th November 1974 when his wife was taken to hospital, severely wounded in her head, and the body of his children’s nanny was found battered, in a mail sack, in his house.’
Muriel Spark’s opening note to readers outlines the essential known facts about the disappearance of Lord Lucan. Spark reminds us that the novel is a work of fiction and continues:
‘What we know about ‘Lucky’ Lucan, his words, his habits, his attitude to people and to life, from his friends, photographs and police records, I have absorbed creatively, and metamorphosed into what I have written.’
The implication is that fiction contains truths that lie beyond mere factual accounts of dates, events and actions. Spark adds almost as an afterthought, ‘The parallel story of a fake stigmatic is also based on fact.’
The fake stigmatic is Dr Hildegard Wolf aka Beate Pappenheim who has abandoned a lucrative life as a living saint. She is now a psychiatrist with a successful, though unorthodox, practice in Paris, where she is treating not one, but two Lord Lucans. Both Lords may be imposters. Whether they are acting alone or in tandem is initially unclear.
Aiding and Abetting, Spark’s twenty-first novel, was published in 2000 when she was eighty-two. Lucky Lucan, once a staple of tabloid exposés, broadsheet supplements and the punchline of variety show jokes was slipping from public consciousness, the murder and its surrounding mystery barely known of by a generation, ‘who were too young or even unborn at the time’.
In notes for the novel, lodged in the National Library of Scotland’s Muriel Spark Archive, Spark writes, ‘the study of Lucan is the study of evil’. The title of the book, Aiding and Abetting, suggests the evil is not confined to the Earl, but is shared by loyal friends and associates – aiders and abetters – who sheltered him in the hours after the murder of his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett. The jury at the inquest into Rivett’s death declared the cause to be ‘murder by Lord Lucan’. A warrant committing Lucan for trial was issued immediately after the verdict, but his disappearance meant no hearing could take place. The question of whether he committed suicide or escaped abroad became a national obsession.
There were rumours the Earl had shot himself, was eaten by tigers in a private zoo, jumped from a ferry, was kidnapped by the IRA, descended into a bottomless pothole. Shortly after his disappearance, the Guardian reported that witnesses had seen him ‘driving drunk up the M1, buying flowers on a London street and getting on a train in Edinburgh’. Gossip (strongly rejected by Hill’s family) had Lucan fleeing the country in a private jet flown by racing driver Graham Hill. In 1994 the Times reported that police officers continued to follow up fifty to sixty sightings of the Earl a year. He had been spotted ‘working as a waiter in San Francisco, at an alcoholics’ centre in Brisbane, at a hotel in Madagascar, in Botswana, Hong Kong and the Orkneys’. The satirical television show Spitting Image regularly featured a Lord Lucan puppet who appeared in the background of sketches, dressed as a waiter and serving drinks.
Press attention consistently focused on the ‘playboy Earl’ and his set – lion tamers, racing drivers, nightclub owners, gamblers and aristocrats. Little attention was spared for Sandra Rivett, a young, working-class Irish woman brutally battered to death.
Aiding and Abetting treads a fine line between humour and repulsion. If Lucan did indeed escape, it was with the help of aiders and abetters who placed the freedom of the Earl above justice for Sandra Rivett and who treated the fact that he mistakenly murdered his children’s nanny, rather than his wife, as a ‘bungle’.
Spark wrote in her notes for Aiding and Abetting that ‘the theme of the novel is blood’. The bloody murder at the centre of the Lucan mystery reappears and repeats throughout the text, a true crime story underpinning the satire.
Sandra was bashed and bludgeoned. She was stuffed into a sack. Bashed also was Lucan’s wife when she came down to see what was the matter. She was bashed and bloodied . . .
‘Nanny Rivett was killed in error.’ ‘And the hack-and-bash job on Lady Lucan?’ ‘That was different. She should have died.’ . . . Blood on his hands. Blood all over his clothes . . . it was horrible bloody slaughter . . . His wife covered with blood . . . blood all over his trousers . . . blood oozing from the mailbag . . . the girl with all that blood . . . he had meant those thuds for his wife . . . mess and blood . . .’
The theme of blood extends to Beate/Hildegard. When Beate Pappenheim was an impoverished medical student studying in Munich in the 1970s, she used her menstrual blood to simulate stigmata in order to extort money from credulous believers. When her con was discovered Beate fled overseas, became Hildegard Wolf and established a successful practice and happy home life. She would have sworn that the Beate Pappenheim of her past was a ‘different person’ from herself . . . She had just put Beate out of her mind, destroying her old birth certificate and replacing it with a new one obtained from a lawyer in Marseilles.
But Hildegard discovers it is not easy to escape past misdemeanours. The two Lord Lucans have learned of her criminal history and intend to blackmail her. Spark writes in her notes: ‘Hildegard’s crime is small compared to Lucan’s but they are both on the run.’
Aiding and Abetting delights in doubles. The two Lucans are doppelgängers of sorts, physically alike, their fates bound together. Spark was born and educated in Edinburgh, the city that helped birth James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Both novels feature diabolical twinned protagonists. The two Lord Lucans have grown to hate each other, but their existences are so inter-twined that, in the tradition of doppelgängers, for one to spill the other’s blood may be to invite his own death.