Aiding and Abetting
by Muriel Spark
Anchor Books (2002)
Originally published in 2000
Until finishing Aiding and Abetting, the only books by Sparks I’d read were written in the 1960s and 1970s, giving me only a limited perspective on her novel-writing career, which lasted almost a half century, from 1957’s The Comforters to 2004’s The Finishing School, which was published just two years before she died at the age of 88 in 2006. That said, however limited my perspective, the late-career Aiding and Abetting feels just like a classic Muriel Spark book, stuffed with dark humor and built with a plot that, rather than settle in on the central story, follows the characters as they spiral out of control.
For story fodder, Spark uses a recent scandal — murder and disappearance — of the British nobility. John Bingham, better known now as Lord Lucan, was a man once considered for the role of James Bond because he lived that kind of gambling/boat-racing/carousing high life, if not that kind of international intrigue — yet. Then, in 1974, he posed as a burglar and murdered his children’s nanny, bludgeoning her to death in the dark basement. A mistake. He was targeting his wife, but apparently it was too dark. He had his chance, though, because his wife soon came down the stairs to see what was going on. He tried to murder her then and there, only to leave her maimed but well enough to identify him as the assailant. After the botched murder and murder attempt, he disappeared into the wider world. There have been many reported sightings, as Lucan entered the mythical world of Bigfoot. He has never been found, and it was only early this year that a death certificate was finally issued to certify his presumed death.
Spark’s book gets its title, Aiding and Abetting, from the fact that Lord Lucan most likely didn’t disappear so completely without the help of his noble friends, allowing him to reside on their estates, meeting with him to give him money, etc. But that’s hard to do for such a long time, especially since times have changed, as Spark points out in her classic biting, ironic critiques: “since Lucan’s day, snobs have been greatly marginalized.” And it seems that many of them have been helping Lucan only because of his position, and not because they like him personally; if their class position isn’t all it used to be, then why go on aiding and abetting?
So that’s the underlying event in this novel, and Spark brings us Lord Lucan in the early 2000s, twenty-five years of hiding having taken their toll. But Spark’s novel is even more strange and much more comical than anything I could have anticipated. In the early pages we meet our main characa psychiatrist named Hildegard Wolf, working in Paris, famous for her unconventional treatment method: rather than let the patient do the speaking, she makes them shut up and listen to her troubles. A man comes to her, claiming to be the long-lost Lord Lucan. The strange thing is, Wolf is already treating a man who claims to be Lord Lucan. Wolf wonders, then, which is the real Lord Lucan, if either, and how to treat a murderer and how to treat a man who simply claims to be a murderer.
As it turns out, the two men know each other and are quite exasperated that the other has sought treatment. Each claims to have hired the other to help him effect a vanishing that has worked for over twenty-five years. And they aren’t interested in granting much control to Wolf. You see, they know that she has her own scandalous past — she faked being a stigmatic, defrauding thousands — and adopted the name Hildegard Wolf to hide this past identity.
It’s absurdly, wonderfully inventive. The story feels arbitrary — especially as the characters spread out over Europe — and yet perfectly controlled, manipulated, even, to great effect, because we cannot predict what is coming and are surprised how we feel about these terrible people years after they’ve committed their terrible acts.
It doesn’t always live up to the premise, though, and at times it feels downright episodic as we go from one potential aider and abetter to another strange occurrence down the road. As the novel goes on, though, and the two Lucans get darker and darker, Wolf herself feels less and less important, though it seems Spark intends her to remain at the fore, bring her and her own aiders and abetters along for the ride. Consequently, I greatly enjoyed this book for its fantastic premise and for reminding me of so many reasons I love Spark, even if it doesn’t succeed itself in bringing all of the elements together.