Chapter One of Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark, with an introduction by Louise Welsh

Muriel Sarah Spark PIC: Evening Standard/Getty Images
Muriel Sarah Spark PIC: Evening Standard/Getty Images
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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.

Chapter One of Aiding and Abetting

The receptionist looked tinier than ever as she showed the tall, tall, Englishman into the studio of Dr Hildegard Wolf, the psychiatrist who had come from Bavaria, then Prague, Dresden, Avila, Marseilles, then London, and now settled in Paris.

‘I have come to consult you,’ he said, ‘because I have no peace of mind. Twenty-five years ago I sold my soul to the Devil.’ The Englishman spoke in a very foreign French.

‘Would you feel easier,’ she said, ‘if we spoke in English? I am an English speaker of a sort since I was a student.’

‘Far easier,’ he said, ‘although, in a sense, it makes the reality more distressing. What I have to tell you is an English story.’

Dr Wolf ’s therapeutic methods had been perfected by herself. They had made her virtually the most successful psychiatrist in Paris, or at least the most sought-after. At the same time she was tentatively copied; those who tried to do so generally failed. The method alone did not suffice. Her personality was needed as well.

What she did for the most part was talk about herself throughout the first three sessions, turning only casually on the problems of her patients; then, gradually, in an offhand way she would induce them to begin to discuss themselves. Some patients, angered, did not return after the first or at least second session, conducted on these lines.

Others remonstrated, ‘Don’t you want to hear about my problem?’

‘No, quite frankly, I don’t very much.’

Many, fascinated, returned to her studio and it was they who, so it was widely claimed, reaped their reward. By now her method was famous and even studied in the universities. The Wolf method.

‘I sold my soul to the Devil.’

‘Once in my life,’ she said, ‘I had a chance to do that. Only I wasn’t offered enough. Let me tell you about it . . .’ He had heard that she would do just this. The friend who had recommended her to him, a priest who had been through her hands during a troubled period, told him, ‘She advised me not to try to pray. She advised me to shut up and listen. Read the gospel, she said. Jesus is praying to you for sympathy. You have to see his point of view, what he had to put up with. Listen, don’t talk. Read the Bible. Take it in. God is talking, not you.’

Her new patient sat still and listened, luxuriating in the expenditure of money which he would have found impossible only three weeks ago. For twenty-five years, since he was struck down in England by a disaster, he had been a furtive fugitive, always precariously beholden to his friends, his many friends, but still, playing the role of benefactors, their numbers diminishing. Three weeks ago his nickname Lucky had become a solidified fact. He was lucky. He had in fact discovered some money waiting for him on the death of one of his main aiders and abetters. It had been locked in a safe, waiting for him to turn up. He could afford to have a conscience. He could now consult at leisure one of the most expensive and most highly recommended psychi- atrists in Paris. ‘You have to listen to her, she makes you listen, first of all,’ they said – ‘they’ being at least four lounged. It was strange how so many people of the past had been under the impression he had already collected the money left for him in a special account. Even his benefactor’s wife had not known about its existence.

He might, in fact, have been anybody. But she arranged for the money to be handed over without a question. His name was Lucky and lucky he was indeed.

But money did not last. He gambled greatly.

The windows of Dr Wolf ’s consulting rooms on the Boulevard St Germain were double-glazed to allow only a pleasing hum of traffic to penetrate.

‘I don’t know how it struck you,’ said Hildegard (Dr Wolf) to her patient. ‘But to me, selling one’s soul to the Devil involves murder. Anything less is not worthy of the designation. You can sell your soul to a number of agents, let’s face it, but to the Devil there has to be a killing or so involved. In my case, it was many years ago, I was treating a patient who became psychologically dependent on me. A young man, not very nice. His problem was a tendency to suicide. One was tempted to encourage him in his desire. He was simply nasty, simply cruel. His fortune was immense. I was offered a sum of money by his cousin, the next of kin, to slide this awful young man down the slope. But I didn’t. I sensed the meanness of the cousin, and doubted whether he would really have parted with the money once my patient was dead. I refused. Perhaps, if I had been offered a substantially larger sum, I would have made that pact with the Devil. Who knows? As it was, I said no, I wouldn’t urge the awful young man to take his own life. In fact I encouraged him to live. But to do otherwise would have definitely, I think, led to his death and I would have been guilty of murder.’

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark is published in a new edition by Polygon, price £8.99