- Trail of Havoc: In the Steps of Lord Lucan by Patrick Marnham
Viking, 204 pp, £10.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 670 81391 5
- Lucan: Not Guilty by Sally Moore
Sidgwick, 271 pp, £12.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 283 99536 X
There is enough forensic evidence lying around to construct any number of theories, from either point of view. Was it, or was it not, Lord Lucan who murdered the nanny Sandra Rivett? In the 13 years since she was found in the US mailbag at 46 Lower Belgrave Street in London there has been no new evidence. Patrick Marnham’s only novelty is the evidence from Taki, the Spectator gossip-columnist, to the effect that he knew Lucky Lucan had a powerboat and had made dummy runs with an eight-stone sack to the coast. That fits with Lucan’s remarks to Greville Howard some weeks before the murder that he planned to drop his wife’s body into the Solent. As for the Lucan ‘set’, once so besieged and worried for its survival, this has long since been amalgamated into the Thatcher revolution. It’s a pity that neither of these books has a history of the store of rumour that grew up around the affair – the brutal witch-hunting stories that passed as truth, and are secure in the popular culture. They told us something of our rather nasty ways of dealing with the unexplained or inexplicable. It was indeed that line of venom which led me to ask about Lucan’s wife Veronica. These inquiries led in turn to a fierce reaction from the Lucan supporters, and to the hounding of Dominick Elwes. ‘They simply hadn’t realised what an unsympathetic appearance they gave to the rest of the world,’ writes Marnham.
Sally Moore began her book in 1975, had a manuscript ready by 1980 and has been struggling for publication ever since. Hers is a crusade to exonerate Lucan, with the help of his family, and with the piling-on of a mass of detail, as if the sheer weight of her protestations would convince the world that John, as she calls him, was not guilty. It doesn’t work, even though one agrees that the coroner’s verdict naming Lucan as the murderer was unfairly reached, and it must have been a heartbreaking task. Marnham’s book is more reflective and very much better-written. I began to wonder why he had applied his considerable talents to this subject with the trail so cold and no particular revelations to make. Obsession must be the answer, and indeed the puzzle will probably keep the story, and rumours, alive for ever. But only half the book is about the Lucan affair. He gives a summary of the available evidence and of the background, with his own speculations added. His main contention, carefully contrived to suggest that Lucan hired an assassin, comes badly unstuck, it seems to me, over an extraordinary mistake of geography.
His second part is a description of the battle between Private Eye and the financier Jimmy Goldsmith from January 1976 to May 1977. The Eye had been investigating possible links between Wilson and the KGB, using material leaked to them by MI5 – the first evidence of that MI5 subversion of the Wilson Government dealt with by famous Peter Wright. Lady Falkender and Wilson had urged Goldsmith to sue – Marnham had unwittingly libelled him by saying he was at John Aspinall’s lunch to decide what to do if Lucky turned up. And so on. Goldsmith is discredited, loses a peerage, fails to buy a newspaper, starts his own Now! and loses £6 million. Meanwhile the Wilson Honours List glows with crooks – targets of the MI5 leaks.
It is a story of Venetian complexity, as Marnham says, and is now largely forgotten, and one must say that the links between the two sagas are somewhat subjective, whatever Marnham’s dexterity with linking sentences – ‘the Shade of Lord Lucan was still rattling its chains.’ Marnham is himself a link between the Lucan and Goldsmith stories, because he wrote the libel in Private Eye. The same detective, Roy Ranson, investigated the Lucan affair and the case of Wilson’s missing tax papers – which coincided with the MI5 campaign against him. To more than one of a number of matters we can apply Marnham’s words: ‘Time and again a blow intended for one head cracked another. It was as though they were all aimed by a man wielding a bludgeon in the dark.’ Sandra Rivett died instead of Lady Lucan; Dominick Elwes was the scapegoat for the anger his friends felt at my description of their world in the Sunday Times Magazine and at the photographs which accompanied it. ‘By an extra twist of fate Lord Lucan’s disappearance had led to one of his friends’ – Goldsmith – ‘playing a starring role in an Honours List which effectively heralded the end of the socialist government.’
Vol. 37 No. 4 · 19 February 2015
From Rosemary Hill’s review, it seems we have another book, this by Laura Thompson, exonerating Lord Lucan of the murder of the children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, and the attempted murder of his wife, Veronica (LRB, 5 February). It is bizarre after all this time to find any writer on the case, who is not a family defender of the disappeared earl, putting across such a conclusion. That Rosemary Hill buys it too is odd but more excusable – she’s getting it from the book or books. But it’s fascinating in terms of historical myth. ‘That he was desperate enough and able … to hire a hitman seems more plausible,’ Hill writes, ‘that he panicked at the reality and tried to stop the killing, arriving when Rivett was already dead and his wife wounded.’ More plausible, she says, because Laura Thompson and two other writers, including Patrick Marnham, all think that ‘whatever his state of mind, he (Lucan) was not capable of such extreme, sustained violence.’ How do they know? What is that based on? Shouldn’t Hill have been more sceptical of this?
Where does the intruder story come from? Only from Lord Lucan’s letters written that night, trying to set up a version to save his children’s shame, before he committed suicide. Why believe them instead of all the massive evidence against him? Lucan’s only description of the intruder is of a ‘large man’. To Michael Stoop he wrote: ‘I have had a traumatic night of unbelievable coincidence. However I won’t bore you with anything.’ They are Etonian letters par excellence – the first skill you acquired in that brutal age at Eton was lying, vide Jonathan Aitken. Like Aitken’s sword of truth speech, Lucan’s letters have a giveaway mixture of fake nobility and self-pity. ‘When they [the children] are old enough to understand,’ he wrote to Bill Shand Kydd, ‘explain to them the dream of paranoia, and look after them.’ Hill opens her piece with Veronica’s question to Dominick Elwes from behind her bandages in her hospital bed: ‘Now who’s the one with paranoia?’ Hill doesn’t follow this up. Veronica was talking about her husband trying to kill her.
Hill cites Marnham’s book Trail of Havoc as a source for the intruder theory. I reviewed Trail of Havoc for this paper (LRB, 12 November 1987). I know Marnham and admire his writing but I was forced to point out (as Walter Winchell used to say) that his central theory collapsed from a monumental mistake of geography – he had Lucan and his hired killer moving between Lower Belgrave Street and the Lucan mews house behind. But, alas for him, had he measured the ground, the mews house is not back to back with 46 Lower Belgrave Street but some way along the mews. It was Marnham’s Lucan article in Private Eye that triggered the hundred years’ war between Richard Ingrams and Jimmy Goldsmith. He rang after my review and said: ‘I haven’t had a lot of luck with Lucan.’
Hill compares the (posthumous, one assumes) press and police treatment of Lucan with their treatment of Christopher Jefferies, the schoolteacher wrongly arrested for the murder of Joanna Yeates – as in poor old Lucky being picked on for his earldom and his silly moustache. In fact the Jefferies treatment was doled out in spades, misogynistically, to Veronica Lucan. She became la folle de Belgravia in the popular imagination and stories of her waspishness, madness etc circulated wildly at the time – another plant by Lord Lucan, who had been trying to have her committed or, if not that, to terrorise her into submission. A little unstable maybe, but she wasn’t at all mad. And here is the glaring omission in all this: Lady Lucan’s evidence. Why is Lucan believed and not Lady Lucan? Because she’s mad? I am cited in Hill’s review for my pieces in the Sunday Times and the New Review and I was very close to the story all those years ago. I certainly had a scoop in terms of my access to Lady Lucan, who described in great detail to me how she got out of this murderous attack by her husband, re-enacting the scene on the staircase of 46 Lower Belgrave Street. The dialogue between them, that she reported to me, can’t be made up. Lucan thought it was the nanny’s night off (his daughter told the police he had asked her for this information), so when Rivett came down to the darkened kitchen (Lucan had removed the light bulb) he mistook her for Veronica and killed her. Veronica came down after a while calling for Sandra. Then ‘someone rushed out and hit me on the head.’ Four times. She screamed. He told her to ‘shut up’. He thrust two fingers down her throat; they fought, she got between his legs, managed to twist around and grab his balls. I’m not sure why I didn’t quote Veronica Lucan in my pieces – I remember our interviews were surrounded with legal conditions – but I had no doubt she was telling a true story. The same she told to the police, to Dominick Elwes and to the jury at the coroner’s inquest, which found Lucan to be the murderer. The detail was right; she never wavered or embellished it down the years. One detail was so extraordinary it can’t have been invented. When he lunged at her throat, she managed to croak: ‘Don’t you dare touch my pearls.’ Perhaps he wasn’t capable of sustaining this second attack after the appeal to his manners, and after a wrestling match. In the pause, as they went upstairs, she managed to run out to the Plumbers Arms.
If you believe her story everything else, all the mass of evidence against Lucan, falls into place – the bludgeon found in his car identical to the murder weapon, the blood and hair on the back seat, and so on. This, in fact, was the basic storyline of the recent ITV two-parter written by Jeff Pope. Though clunky in dialogue (I don’t remember even my parents’ generation calling each other ‘old thing’ every few minutes) and repeating the calumny, now indelible, that Dominick Elwes gave me the photographs that sealed his fate, it was the first account I’ve come across that got the story straight, and showed Lucan doing the deed. Jimmy Goldsmith and Aspinall both thought he’d done it. His son George Bingham is ‘quite certain’ there was no intruder, a view he shares, he says, with his close family. He has said he wants to believe his father is culpable; it is too painful otherwise to think he abandoned his children for no apparent reason.
The greater mystery is what he did early that morning as he shut the door of his car in Newhaven. Where did he go? I believe into the sea. Keith Simpson, the Home Office pathologist, who held this theory too, told me that there is a kind of crab in Newhaven Harbour that will settle in large numbers on your corpse and consume your flesh within two or three days.