A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan by Laura Thompson, book review: Enduring mystery of Lord Lucan

This is one of the most notorious murders in history, because so much mystery surrounds the case

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The Independent Culture

On 7 November 1974 Sandra Rivett, 29, was bludgeoned to death in the basement of a house at 46 Lower Belgrave Street, London.

Her name is not much remembered these days, but that of the man named at the inquest as her killer, Richard John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan, is still talked of across the world. It is, of course, one of the most notorious murders in history, not because of the victim or the method of the killing, but because so much mystery surrounds the case, including the whereabouts of Lord Lucan, who disappeared early the following morning.

In this compelling new examination of the crime, Laura Thompson takes us back to that chilling night, and further still to the origins of a tragedy which ultimately destroyed the lives of both Rivett and Lucan, and rippled out to engulf those of their families and friends.

Early in the book, Thompson sets out the facts of the case as the police saw them. This version of events comes from the statement of Lucan’s wife, Veronica, who, at the time of the killing, was acrimoniously separated from her husband. Rivett, the nanny of the Lucans’ three children, had been watching television with Veronica and had gone down to the basement to make a cup of tea. There she was murdered, it is assumed after the killer mistook her for Veronica. When Sandra failed to return, Lady Lucan went in search of her, only to find herself attacked in a darkened hall by her husband wielding a piece of lead pipe. Although badly injured, she managed to stall him by grabbing his testicles and then to escape and raise the alarm. Lucan also fled, and in a well-known sequence of events, used a borrowed car to travel to the south coast where he called at a friend’s house and wrote several letters before his disappearance.

So much attention has been given to Lucan’s possible fate that the more interesting matter of his culpability, and of the many flaws in the police narrative, have often been overlooked. And it is to these things that Thompson turns her brilliant detective’s mind. 

The picture she builds is a fascinating one in which the characters of Lucan and his wife (who, aged 77, still lives in a house adjoining the murder scene) are brought heartbreakingly to life. We learn of their emotionally troubled backgrounds, of Veronica’s unbalanced psychiatric state, and of how Lucan’s despair at his failed marriage and loss of the custody of his children, together with his destructive addiction  to gambling (his debts ran to £65,000), left him in a position which he considered only desperate action could resolve.

Thompson gives us a tantalising range of alternative scenarios to the one the police believed, most convincingly the idea that the fastidious Lucan hired a hitman to kill his wife and then intervened either when he changed his mind, or discovered that Rivett had been murdered by mistake. Of his fate, she concludes that the most likely one is that he died by his own hand the following day. Such speculation, however, is kept to a minimum in this superb anatomy of a murder in which the abiding sense is of two privileged lives wrecked by upper-class mores and mental illness, and of the poor woman who, on that fateful November night, got caught up in their destiny.

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