We Brits love a mystery, and they don’t come much more mysterious than Lord Lucan. There are lots of books out there about the Lucan case – those of us who were around then will probably recall the shockwaves of horror it caused at the time. Briefly, for those who don’t know, John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan, was a handsome, dashing peer who separated from his wife. Someone, alleged to be Lucan, subsequently broke into the family home on 7 November 1974, murdered the nanny, Sandra Rivett, and attacked Lady Lucan. Bingham then rang his mother, asked her to look after the children and disappeared. This book, from 2014, is one of the more recent to look at these strange events, forty years on.
Thompson begins by placing Lord Lucan in his aristocratic context. This introduction seems a bit Marmite – readers seem to have either loved it or hated it. I found it fascinating – the author is trying to remind us of the brutal and often bloody history of families who were used to getting their own way, by hook or by crook. They are, or were, as the saying goes, not like us. We then follow Lucan through his privileged boyhood at Eton and on through his gambling years. One surprise is how his parents were frugal to the point of abstemiousness in their own lives, and despite giving their son every advantage, were staunchly Socialist and almost Communist in their beliefs. This seems to have sent Lucan the other way, and even at school he adopted the haughty persona of the English milord, going on to race powerboats, splash cash around and generally live the high life. With his athletic frame and dark good looks, he was once even considered for the part of Bond. His life was to change when he won an enormous amount at the gambling tables, earning the title ‘Lucky Lucan’. Convinced he was destined to be lucky over and over, he left his cosy job in a merchant bank and became the house player in a gambling club. The reminiscence others had of his wife sitting alone on a bench outside the main room in the Carlton Club night after night is one of the most poignant in the book.
His friends were surprised he showed little inclination to settle down, until he met his best friend Bill Shand-Kydd’s sister in law, Veronica Duncan. (Shand-Kydd was well-connected: his elder half brother was married for 19 years to Diana Spencer’s mother, Frances). Veronica was a highly-strung, very young woman who had a tempestuous relationship with her sister. Pretty, arty, and brittle, Veronica was apparently often thought conceited and slightly odd by others. Lucan quickly determined that she was the one for him and one almost gets the impression he may have chosen Veronica as his bride in order to be permanently connected in a family context to his best friend, whose wife Lucan found kind, generous and understanding. Veronica produced the requisite heir and two other children, and then the marriage went sour.
Now, what follows next is a web of accusation, counter-accusation and court cases (firstly over custody of the children, then over who killed nanny Sandra Rivett), with facts very thin on the ground. Veronica continued to assert it was Lucan who was in her house that night (she escaped, ran into the street and got help from a nearby pub), and the police admitted they never really considered anyone else for the crime. Lucan, of course, having disappeared, never had a chance to defend himself, and was declared guilty in his absence by a court many say had no jurisdiction to do so. In terms of Lucan’s fate, there were two main theories – one, that he had escaped abroad, with or without the help of powerful friends (his car was found abandoned near the Newhaven ferry point) or, secondly, that he had committed suicide. Lurid stories even said his body had been fed to the animals in his friend John Aspinall’s private zoo. Meanwhile, supposed sightings of him abounded all over the world, in places like East Africa, Goa, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Laura Thompson, having looked closely at the police evidence, comes up with a third theory (no spoilers) which, while not earth-shattering, does make logical sense and will be familiar to anyone who watched the TV mini series ‘Lucan’ (starring professional misery-guts Christopher Eccleston as Aspinall, employing the most strangulated vowels you could wish to hear), which I can recommend. Lucan’s son, George, who has now legally assumed the title since the previous earl was declared officially dead in 2016, says he thinks this third theory is plausible.
Two other things, before finishing (not in the book). Reports abounded of George spending a lot of time in East Africa, staying in remote accommodation (but then, so do many people). George, however, was renowned for getting up in the middle of the night and driving huge distances to remote destinations, destinations he never revealed to anyone. And Aspinall’s secretary, Shirley Robey, later told the Telegraph how she had long been aware Lucan was still alive, living a secret life in Gabon, West Africa. She had been in meetings with billionaires John Aspinall and James Goldsmith where telephone conversations had taken place with Lucan. She had even been charged by Aspinall with making arrangements to do with the children visiting, booking flights for the two eldest (Frances and George) so that their father could observe them from a distance without alarming them, but was sworn to secrecy until her conscience could bear it no more.
Veronica, who was probably the only person who knew the real truth, committed suicide aged 80 in September 2017 under the mistaken impression she was suffering from early symptoms of Parkinson’s. Her children, brought up by the Shand-Kydds, had hardly spoken to her for many years. She maintained they had been turned against her.
This book has been criticised for being too wordy, which I didn’t find, and for being too biased in favour of Lucan, which possibly is a fairer criticism. A cross between a detective story and a social history, it paints an evocative picture of London in the sixties. On the paperback front cover, Lucan and Veronica stride forward confidently through a smart London street, he in his dapper three-piece suit and trademark moustache and she, model-thin with a bouncy sixties hairdo, in her trendy, pink, dolly-bird pinafore dress. No-one could have ever have predicted from that picture the tragedy, or the notoriety, that was soon to overtake them and everyone who knew them.
© Foxoles 2020
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