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Muriel Spark: Aiding And Abetting

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On Nov. 7, 1974, the seventh Earl Of Lucan, posing as a burglar, broke into his own home and accidentally bludgeoned his children's nanny to death in a botched attempt to murder his wife, who survived severe blows to the head. Many speculated that a loyal network of bluebloods, in defiance of authorities, arranged for his subsequent disappearance and bankrolled his quarter-century evasion from criminal charges. Fueled by occasional "sightings," predominantly in central Africa, the story never died, but Lord Lucan did, at least officially, in 1999, when the British government declared him dead in order to settle his estate. At 82, Muriel Spark, the celebrated author of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie and A Far Cry From Kensington, has every reason to speculate that Lucan, 16 years her junior, lives on as more than just legend. Her elaborate hypothesis, run through a maze of writerly embellishments, forms the basis of Aiding And Abetting, an uneven but often ruthlessly witty satire about upper-class amorality. Spark amplifies the story's tabloid luridness by introducing another fugitive, also based on fact: Dr. Hildegard Wolf, a sought-after Paris psychiatrist who forces patients to listen to her descriptions of her own exploits for several $1,500 sessions before she turns her attention to their problems. (Wolf had previously made a fortune as a fake stigmatic in Bavaria, duping poor Catholics into paying money for miracles until it was discovered that her "wounds" ran menstrual blood.) The union of Wolf and Lucan promises a wicked comic gambit between world-class liars, both of whom are banking on their opponent's lack of scruples. But Spark diffuses their tête-à-tête with needless complications. First, she adds a second patient who also claims to be Lord Lucan, leaving Wolf and her devoted French lackey Jean-Pierre to figure out which is the "real" Lucan, and whether the Lucans are in cahoots. Then Spark tacks on another subplot, as two of Lucan's distant English acquaintances conduct an investigation to track him down and bring him to justice. The latter red herring exists almost entirely to serve Spark's class critique, as the amateur detectives uncover the aging aristocrats who have supported Lucan all these years. While their cool snobbery comes as no surprise—one laments the young nanny's murder because good help is hard to replace—the odd irony is that no one actually liked Lucan, who was by all accounts a dull, arrogant, unpleasant man with a serious gambling problem. Though Spark's prose crackles with scathing wit, and her simple economy keeps the story moving at a breathless pace, Aiding And Abetting seems distracted and off-point, with its satire buried under too many convoluted developments. Dead or alive, Lucan escapes another snare.