Muriel Spark’s forte has always been satire. With a track record that includes such novels as Memento Mori (1959), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), and The Abbess of Crewe (1974), her books are always anticipated for their insight and wit. Her previous novel Reality and Dreams (1996) used filmmaking and films as the vehicle for exploring, among other themes, the line between fantasy and reality and the economic realities of a Britain sharply divided between the wealthy “haves” and the unemployed “have-nots.” This, her twentieth novel, takes on a different target: the British aristocracy.
The factual basis of the novel is a famous incident from 1974. In that year, Richard John Bingham, seventh earl of Lucan—nicknamed “Lucky”—mistakenly bludgeoned to death the family’s nanny (Sandra Rivett) and then critically wounded his intended target, his estranged wife. Aided by aristocratic friends and a fumbled police investigation, Lord Lucan managed to leave the country and has evaded capture ever since. Like other famous missing persons, he is occasionally sighted around the world, but none of these incidents has led to anything more than a deepening of the mystery of how he has managed to remain at large for more than twenty-five years. Spark’s novel, then, is an imaginative musing on the facts of this case and another, that of a fake stigmatic which, according to the author, is also based on a true incident.
Although the novel is quite short (under forty thousand words), its structure is fairly complex, as there are at least three story lines. The story of Lucky Lucan opens with his visit to Dr. Hildegard Wolf and his confession that he has sold his soul to the devil by committing murder and attempted murder. Dr. Wolf is shocked by his confession, not so much by its grisly content as by the fact that she is simultaneously treating another patient who claims to be the famous fugitive, a man calling himself Robert Walker. Dr. Wolf’s uncertainty over which, if either, is the real Lord Lucan thus becomes the reader’s uncertainty as well, and for a time it is the book’s chief point of suspense.
The parallel story of Dr. Wolf, whose real name is Beate Pappenheim, begins in her student days. The daughter of pig farmers, she studied medicine to become a psychiatrist. Supporting herself with a part-time job selling handbags in a department store, she grew tired of being poor. Acting on a chance remark by her landlady, she conceived the idea of claiming to be a stigmatic, using her menstrual blood and fake wounds as “proof” of her powers. Thousands of pamphlets distributed strategically resulted in visits by pilgrims, purported miracles, large amounts of money, and finally an exposé that forced her to leave Paris for Marseilles, where, with the help of a forger, she reinvented herself as Dr. Hildegard Wolf. Like Lucky Lucan, she has survived and prospered in part through the collusion of friends. Robert Walker complicates her life by threatening to expose her if she does not provide money, eventually causing Hildegard to flee to London temporarily.
The third strand of the plot concerns Lacey Twickenham, the recently divorced daughter of two of Lucky’s upper-class friends who had concealed his movements and thus aided and abetted his escape. When a new sighting of Lord Lucan is reported in the papers, Lacey decides to investigate and write a book on what she learns. The only one of Lucan’s former acquaintances who agrees to help her is Joe Murray. He knows enough about Lucan, Lucan’s friends, and the general operating methods of the English aristocracy to be of assistance. Besides, Lacey is young and pretty, and the retired widower is interested in her. Together, they go in search of Lucan and, in some of the book’s most interesting and tense scenes, nearly apprehend him several times. Unfortunately for Lacey’s planned book, their interest in the chase eventually succumbs to their interest in each other.
Spark weaves these three plots together with her usual skill, shifting points of view from omniscience to the perspectives of the various characters...
(The entire section is 1694 words.)