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April 10, 2001

Books by Kay Kimbrough

AIDING AND ABETTING
Muriel Spark
Doubleday, 2001, $21.00.

Muriel Spark's note to readers gives the story behind her latest novel. She based the novel on the true story of the seventh Earl of Lucan, who killed his children's nanny because he thought she was his wife. When he discovered his mistake, he attacked his wife but failed to finish her off. He then disappeared, on November 7, 1974, and has not been found. He did not show up for his trial after having been found guilty by a coroner's jury for murder and attempted murder. He was officially declared dead in 1999. Spark has imagined a life in flight for him as well as an end to the mystery of his disappearance. She has also created a partner in crime, a double for him. Another wanted fugitive from justice complicates the plot: a former fake stigmatist who is now a fake but popular psychiatrist.

The point of the novel on one level is to satirize and mock the British upper class. Lucan was a boring man with no feeling for anyone except himself. His only interest in life was gambling, and he was no good at that. His concept of his identity stemmed from his birthright. Because he was the seventh Earl of Lucan, he was entitled to do and have whatever he pleased. He calls his selfishness "destiny" and explains his vicious behavior on destiny. "He understood she was destined to die and did not for one moment reflect that this destiny arose merely from his own calculations and plans. His "needs" dictated fate itself. He had "needed" the money that would have derived from the sale of the house she occupied, he "needed" his wife dead, and it was destiny."

Readers are not informed about any other murders Lucan has committed in his efforts to satisfy his "needs," or destiny, but he conceives of another necessary, to him, death before Spark is through with him. He decides to kill his double, Walker. In the opinion of Lucan's fierce opponent, the fraudulent Hildegarde Wolf, fake psychiatrist, Lucan's crime of murder deserves punishment while her crime of taking money, sometimes life savings, from poor people who believed she could perform miracles for them when she posed as a stigmatist, is not at all serious enough to deserve a trial, certainly not punishment. Walker has aided and abetted Lucan, but he too can be excused. As Spark puts it, "There was one important difference between them, however, and both knew it. Lucan was a killer, and Walker was not."

When Lucan attempts to blackmail Hildegarde, she defends herself and determines to find him and assure him that she has the upper hand. "You are charged with the crime of murder and attempted murder," she could say, "and I am not. You haven't a chance, given the state of the evidence; you have no extenuating arguments to support you; I have."

Like all of Spark's works, this one is touched by her Catholicism. She is a Catholic convert, but she has interpreted theology to suit her plots and characters, unlike most writers with religious themes hovering over their plots. According to Spark, or maybe to Hildegarde, the crime of murder is worse than that of fraud, but of course Lucan's behavior includes all of the seven deadly sins, while Hildegarde's motive was to alleviate her exhausting poverty and get a bit of rest. As a medical student, she had to work in a department store in order to survive at all, and her studies were extremely demanding. She lived on "meager food" and "She was tired, tired. Still in her twenties, she felt worn out." Hildegarde would justify her fraud as an act of desperation, of survival, but she is still managing to do very well for herself as a fraud. Her deception is no longer a matter of necessity.

Lord Lucan will eat nothing but salmon and lamb. Fish and lamb are Christian symbols, but the symbolism does not change Lucan. As a fake stigmatist, Hildegarde is bathed in blood, but she does not take her symbolism seriously. Perhaps the symbolic "blood of the lamb" has effected a miracle of Christian salvation for her without her knowledge. A comic Christmas image is given to Walker, who for a time works as Pere Noel in a Paris department store on a temporary might be eligible for salvation as well, in Spark's theology.

Other comic characters come and go in this amusing satire that walks a fine line between gothic horror and black humor. One of the funniest lines is delivered by a former friend of Lucan, who had aided and abetted him on the night of the murder. He denies knowing Lucan well, giving as evidence the fact that Lucan did not play bridge: "Remember, though, Lucky Lucan plays baccarat and we both play bridge predominantly. There's a difference." As the police are leaving, he attempts to distance himself again. The police ask if he is not disturbed by a murder in the home of someone he knows. He answers, "It's devastating. But he plays baccarat and poker, and my wife and I don't. We always played bridge."

Everywhere in the novel there is deception and manipulation, lying and fraud, self-interest and greed. Everyone is guilty on some level, which could be why the title is AIDING AND ABETTING. Everyone is guilty and everyone "falls short of the glory of God" in Spark's world. Nevertheless, she sees absolutely no reason why we can't laugh about our shortcomings.


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