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Aiding and Abetting

Muriel Spark <em>Penguin, 211pp, £5.99</em>

ISBN 0670894281

Following a long line of morally compromised characters, the nefarious cast of Muriel Spark's latest novel all either have blood on their hands or have aided and abetted a crime. In a characteristic combination of the real and the surreal, Spark takes mischievous imaginative licence with two true stories: the disappearance of Lord Lucan, wanted for murder since 1974, and the fraudulent enterprises of Beate Pappenheim, the fake stigmatic of Bavaria. Their paths cross when "Lucky" Lucan seeks psychiatric aid from one Dr Hildegard Wolf, Beate in sheep's clothing. To this improbable scenario, Spark introduces a second Lucan.

Doppelgangers, deceit and dirty money, all Spark's devilish preoccupations, are here. Bloody religious imagery seeps through the pages like a deep, dark joke. "It is said we are washed in the Blood of the Lamb," Lucan reflects, while relishing his favourite lamb chops. Spark's best lines are reserved for the dying snobbery of an age and class that would protect and excuse a murderous bore simply because he was a toff.

The characters discuss their situation with crisp, comic certainty when, in fact, nothing is clear at all. This slim, farcical caper ends in a Waugh-like denouement as the author punishes her creations with divine indifference. However absurd the story, Spark remains one of our sharpest novelists.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, What would you do?