In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Death in BelgraviaRosemary Hill
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan 
by Laura Thompson.
Head of Zeus, 422 pp., £20, November 2014, 978 1 78185 536 2
Show More
Show More

Listen to this piece read by the author

‘Well,’​ said the heavily bandaged Countess of Lucan from her hospital bed, eyeing her sister and brother-in-law with no great affection, ‘now who’s the one with paranoia eh?’ Forty years after the murder of the Lucans’ nanny, Sandra Rivett, the answer is pretty much everybody. The events of the night of 7 November 1974, when Rivett was bludgeoned to death in the basement of the Lucans’ London house, 46 Lower Belgrave Street, the countess was violently assaulted and her husband, John Bingham, seventh earl of Lucan, disappeared, offer all things to all tastes. The story has the violent glamour of crime fiction with the additional thrill of reality, and the facts are just enough to make a narrative while leaving hugely tantalising areas of doubt. Also the Lucans looked right. He the central-casting aristocrat, dashing with his guardsman’s moustache and a hint of the cad round the eyes, she, tiny beside him, bouffant hair in a velvet band. There followed four decades of obsessive gossip, conspiracy theories, sightings of the earl on every continent except Antarctica, and grisly accounts of his death, as well as some more thoughtful studies of the case and what it reveals about postwar Britain and its social structure.

Lord Lucan and Veronica Duncan on their wedding day, 28 November 1963.

Lord Lucan and Veronica Duncan on their wedding day, 28 November 1963.

Thompson’s book is a mixture of all of these and the result is persuasive and revealing in some parts, absurd and tasteless in others. Yet it is a compelling read. The story doesn’t pall because it has become a myth and myths change with time. As the Lucan affair recedes to the horizon of living memory, revelations and theories once libellous are now printable, while first-hand recollections become clouded and the pattern of light and shade in the story shifts. Some things have changed less than might have been expected. While the press at the time called it ‘the Upstairs, Downstairs’ murder there is no difficulty, as Thompson points out, in reinterpreting it as a Downton Abbey affair. James Fox’s articles in the Sunday Times and the New Review saw in it the ‘whole waterlogged English class system’ sinking under its own weight. But the system has proved remarkably buoyant. Old Etonians and alumni of the Bullingdon Club continue to thrive. By contrast their antagonists of forty years ago, the police and the press, have fared less well. This side of the Stephen Lawrence case and the phone-hacking trials neither has the same level of credibility they enjoyed in the 1970s.

Born in 1934, Lucan would have been, or just possibly was, eighty in 2014. The second child and eldest son of George Charles Patrick (‘Pat’) Bingham, the sixth earl, and his wife, Kaitlin, much was made in 1974 of his ancestry, in particular the life and character of his great-great-grandfather, the third earl. In addition to treating his Irish tenants at the time of the Famine with a cruelty that was remarkable even by contemporary standards, he also ordered the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854. A brute and an idiot, what else, it was implied, could be expected of his descendants.

In fact, as Thompson explains, Lucan’s pedigree sported a familiar range of lordly personalities. Like a row of cartoon portraits by Osbert Lancaster she runs us through them. The first earl was the clever one, a Whig who got the title, the second was the cultured earl, who lived in Italy and commissioned busts of his daughters from Thorvaldsen. The inevitable spendthrift earl was the fourth. He married a daughter of the Duke of Richmond and lived in style on the far from limitless family fortune, his enjoyment marred only by half a century spent avoiding his bankers. With the next generation came the reaction. His son, Lucan’s grandfather, was the consolidating earl, a privy counsellor and Conservative MP with a devotion to public service. He took control of the estate in 1900 and did what he could to stop the rot. But few noble families could withstand the rigours of the 20th century, and war and taxation reduced the family seat to little more than a golf course.

With Lucan’s father, there was another reaction and the birth of that peculiarly modern figure, the socialist earl. To the dismay of his parents and some of his children Pat Bingham and his wife were active members of the Labour Party and anti-apartheid campaigners. He served as an under-secretary of state in Attlee’s government. They were not unconventional enough, however, to keep their four children in England during the Second World War. Like many who could afford it they sent them to America. Lucan and his brother and two sisters arrived in Washington in 1940, returning to London in 1945. That episode, his elder sister Jane Griffin told Thompson, was ‘when it all started’. Griffin, one of the members of the family who sympathised with her parents’ politics, has long made her home in New York. Her account of her childhood and of Lucan’s character is balanced, regretful and affectionate. Through her eyes the man begins to emerge from behind the cardboard cut-out, and it is her recollections and those of Lucan’s unnamed schoolfriend, who had not previously told his story, that justify Thompson’s subtitle and make the book, at its best, a portrait of the man who is both the centre and the missing middle of the story.

In America the young Binghams were looked after by wealthy connections of their parents, the Brady Tuckers, who ‘lived like Astors’ with ‘three major houses’ and behaved with ‘generosity unbounded’. Winters in New York, summers in Florida, tennis and swimming and servants to take care of everything else. The children had a whale of a time, except John. His sister remembers her six-year-old brother as puzzlingly miserable in America and even more so when, at 11, he came back to the ‘racketty grandeur’ of their parents’ home in Eaton Square. After the trauma of separation, reunion was another shock. The house had been bombed and was now a scene of ‘dustcloths and crazy furniture’. The whole city had a weary, shattered appearance and the rain, the rationing and a bohemian mother whose hair looked ‘as if someone had stabbed a sofa’ made a considerable contrast to Park Avenue. His sister thinks that when Lord John Bingham (as he then was) was sent away to summer camp during their time in America his unhappiness manifested itself in destructiveness; he ‘tried to damage things’, as she puts it, and from then on she recalls a restless discontent in him.

Intellectually​ he was not the dim aristocrat of caricature. He was generally agreed to be intelligent and his schoolfriend remembers him as ‘very bright’, yet, Griffin recalls, ‘he didn’t put it to good use.’ The only thing to which he applied himself at Eton was learning to gamble. His National Service, with the Coldstream Guards in Germany, was largely spent playing poker in the officers’ mess and, finding himself for the first time in a country where casinos were legal, learning to gamble on a bigger scale. A fellow officer recalls him ‘getting dressed up for dinner and going out to the best hotels … Quite often he’d hire a car … and insist that we all put on our dinner jackets and motor down to the casino at Bad Neuenahr.’ Reaction against his parents’ high-mindedness, a temperamental discontent, soured by the shocks of evacuation, a desire for money and success but a lack of persistence and application: any or all of these might account for his behaviour and his subsequent career.

For five years he worked for a City bank in order to ‘make my pile’. He wrote to his uncle, with what we may hope was a degree of irony, that he knew money couldn’t buy happiness but that it could buy ‘cars, yachts, expensive holidays’ and security, and these things, he explained, would make him happy. He reckoned that a large part of success in finance – 20 per cent was where he set it – was due to gambling ability and in 1958, having not made a fortune in banking, he decided to drop the day job and become a full-time professional gambler. His schoolfriend, who was also in the City, tried to talk him out of it. If he is a less subtle witness than Griffin he speaks in similarly wistful tones of a man who lacked patience, was ‘very short-sighted’ about his life and failed to notice that ‘he had the whole world at his feet really.’

Even so, the late 1950s were not a bad time to be a wealthy young nobleman on the loose in London. Lord John Bingham was remarkably handsome, an ornament to both an old idea of Society which was passing and a new one coming in: 1958 was the last year in which debutantes were presented at court; Mary Quant’s shop Bazaar had been open in the King’s Road since the previous year; and while there were, as ever, socially ambitious people keen to meet aristocrats there were also, as the much discussed ‘Princess Margaret set’ demonstrated, members of the upper classes happy to meet at least the more talented and glamorous members of the lower orders. Yet Thompson fills in this background to Lucan’s later life and its ultimate debacle with a clumsily broad brush. The milieu she describes of ‘Terry-Thomas dashers and Kay Kendall girls’ lacking in social ‘self-awareness’, for whom ‘the threat of levelling tendencies’ and ‘the encroachment of Lucky Jim Dixon’ had yet to loom, is as crude a caricature as anything in the press coverage of the Lucan affair.

From this historical distance it is not only broad trends that are easier to see: details are also emerging in the memoirs of people, especially women, who were at the time more or less silent witnesses. Among those Thompson should not have ignored are Fiona MacCarthy’s The Last Curtsey (2006), a witty account of coming out at a time when debs were turning into dolly birds, and Elisabeth Luard’s My Life as a Wife (2008). Luard’s book casts a sharp sidelight on the scene Thompson needs to evoke. Her husband, Nicholas, was an acquaintance of Lucan and they had an important mutual friend in the painter Dominick Elwes, whose suicide in 1975 was, one way or another, a consequence of the murder in Lower Belgrave Street. Nicholas Luard’s headlong career embodied the ethos of early 1960s London. Maverick, ambitious and something of a fantasist, he was a co-owner with Peter Cook of Private Eye and the Establishment Club in Soho. He was also a habitué of John Aspinall’s gambling club, the Clermont, which became the fulcrum of Lucan’s life after he left the bank. When Lucan disappeared the ‘Clermont set’ loomed large in the police investigation and the press coverage. Defenders of Lady Lucan felt she was frozen out by them; detractors said that her unhappy presence on the club’s ‘widows’ bench’ embarrassed her husband and helped to undermine the marriage.

Elisabeth Luard’s impression of the club’s atmosphere as one of ‘coldness … indifference’ and casual misogyny tends to reinforce the former impression but, more important, My Life as a Wife portrays a world in which everything was a gamble, not just at the tables. As the conventions of the 1950s loosened, hare-brained schemes were fashionable, though often doomed. The Establishment Club failed, taking Luard’s modest inheritance with it, and he and Elwes embarked on a succession of get-rich-quick enterprises. Their most entertaining failure was the retractable dog lead which Elwes patented. Since he and Luard were among the young men invited to dine (without wives) by Princess Margaret they thought she might be persuaded to use it when presenting prizes at Crufts to generate useful publicity. HRH agreed, but in front of curious photographers she put the spring-load on the wrong setting and all but strangled a chihuahua. Sales never recovered. Tellingly, the only Luard-Elwes venture to make money was their book, Refer to Drawer, a guide to confidence trickery.

Lucan’s attempt to fund a trip to the Cresta Run by beating his fellow hotel guests at ping-pong was in the same spirit of cock-eyed derring-do, as was his short powerboat racing career. He entered the 1963 Daily Express race in his top of the range boat The White Migrant and his schoolfriend, who was at Lord’s for the day, recalls the story unfolding in headlines in the Evening Standard. At lunchtime it was ‘Surprise Leader in Powerboat Race’; by close of play it was ‘Powerboat Sinks’. ‘Well,’ his friend concludes, ‘I didn’t even have to look to see.’ The set in which Lucan moved was united more by this sort of gambler’s bravado than by class. Aspinall, who was arguably Lucan’s true nemesis, was the son of an army officer and made his money from the casinos he ran, at first illegally, with his mother. Of the other regulars, James Goldsmith made his own fortune in a succession of businesses, including the chain that became Mothercare; the Shand Kydds’ wealth came from wallpaper manufacture; and Ian Maxwell-Scott was employed as a director of the Clermont, having bought his substantial home in Sussex on the proceeds of an insurance policy taken out against his wife having twins, which she did in 1966.

For a man with plenty of money and a short attention span it was all good fun. Lucan seems to have been happy enough with his lot and with his friends. When Bill Shand Kydd, to whom he was particularly close, married Christina Duncan, Lucan met Christina’s sister Veronica. Whatever his reason for proposing to her it was not snobbery or financial gain. Her mother and stepfather ran the Wheatsheaf Inn near Basingstoke and Veronica, like Fiona MacCarthy, was one of a growing number of upper-middle-class girls in reduced family circumstances who was expected to marry as well as she could. Thompson says the relationship came about in a ‘desultory way … He had to marry, to get an heir. The time had come.’ But the heir to an earldom in want of a wife could scarcely have been short of choice and he chose her. They married in 1963 and early in 1964, when his father died, Lord Bingham became the seventh Earl Lucan.

It was in the early 1970s that things began to change. The Lucans had three children by then but the marriage was unhappy and other good things, especially money, were coming to an end. In a grim economic climate Aspinall lost a fortune on the stock market and was bailed out by Goldsmith. For Lucan the effects of the crash were exacerbated by the fact that he was gambling too much. Aspinall had no scruples about how much he allowed his supposed friends to lose and Lucan was losing heavily; he was also drinking, and practically living at the Clermont. When new legislation made it illegal for Aspinall to play in his own casino he sold it in 1972 to Victor Lownes, owner of the Playboy Club. The old circle was breaking up. The Luards decamped to live cheaply in Spain, where their most grandiose joint enterprise with Elwes, a luxury villa complex called El Cuartón, was soon quite literally sinking. Ian and Susan Maxwell-Scott’s marriage was as rocky as the Lucans’. Susan, the last person known to have seen Lucan alive, was also drinking and behaving oddly. During a weekend both couples and their children spent at the Maxwell-Scotts’ home in Sussex, Susan wrote: ‘Don’t let Lord George fall down the fucking stairs’ in boot polish on the landing wall. The japes were taking a nightmarish turn and in an uneasy political climate grand schemes were getting more serious. In 1974 another Clermont habitué and founder of the SAS, Colonel David Stirling, formed GB75, a vigilante group to be mobilised in the event of civil unrest.

Veronica Lucan was not only unhappy, she was mentally fragile and her relationship with her sister and brother-in-law volatile. After a spectacularly unhappy Christmas in 1972 the Lucans separated and began a battle for the children. Nobody has ever denied that Lucan was profoundly attached to his children, or that he was dismayed when custody was awarded to Veronica. He became obsessed with getting them back. Edith Sitwell’s remark about the Eliots that ‘at some point in their marriage Tom went mad, and promptly certified his wife’ may not have been true in that case, but it points to a truth about marriage as folie à deux. It was said by some that Veronica Lucan’s medication made her paranoid, by others that her husband embarked on a campaign to drive her mad and prove her unfit to keep the children. He certainly tried to get her admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Wherever it originated, by the end of 1973 the Lucans’ marriage was a compound of paranoia and obsession that culminated in the murder of Sandra Rivett.

The​ undisputed facts are few. Somebody bludgeoned Rivett to death on what would usually have been her night off and then assaulted the countess. Lucan was in the house in the later evening and spoke to his wife. She appeared barefoot and covered in blood in the nearby Plumbers Arms pub appealing for help. After he left the house Lucan talked to his mother on the telephone and drove to the Maxwell-Scotts’ house in Uckfield, where he spent some time with Susan, called his mother again and wrote two letters to Bill Shand Kydd, whom he had been trying in vain to contact. His version of events was that he had been going past the house and had seen a fight taking place, he had interrupted it and found Rivett dead and Veronica injured. She had accused him, not for the first time, he said, of hiring a hitman to kill her. He left the Maxwell-Scotts and the car he had been using was found parked in Newhaven on 8 November.

After that there were no more confirmed sightings and mystery rapidly became myth. Rumours grew of a conspiracy among the Clermont set to protect Lucan, to hide him or smuggle him abroad, and with nothing else to show for their respective efforts press and police had an obvious interest in promoting the idea. The image took root of what the Daily Express called a ‘tightly knit circle’ who ‘shrink from interview … for fear of breaking that masonic style bond which linked that certain breed of men whose “stud book” lines mostly lead back to the same stables … Eton, Oxford, the Household Brigade’. If the Clermont set was riddled with class prejudice their detractors were by no means free of it.

If any individual gave the arrogant, conspiratorial circle theory more substance than the others it was Aspinall. His pathological, coat-trailing contempt for ‘the law or the common norms of civic behaviour’, his assertion that if Lucan had come to him ‘covered with blood’ he would not have handed him in and that if Veronica ‘had been my wife I’d have bashed her to death five years before and so would you’, further blackened by implication the reputation of the man he had helped to ruin financially. As a further outrage to the middle-class morality he despised, Aspinall possibly started and certainly sustained the rumour that Lucan killed himself after telling Aspinall where to find his body, and that Aspinall collected it, put it through the bone crusher at Howletts, his private zoo, and fed it to the animals. That was what he told Richard Parkes, a Clermont regular who had lent Lucan money which he never recovered.

Aspinall hardly ‘shrank from interview’ and he was not alone. Many of the Clermont set spoke to James Fox for his Sunday Times article, Susan Maxwell-Scott told her story to the News of the World and Bill Shand Kydd made a public appeal to Lucan to come back and face the music. Meanwhile the police search ranged wider and wider based on ever flimsier clues. A much publicised excursion to Cherbourg in pursuit of a rumoured sighting of Lucan was more or less admitted to be a jaunt to give the press some fun. In Spain, Richard Parkes, who had gone to see the Luards, caused a stir at El Cuartón, where the sight of a tall moustachioed Englishman raised hopes among the Guardia Civil. Elwes was also there and, in an incident typical of the ill-fated villa development, fell down a cliff and broke his hand and foot. It was only one of the troubles that were increasingly overwhelming him. Like most of the supposedly closed circle, Elwes had spoken to James Fox for his Sunday Times article, which painted its subjects in no very flattering light. When it appeared, Fox writes, ‘they were shocked and shamed … felt they’d been Trojan horsed.’ He believes they wanted a scapegoat and pretended to believe that Elwes had sold photographs to the paper which they knew came from Lady Lucan. In September 1975 he took a fatal overdose, leaving a note blaming Goldsmith and Mark Birley, who owned Annabel’s, the nightclub in the same building as the Clermont, from which Elwes had been barred. He cursed them, he wrote, ‘from the grave’.

Whether anyone can be held morally responsible for another’s suicide is a moot point but Elwes’s friends, including Kenneth Tynan, who delivered an outspoken eulogy at his funeral, believed he had been bullied to death having ‘set too much store by the favourable opinions of people many of whom were manifestly his inferiors’. After the service a cousin of Elwes went up to Aspinall and punched him on the jaw. Elwes was, to the Lucan case, what Stephen Ward was to Profumo – the fall guy. But if he and Rivett were the principal casualties, it is no more than fact to say that Lucan himself never had justice. The inquest on Rivett named him as her killer. It was one of the last inquests to have the power to deliver what amounted to a guilty verdict without trial or an initial presumption of innocence. His daughter Camilla Bloch, a QC, who was four at the time of the murder, said in 2013: ‘As a lawyer I hope it’s not old-fashioned to point out that my father never stood trial. It is unfortunate that he is regularly referred to – in almost factual terms – as a murderer. He has never been able to defend himself and the evidence was not conclusive. It was circumstantial.’

Forty years on the case built up by the police and the press looks shoddy and in some points disturbingly reminiscent of the case against Christopher Jefferies, the schoolteacher wrongly arrested for the murder of Joanna Yeates and branded on front pages ‘strange’ and a ‘peeping Tom’ because he had odd hair and lived alone. Lucan had an earldom, a flashy moustache and a vile great-great-grandfather. Although the forensic evidence was conflicting, and according to Thompson badly contaminated in the course of the investigation, no other line of inquiry seems to have been seriously pursued. The final third of her book covers the aftermath of the murder and relies heavily, as she acknowledges, on earlier work, especially Patrick Marnham’s Trail of Havoc (1987), James Ruddick’s Lord Lucan: What Really Happened (1994) and James Fox’s articles. Where she is original she serves up a mixture of fact and fantasy as odd as it is tasteless. Starting with the entry on Rivett’s death certificate – ‘blunt head injuries inflicted by a named person. Murder’ – she continues: ‘Possibly the greatest pleasure of reading detective fiction is the illusion it gives that there is such a thing as omniscience. Hercule Poirot … applies order and method and finds that no problem can resist them.’ By such ill-judged swerves of tone she pads out interviews which would have made a good article and turns them into a bad book.

Her conclusion, like Marnham’s and Ruddick’s, is that Lucan was not the killer, that whatever his state of mind, he was not capable of such extreme, sustained violence, nor, given that Rivett was at one point facing her attacker, was he likely to fail to recognise his own wife even in the dark. That he was desperate enough and able, through the mythomaniacal set in which he moved, to hire a hitman seems more plausible, that he panicked at the reality and tried to stop the killing, arriving when Rivett was already dead and his wife wounded. In short that the account he gave to his mother and Susan Maxwell-Scott was factually true, if a lie by omission. Afterwards it is hard to believe anything but that he threw himself off a Channel ferry and was dead within 24 hours.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

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.

James Fox
London W10

Peter Cook and Nicholas Luard’s Establishment Club ‘failed’, Rosemary Hill writes (LRB, 5 February). She may be right, but Peter never thought so. I quote what he said to me in 1988, some 25 years after the doors closed on the Establishment:

The thing that brought it down was the magazine. Scene was wholly Nick – but I was too greedy. Just as I was going off to the States I saw these very flashy dummy issues – well-designed, colour photographs, it all looked quite nifty – and instead of saying I don’t want anything to do with that, because I wasn’t anything to do with it, I went along with it and I was fed what turned out to be absolutely inaccurate reports of its fortunes while I was in America. It had pretensions to be the sort of smart magazine you’d be well advised to leave hanging around on your coffee table, but we’d have been better off selling coffee tables I think … again it shows how naive we were financially, the same limited company ran both Scene and the Establishment, so when Scene went down the tube it dragged the Establishment down with it. The Establishment never lost money.

John Lawton
San Giovanni d’Asso, Italy

Vol. 37 No. 5 · 5 March 2015

Rosemary Hill, retelling the sad story of Lord Lucan, runs through the earls in his family tree but does not mention one of his most remarkable forebears, Margaret Bingham (née Smith), Lady Lucan (1740-1814), wife of the first earl. She was a notable illustrator and miniature painter, but her most remarkable work was the long poem ‘Verses on the Present State of Ireland’, which probably dates from 1778. Writing as a ‘wrong’d Hibernian’, she argues that the political concessions being made to America offer an opportunity to reconsider the case of Ireland – whose misery, she says, ‘lies squarely at the door of England’.

Her painting gets her an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Her poem is unmentioned there, though it is equally remarkable for political thinking and for literary skill. (My account of the poem draws on commentary from the Cambridge University Press project Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present.) For those with faith in bloodlines, progressive politics were as natural to the Bingham family as less salubrious qualities.

Isobel Grundy
Edmonton, Alberta

‘Winters in New York, summers in Florida’ is how Rosemary Hill describes Lord Lucan’s American childhood. In this she follows an error in the book under review, Laura Thompson’s A Different Class of Murder, in which Lucan’s American hosts, the Brady Tuckers, ‘lived like Astors, spending the winter in their home on New York’s Park Avenue. In summer they used their beach property in Florida or, in the main, enjoyed their estate at Mount Kisco in Westchester.’ The reverse is the case. An Astor would winter to the south of New York City (Florida) and summer to the north (Newport).

Benjamin Letzler
London E8

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.