Sunday, March 1, 2015

“ I wonder what has happened to Lord Lucan?” —Agatha Christie

I have for some months now subscribed to electronic versions of The Times Literary Supplement and The London Review of Books. The big controversy in the letters columns recently has been a heated discussion over who has done the most accurate translations of Proust. These publications rarely, if ever, review mysteries so I was surprised when both of them gave lots of space and serious attention to Laura Thompson’s new book about the Lord Lucan case, A Different Class of Murder.

Lord Lucan, peer of the realm, was a handsome fellow. Vittorio de Sica thought of using him in a movie and Cubby Broccoli, the producer of the James Bond films, thought him the very image of the suave spy.

In November, 1974, his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, was brutally murdered in the basement of the Lucan home and his wife, Veronica, was also bashed multiple times over the head. Lucan, who had been separated from his family, was at the house that night, He told friends that he had gone past the house and seen someone struggling with his wife. Lady Lucan contended that he was her assailant. She said that after he hit her over the head he tried to force his fingers down her throat in order to kill her. She grabbed him by the family jewels. He released her and then tended to her wounds. They spent some time together but when he left the room she ran to the local pub and the police were called. He went to the home of a friend and called his mother and asked her to look after the children. The police were at his mother’s house. His mother suggested he talk to the police but he said he would contact them the following morning. He was never seen again. Perhaps I should amend that. He has been seen many times since then in the same way that Elvis continues to be spotted.

Lucan has his detractors and supporters. The detractors say that Lucan, who had become a spectacularly unsuccessful gambler killed his wife because he failed to get custody of his children (Not only was he paying to support her, he had to pay her court costs as well as his own when he lost the case). His wife, a bright woman whom he had worked to drive mad, was disliked by his friends. His friends plotted his escape from England and they continue to support him. There have been sightings of him all over the world. (Most sightings have occurred in South Africa and Botswana.)

His supporters say that the police never really entertained the idea that anyone other than Lucan had committed the murder. His wife was an unreliable witness with an extensive psychiatric history (Barristers were not allowed to bring this up during the inquest). Nothing his wife said against him was the subject of any serious scrutiny.

He left England because he believed he could not get a fair trial and wrote a letter to his friend, William Shand Kydd, asking that he look after the children.

Laura Thompson’s book attempts to make sense of all this material (Her prose makes for somewhat heavy sledding). She feels that Lucan got a raw deal because he was a lord and seemed to live a lush life during the 1970s, a time when the social and economic tumult would lead to the rise of Margaret Thatcher. She presents different versions of events. Both reviews of the book that I read talked about her speculations being occasionally “vulgar.” I looked in vain for the vulgarity. I was sure that this would be what Americans would call “the juicy parts.”

Thompson favors the idea that Lucan paid someone to kill his wife and then thought better of it and went to the house to intervene but was too late. Distraught over the mess he had made, he committed suicide by throwing himself off cliffs, off the side of the boat… etc.

Lord Lucan’s son, George, thinks that his father hired someone to stage a burglary so that he could collect insurance money. The piping used on Sandra Rivett and Lady Lucan was intended for breaking a window. The faux burglar was totally undone when he saw Sandra Rivett, killed her and attacked Lady Lucan.

I don’t know if Thompson’s book will spur the interest that the merits of Proust translations have, but James Fox, whose article about the case was written around the time of the murder, has already written in to disparage what he sees as Thompson’s exoneration of Lord Lucan and to defend Lady Lucan.

I await the next “Letters” columns with ‘bated breath and muffled oar.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson


  1. What is the origin of " muffled oar"? tjstraw

  2. When you're sneaking into the harbor to blow up the enemy's ships, or when you're sneaking out of the harbor because you and your buds have just escaped from prison, you wrap stuff around the oarlocks, and I think also the oars, so that they won't make noise and attract the attention of the sentries.

  3. Of course. I used to do that when the Nazi boats came into Chesapeake Bay, in front of our house... and I used the rags I'd found of their clothes, swept up onto our beach... as mufflers... all in a day's work in WW 2 Those were the days..... . tjs