This 2001 work is a beautifully conceived novel and professionally executed until the end, when it fails to match its inspired beginning—perhaps because the inspiration came from history, from a real crime that was never solved. Which means that Spark had to accommodate her ending to the known facts.
This is the story of two men who walk, separately, into the office of a famous Paris psychiatrist and claim to be a Lord Lucan who killed his children’s nanny 24 years earlier in a bungled attempt to murder his wife. The psychiatrist, Hildegard Wolf, is actually Beate Pappenheim, who herself has a problematic background. Years earlier, she swindled many people by posing as a stigmata. Indeed, she is also based on a historic figure, be it one who swindled people rather than assaulted them. But it is a typical cavalier approach by Spark, and, as I said, an inspired one, to combine these two historic personalities into one work of fiction.
The reader, like Hildegard, speculates about which of the two men who seek psychiatric help is the real Lord Lucan—one called Lucky or one called Walker—and why they claim to need such help. Later, however, and arbitrarily, Spark revels that the two men are conspiring colleagues, and they plan to blackmail Hildegard by threatening to reveal her past. It seems they need money. It seems that their wealthy aiders and abettors, who believe in protecting their fellow aristocrats, have been providing the true lord with money; and now they are now dying away, shrinking his source of funds.
And just as the two lords exist in a world of conceit and deceit, so Spark implies does Hildegard. For instead of listening to the lives and problems of her patients, like most psychiatrists, she tells them her own problems, until they either give up or buy into her approach. This is Spark, ever aloof, satirizing the life of both of her adversaries
The intrigue between these two dueling parties fades in the center of this short novel, however, as two figures from the lord’s past seek to track him down and interview him about the 24 years in which he has moved around the world, always being funded, and always escaping capture. The satire here extends beyond the life of self-righteous aristocrats to the pursuit of villains in detective stories. It even has a parallel track, with Hildegard herself disappearing briefly and her lover Jean-Pierre seeking to track her. Eventually, Spark does bring the pursuing couple into partnership with Hildegard and her lover, but their joining of forces is somewhat contrived.
The end result is a moral satire about an artful murderer dueling with a master con-woman. Spark here covers three bases. She addresses the nature of evil, indicts upper class mores, and maneuvers her characters into her resolution, in this case matching the history of an unsolved crime.
This is vintage Spark, even if imperfect, even if inspired by history rather than the author’s own imagination. For she remains aloof from her characters, revealing their crimes but letting the facts expose their true selves. Aristocratic Lord Lucan is so convinced of the justice of his every act, for example, that he believes it was his wife’s destiny to die. Just as it will be the destiny of his fellow Lord Lucan.
But although the two Lord Lucans become adversaries at the end, perhaps to meet the author’s needs, perhaps to add a new irony, the true duel is between Lord Lucan and Hildegard, as both threaten to reveal the other’s past. Michiko Kakutani points out their similarities in her New York Times review: “Both have spent much of their adult lives inventing new identities for themselves; and both, so to speak, have blood on their hands,” meaning Beate has because she faked the stigmata by placing menstrual blood on her hands.
The ending, which doesn’t work for me, has a touch of Waugh. The two Lord Lucans end up in Africa, and each becomes the victim of a different ironic fate. It is not the same as Waugh, and not as powerful, but it belongs to the same family of fates.
To sum up, this is 83-year-old Spark in complete control of her characters and their fates. She uses irony and satire to establish a certain moral level, but a level her characters easily transgress. The drawback is that it is an inspired treatment of a plot, but it is not itself an inspired plot. And because it must conform to certain facts of history, the conclusion does not have the bite that one expects from this author. (July, 2015)