Review

Aiding and Abetting

by Muriel Spark

Hildegard took out of her handbag a small scent-spray which she puffed on either side of her neck. She put the spray back in her bag, thinking, I'm an animal trying to put that man off the scent. Where did he come from, that muckraker?

During an otherwise unexceptional week in Paris for Hildegard Wolf, two men, both claiming to be the missing Lord "Lucky" Lucan, rake and murderer, visit her widely regarded psychotherapy practice. Muriel Spark's fictionalization of a real-life 1974 London murder in the highest reaches of British society is as restrained and well-made as any member of the titled classes who closed ranks to assist in the flight of one of their own. Much of the amusement that can be derived from this tale comes from the realization that those most protected from the vagaries of chance by birth and money can be far more vicious than those they deem inferior. The rough and tumble classes emerge positively heroic by comparison.

To the American reader, the infamous Lord Lucan and the murder of his nanny, whom he believed to be his estranged wife, and the subsequent attempted murder of the mother of his children is not nearly as well known as in Europe. The similarity to another wildly debated double murder of an estranged wife and her companion in American society might seem tempting to draw upon, but the relevance is limited as this is less a tale of mankind's folly than a comedy of manners that is closely tied to British culture.

Rather than rely on doctor-patient confidentiality to protect them from being exposed, each imposing older man --- who have intentionally exaggerated a strong resemblance to each other in order to aid their flight --- claim to have knowledge of a prior transgression by their doctor. Hildegard Wolf was once Beate Pappenheim, a young student whose frustration with being poor led her to defraud pious Catholics with faked stigmata (Spark's swipe at the Irish is her passing commentary on the lion's share of the dupes' funds coming from the Emerald Isle). Spark also has teasing fun with the reader by giving the young woman the same name as Freud's famous Anna O, something the average reader would not recall off the top of their head. The realization a day or so later is what makes Spark's writing so rewarding; her genius lies in creating nuances that play on the many different levels of reader satisfaction.

Hildegard, a master manipulator, finds herself equally flush with money and opportunity to distort the perception of others in her new role as a member of the psychiatric profession. Her search to discover who is the real Lord Lucan, fueled by her quest for self-preservation, is paralleled by another search for Lucan by an adult child --- one of the very same well-born friends that assisted in his initial flight. Lacey Twickenham, English Rose and amateur sleuth, questions her parents old friends who have, in some cases, repented their earlier blind allegiance to class and station. 

Spark's masterful plotting and sly humor are shown to their best effect in this short work. Gems of wit are scattered throughout, as when one of the Lucan pretenders picks up seasonal work as a Pere Noel in a department store. A testament to the virtues of experience and writerly discipline, AIDING AND ABETTING brings forth a female protagonist who is as flawed as any and yet is more than deserving of respect. The ultimate justice for the original crime is meted out by a society Lord Lucan himself would have found inferior, which makes it all the more satisfying for the reader. While the tale is inaugurated by the pretenders' professed need for reassurance and psychic betterment, redemption is not ultimately found by any member of the cast of this sophisticated morality play.

Reviewed by Patricia Howard on January 20, 2011

Aiding and Abetting
by Muriel Spark

  • Publication Date: February 20, 2001
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385501536
  • ISBN-13: 9780385501538