Certain kinds of inquiry are born and bred for the Internet: the creepy, the supernatural, the unidentified flying, the bizarrely sexual, the CIA-involved. The kinds of people who seek information on these things, or who seek to share the fine print of their expertise, are people who used to subscribe to weird magazines, used to meet in pool bars or in fields on weekends, and who can now be found in Inter-net chat-rooms at three o’clock in the morning. It is becoming possible to understand these groups as new international tribes: the People of the Grassy Knoll, the Clan Roswell, the Global Fraternity of Boys Who Love Pamela Anderson, the Elvises, the Hitlers, the Worldwide Believers in the Sanctity of the Meteorite. Every classroom in the New World used to have one or two of these types; every mall had a dozen or so; but now, thanks to the glories of the World Wide Web, these odd twos and dozens can link hands across time zones and space, making of each contingent, from Dundee, Scotland, to Delmar, Iowa, a brotherhood of cranks the size of Katmandu.
One of these Internet tribes is desperate for sightings of the nanny-killing peer Lord Lucan, not seen since 1974, but is also keen to hear from those who have spotted Elvis, Hitler, “and such like.” Happily, there have already been several responses. One citizen swears the seventh Earl is now called Jeff and married to a landlady; another, somewhat excitedly, testifies to having seen Lucan “paragliding off Mooloolaba Beach, Queensland, Australia.” Never before in the history of nonsense has there been such a wonderful proliferation of fictions masquerading as facts. The new Internet tribes are obsessed, indeed, with the exploitation of myths in the absence of data, which leads me, for the first and last time in my life, to think of the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who, in another context, offered that a myth “is the presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms appropriate to another.” Hello Internet, where the cult of the unknown, the instant drama of the unknowable, involves millions of people in a mindless, borderless, night-and-day transportation of sensational lies.
In her memoir Curriculum Vitae, Muriel Spark lets it be known that “truth by itself is neutral and has its own dear beauty.” At 9:45 on the night of November 7, 1974, an injured woman burst into the Plumber’s Arms, a pub in Lower Belgrave Street, London, and cried out that she had just escaped being murdered. “Help, Help,” she screamed, “he’s in the house. He’s murdered the nanny!” He, it turned out, was Lord Lucan, the woman’s husband, an old Etonian, a gadfly and gambler, who was at the time separated from his wife and their three children, and very deep in debt. Lucan has never been seen again since that night. Sandra Rivett, the nanny, had been bashed several times on the head with lead piping, and her dead body lay in a mailbag in the basement at number 46, the Lucan family home, with the murder weapon somewhere close by. According to Lady Lucan, Rivett, who was supposed to be having her night off, had gone downstairs to make tea at around 9 o’clock, and after some time Lady Lucan followed her down, where she was confronted in the hall by her husband, who hit her over the head with something, and then stopped. She tried to reason with him, and persuaded him to go to the bathroom and wash his bloody hands; at this point Lady Lucan ran from the house and made her appearance at the Plumber’s Arms down the road. Lucan disappeared into the night.
He is thought to have made several appearances at the houses of friends that night, and made some phone calls. He left three letters, where he described having come across a man attacking his wife, and where he also expressed the view that no one would believe him, that his wife would do everything to see him blamed, and that his only worries were for his children. His car was later found at Newhaven on the English coast. It contained blood stains and a roll of tape similar to that which was found to be wrapped around the murder weapon. Lady Lucan swears to this day that the person who attacked her was her husband. All of Lucan’s friends, including the casino owner John Aspinall and the tycoon Jimmy Goldsmith, refused in later years to speak about Lucan. His whereabouts became a great English mystery. Shortly before his own death Aspinall declared his belief that Lucan was “lying 75 metres under the English Channel.” Many, however, have always believed that Lucan was spirited away by his friends, that the English aristocracy, such as it was, aided and abetted him, and that he has lived abroad ever since 1974. Lord Lucan was officially presumed dead in 1999. Debrett’s People of Today, the British bible of fame and aristocracy, loyally included his name in their annual publication until last November, when it was finally taken out. His name however remains in Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage.
Only the most central of these facts impinge on Aiding and Abetting, Muriel Spark’s new novel, a story, she says, “like all those connected with the seventh Earl of Lucan,” which is based on hypothesis. Spark’s novel is neither an account of the facts nor in any way a contribution to the myth; rather, it is a narrative, and a sometimes very crisp one, about what loyalties and cover-ups and detection and lies have to do with the creation of fiction. Like several of Spark’s more recent works, including Curriculum Vitae and her last novel, Reality and Dreams, it takes an interest in the promulgations of possibility that constitute the fiction-maker’s art. It also finds in the Lucan story another route into her favorite subject: blackmail. We meet Muriel Spark at eighty-two years old much as we found her in the first place, felicitously setting traps for characters who can never know what she knows, and making highly aerated daydreams about the limits of refined behavior and the suddenness of evil. But Spark, always a beautiful but seldom a charitable writer, a Catholic convert but hardly a begetter of Christian virtues in her work, achieves something in this novel which is new to her: she finds herself showing pity for the chief victim, the nanny, and pity too, perhaps, for the victims of false belief. “Collective moods change,” writes Spark at one point, “the likeable, working-class, murdered young nanny was now the main factor. At the time the center of the affair was Lucan.”
By making the nanny the “main factor,” Spark’s revision of the Lucan story in fact leads the new mood, serving to point up the horrible English snobbery that denied the nanny any real importance at the time of the murder. Then she was merely viewed as a silly girl who got in the way, the hapless victim of an unlucky bungle. There have always been cranks and snobs in Spark’s novels, and they have sometimes (as with Miss Jean Brodie, or Sir Quentin Oliver, the twisted chief of the Autobiographical Association in Loitering with Intent1) lived larger lives on the page, but never so much as here have we felt the author’s impulse to call a spade a spade. To call it a spade—or spades.
Someone calling himself Lord Lucan turns up at the office of a Bavarian psychiatrist settled in Paris, Dr. Hildegard Wolf. She is more than usually expensive, more than usually popular, and her method is to spend the first few sessions speaking only about herself. But Dr. Wolf’s consulting rooms on the Boulevard St. Germain suit Lucan just fine; after a month of seeing her he begins to speak about himself: “I have to tell you that I am wanted by the police on two counts,” he says, “murder and attempted murder. I have been wanted for over twenty years. I am the missing Lord Lucan.” This is all fine so far as it goes, but there is only one problem for Dr. Wolf: another of her patients is also claiming to be the fugitive lord.
Wolf ruminates that her two patients may be working together, and she discusses the possibility with Jean-Pierre Roget, a metal and wood worker, her companion-in-life. Walker, as the second Lucan likes to be called, claims to have come to see Wolf because he is distressed at the fact of having recently been pronounced dead; he fails to blink when the doctor declares that she could hand him over to Interpol, thereby meeting the needs of justice and international curiosity. But Walker decides that this is unlikely to happen; Dr. Wolf has her own secret, which Walker knows about. She is a runaway too, a former fake stigmatic named Beate Pappenheim, of Bavaria, who was exposed in 1986 and ran away with millions of marks from the donations that were meant to help the poor. It seems that Walker aims to blackmail Dr. Wolf, or Ms. Pappenheim, who had indeed, as he says, once been a fake stigmatic, covering her hands and side in menstrual blood, bandaging her hands for effect. She had been a great hit, especially in Ireland, “the land of believers,” and when she was exposed she ran away to Paris to become a psychiatrist.
Thus phony meets phony, or phonies, and Spark’s novel bends into a double helix of threat and counter-threat, a string of information, disinformation, secrets, and lies. The character of the novel—icy, corrosive, callous, and smart—is to be found in gentle-voiced musings at the level of the sentences:
Hildegard weighed up the odds between the two claimants while she ate her lunch at her favorite bistro in the rue du Dragon. She was eating tripe, their speciality. And what, she wondered, did Lucky mean by a pact with the Devil? She might bring him round to this. Whether he was the real Lord Lucan or not, Hildegard felt he was referring to something genuinely in his past. She would not be at all surprised to find that, as the missing Earl, he was a fake; but she would be astonished if he had not at some earlier time compromised his conscience: “I sold my soul to the Devil.” That must mean something.
Spark has always been a good sentence-writer: each one offers something starched and clerical, particular and clear, and woven together, in each novel, her sentences make a tapestry of prim felicities. Aiding and Abetting is a book in which people speak clearly about nothing being clear: nobody knows what is really happening, and that includes the reader.
Blood is the running metaphor (which in Spark is the same as the running gag); the blood of the murdered nanny Sandra Rivett, principally, but also the blood of the fake stigmatic Beate Pappenheim. “There must be something about the lower orders, they bleed so,” says Lucan II over dinner with Dr. Wolf and her partner. “It is not purifying,” she says, “it is sticky. We are never washed by blood.” “It is said we are washed in the Blood of the Lamb,” he says in return, sticking his knife into lamb chop number three. “I sang in the school choir.” Much of Spark’s new novel intends to be funny in this way, but if so, it is a novel in which the funniness fails where the seriousness succeeds. She can be a very funny writer indeed, but she is less so nowadays, and never less so than when she makes her jokes seem like a promise kept against solemnity.
The real Lucan was, as Spark says of him, “a snob from his deepest gust,” and it is the assumptions of bloodlines, high birth, and blood loyalties that bring out the best of Spark’s subtle condemnations. Her novels have always been about class in a way, about what station and tradition have to do with outcomes, but this time she shows the English upper orders in a horrible light, an accurate one in respect of the times: Lucan’s cohorts only felt sorry because the old boy bungled, and their aiding and abetting, to whatever degree, especially in the form of financial support, was an attempt to show good faith in the network that had sustained them. In Spark’s novel, the two Lucans are now cheap hustlers, scrabbling for cash, the old world going or gone, and much of the comedy of their situation derives from their antic strandedness in time. “As the years piled up” Spark writes of Lucan, “with nothing achieved but his furtive travels in South America, in Africa, in Asia, between intervals of quick, dangerous trips to Scotland and Paris to pick up his old friends’ money, what had he become? Someone untraceable with blood on his hands, in his head, in his memory.”
Spark’s genius is for delicate and unexpected astringencies. Her worlds are made of bricks and mortar, but of the lightest sort; hemlines are important, manners matter, and people walk from room to room, from street to street, and they go from country to country, pleased and puzzled at a certain order residing in things. Meditation in the novels isn’t laid on with a trowel, but just seeps, somehow, out of a universe of buses and pictures and passing love affairs, out of details, as if thinking was just fresh wind blown into the ordinary day. “Lucky had consumed his smoked salmon,” Spark writes, “served as it had been with very fine slices of buttered toast. He was now working his way through the three lamb chops on his plate. The wine was from Bordeaux and he absorbed it like blotting paper. ‘What was remarkable,’ he said, ‘was that there was so much blood.'” In this way Spark reveals her gift of narrative charm: she can make the connections between physical things and the happenings of the mind without showing any strain. In her 1963 novel The Girls of Slender Means, a view from a window can turn seamlessly into a certain view of human affairs.
The window of the upper bedrooms overlooked the dip and rise of treetops in Kensington Gardens across the street, with the Albert Memorial to be seen by means of a slight craning and twist of the neck…. From the lower floor dormitories the people in the street looked larger, and the paths of the park were visible. All the nice people were poor, and a few were nicer, as nice people come, than these girls at Kensington who glanced out of the windows in the early mornings to see what the day looked like, or gazed out on the green summer evenings, as if reflecting on the months ahead, on love and the relations of love.
There is a sense of loveliness in Muriel Spark’s manner of invoking the sweetmeats of being—laid out like cakes in the window of a Morningside tearoom—and a sense of ruthlessness in her quick summoning of the dark. Lacey, the daughter of Lucan’s old friend Maria Twickenham, decides she wants to write something about Lucan, and she wants to find him. There is hope in her heart as she forms a plan, but old shadows engulf her. A certain Dr. Joseph Murray tries to explain the Lucan horror:
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. For a few days after the murder, this attitude overawed the investigators and his friends alike. Besides, it was not an ordinary murder, not a shooting affair, it was a horrible bloody slaughter; his wife was in hospital with gaping head wounds which she said were inflicted by him. He was seen by friends with blood on his trousers but they couldn’t, or in other words didn’t, want to believe he had perpetrated all that violence. In those first days, and even first weeks, he managed to get away. He did so on the sheer strength of his own hypnotic act. A similar case, before your time, was the escape of the traitors Maclean and Burgess. Maclean was particularly upper-class-conscious (although he was nothing, really) but it took everyone in, rooted them to the spot when the facts broke in the Foreign Office. They got away purely on the hypnosis of their lifestylish act.
For Spark, so interested in deceit, acting is simply a professional kind of concealment: she seeks to unmask everyone in the end. In Aiding and Abetting, Hildegard, the fake healer, is being pursued by a possibly fake murderer and his fake friend; in this great flurry of threatened unmaskings the reader is never allowed to be sure about who anyone really is, or even about which mask fits which face. By the end of the book, however, we come to see that Hildegard may have some healing powers after all, and that the real Lord Lucan’s acquaintanceship with brutality is not over. Spark’s characters struggle to put their pasts behind them. But will their author allow them to?
More than thirty years ago, Christopher Ricks, in these pages, called into question the value of Muriel Spark as a literary moralist, and he examined the extent to which her own writing indicts her own writing. “Mrs. Spark plucks all her characters in pieces as if they had been clockwork,” he wrote, “and all the while she speaks of how wrong it is to treat human beings as if they were clockwork.”2 An answer to this may be that Spark’s talent is of the two-minded sort; she sets characters up in opposition to what she is saying, and then, playing God, she recoups them to her own side. And sometimes she does it the other way: she offers the voice of someone nice, someone likable, someone smart, like Mrs. Hawkins in A Far Cry from Kensington, sending out jokes and good advice, only to be left stranded by her author at the last: Mrs. Hawkins becomes Nancy—a great leap in the timid world of Spark—and we find her at the end somewhat weaker than she might be, trying to hold her end up at the destroyed offices of the Highgate Review, a woman who is somehow held in check less by her circumstances than by her author’s low ambitions for her. Spark can be savage when she decides to put her creations in their place. Miss Jean Brodie is lovable, we might remember, then suddenly she is not, the hand of Muriel Spark’s offhandedness quickly, and decisively, darkening the page.
Spark’s two-mindedness comes from her Edinburgh background. She used to play in a house next door to the one where Robert Louis Stevenson was born; the author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could be no stranger to moral doubleness. And neither could the “antithetical mind” of the protean Scot James Boswell, who had lived off the High Street, or that of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, who wrote duality’s classic text, Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It is not simply that Spark, in respect of her characters, seems to run with the hare and the hounds; it is more that her imagination seems to work in such a way as to preserve a necessary distance between her own moral suppositions and those that animate the lives of her characters.
An aspect of Spark’s view of narrative surprise might be that judgment, even authorial judgment, comes when you least expect it. Characters may turn on each other, they may turn on themselves, but, strangest, and most typical of Spark perhaps, is the manner in which she may turn on them. Before we actually find out what happens in Aiding and Abetting, we already feel we know that the real Lord Lucan, once revealed, will be punished for all his lies and violence. One sees it coming. Spark has created a comic world but she is more than capable of bringing on the tragic: the Catholic morality of her fictions inures you to the prospect, and the tone of her writing makes it seem perfectly fine.
Nevertheless it is stern. Miss Jean Brodie in her prime is allowed to seem too vigorous and too stylish to be felled on account of conventional sins. But she is felled: in giving her all her unforgettable qualities, Muriel Spark also made her most famous heroine betrayable, a woman who has to be stopped. “Miss Brodie was forced to retire,” Spark writes shockingly at the end of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, “on the grounds that she had been teaching Fascism. Sandy, when she heard of it, thought of the marching troops of blackshirts in the pictures on the wall.”
Spark once wrote a book about Mary Shelley. She is interested in doppelgängers, and like most people interested in doppelgängers, she is interested in herself, in the dark formations that lie within, and in the possibility of one thing and its opposite being true at the same time. She is not the sort of novelist to campaign for the goodness of one character as against the evil of another: her fiction doesn’t work like that, and we might understand dividedness to be the better part of her artistic valor. The two Lucans are her latest doubles. Together they make uncommon criminals—mutually supporting phonies, men for whom forgery is a way of life, a way of escaping death. And Dr. Wolf, a phony student of the modern mind, must live with the thought of her own blood on her hands, a fictional construct who is unable to live easily with the new version of herself she has constructed. Spark offers a description of a profession much like her own: a world where fiction chases fiction, and where common decency—pity for a murdered nanny—becomes a powerful reality seeking to announce itself in a welter of the make-believe.
April 26, 2001