Lucky’s Dip

James Fox

  • 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.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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