Article published on December 24, 2014.
Throughout the book you make repeated efforts to distinguish crime fact from crime fiction, particularly in regard to deduction. Has the prevalence of crime fiction and crime drama conditioned us to think that the most emotionally satisfying explanation of a crime must be the correct one?
Yes, I think inevitably. What we like is a solution that is also a resolution. Even in books or dramas where the ending is deliberately ambivalent, there is usually an underlying sense of an artistic resolution. If we seek that in life, it may lead us to force the facts to fit a pattern.
As a device in my book I sought to investigate the Lucan case as if it were a fictional murder – partly to make the very point you raise. But I also wanted to show how few indisputable facts we have. Whereas crime fiction is all about omniscience, in real life almost every fact is open to question: at least in a murder committed before CCTV and DNA testing, where so much depends upon uncorroborated testimony…
There are constant reminders in the book of people’s weaknesses, frailties and sadnesses. Throughout all your research, what details, facts or witnesses did you encounter who you felt brought you closest to understanding Veronica and her husband as people?
Talking to anybody who had known the Lucans – whether it be Lucan’s best friend from school, Veronica’s sister, the nanny who worked for them before Sandra Rivett – was incredibly helpful. It did me the great service of making this familiar story real. Even hearing Lord Lucan called ‘John’ took him away from the image of the moustachioed monster. I was especially pleased to talk to Lucan’s sister (who has never spoken before), a lovely, straightforward and fair-minded person. What pulled me up was her continued distress at the whole business. She quite obviously had no idea what had happened to her brother, and the story she told made it horribly clear that Sandra Rivett could still be alive today if the Lucans had never married and set off a train of unnecessary events.
I was also struck by the woman who had worked as nanny for Lucan’s friends the Maxwell-Scotts. She told me that out of all their house guests Lucan was the only one who ever tipped her! She had really liked him, and she is a tremendously sensible, shrewd person with no axe to grind.
At one point in ‘A Different Class of Murder’ you observe that today’s moneyed elite are less distant and more visible than they were in Lucan’s era, and that the aristocracy holds less interest for the general public. What do you think lies behind the transition? How did we, as it were, start reading ‘OK’ magazine in preference to ‘Hello!’?
As I say in the book, the class of the rich – and then of the rich and famous – became the new aristocracy. The doings of this class have been brought ever closer to us by the media, and now by social media. So arenas that were previously remote – such as insanely expensive houses, designer clothes, fashionable restaurants – are now familiar. We can’t inhabit them ourselves, but we know all about them.
That said, I don’t think that aristos are of less interest to us today (viz Downton Abbey, The Riot Club etc)… it’s just that our attitude towards them is different. More judgmental, which in some ways is a good thing; but it is ironic that the upper-classes are now pretty much the only minority who can be attacked with impunity, even though most of their power has evaporated. This was already the case in 1974, which meant that Lucan was condemned in the court of public opinion as much for what he was, as for what he might have done.
You refer to class prejudice a number of times in the book, particularly in relation to the era. You also refer to the inadequacies of the police investigation. Is it fair to say the latter stemmed from the former, or are there other factors that need to be considered?
Obviously there are several documented examples of poorly-conducted police investigations – most recently, the ITV drama about Christopher Jefferies showed how the police became convinced that an innocent man had committed murder, and overlooked an obvious suspect equally close to hand. In that case it would appear that prejudice – against Jefferies’ perceived ‘oddity’ – played its part. Similarly with Lucan. Of course he was not, unlike Mr Jefferies, unequivocally innocent; but certainly the police dismissed any evidence in his favour. The guilty party was decided upon and the investigation directed accordingly.
This was not in itself due to class prejudice – it was quite reasonable to think that Lucan had committed the murder – but I think there was prejudice involved in the way that the police interpreted facts around the case (particularly with regard to the Lucan marriage). They also played to the gallery (the press gallery, to be precise) by portraying Lucan and his friends as arrogant and lawless. Although some of Lucan’s set were uncooperative, the police themselves admitted that most were not. But it suited the police to encourage the myth that Lucan was protected by his friends – the ‘Clermont’ set – as it covered any inadequacies in the investigation.
Without wishing to risk spoilers, the books refers to witnesses that may be new to many readers. As more of the extended Lucan circle and their families and associates begin to die, do you imagine any as yet unrevealed evidence might come to light that could satisfactorily close the case?
I was told a great deal during the research for my book. The lawyer made me take out quite a lot that I tried to re-introduce via hints and careful phrasing. One day it will be possible to make plain what is at present oblique. I’m not sure a case such as this one is ever ‘closed’, however; I don’t think people really want it to be.
In summing up the Lucan mystery you set out a case for reasonable doubt which arguably hasn’t been made enough in the four decades since the murder of Sandra Rivett. On a personal gut level though, after all your research, what’s your feeling: Richard John Bingham – guilty or not guilty?
I think you have to read the book for the answer to that one… what I write at the end is absolutely what I believe.
About Laura Thompson
Laura Thompson attended stage school and at sixteen won an exhibition to read English at Oxford. Her first book, THE DOGS: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF GREYHOUND RACING, won the Somerset Maugham Award. She also wrote Newmarket, a history of the town and its racing.
LIFE IN A COLD CLIMATE, a biographical study of Nancy Mitford, was published in 2003. It was described as ‘well-nigh perfect’ by Lady Diana Mosley in the Literary Review. In the Sunday Telegraph, Selina Hastings wrote that it was ‘a brilliant study, original, perceptive, passionate and very nearly as enjoyable to read as the subject’s own novels’.
In 2007 Headline published AN ENGLISH MYSTERY: A LIFE OF AGATHA CHRISTIE, a major biography written with full access granted by Christie’s family. Reviews included:
• ‘A triumphant success’: A. N. Wilson, Daily Mail
• ‘This splendid account of [Christie’s] life and work is unlikely to be bettered’: Melanie McDonagh, Evening Standard
• ‘Laura Thompson has certainly written the last word on Agatha Christie. Her book is a superb piece of biography’: Charles Osborne, Literary Review
• ‘The best biographies are labours of love and this fascinating book is just that’: Jessica Mann, Sunday Telegraph
• ‘Laura Thompson’s outstanding biography… is a pretty much perfect capturing of a life’: Kate Mosse, who nominated AN ENGLISH MYSTERY as her book of the year in The Guardian, The Independent and Independent on Sunday
A radical reassessment of the Lord Lucan case, A DIFFERENT CLASS OF MURDER, containing interviews from several new sources, will be published by Head of Zeus in November 2014.
Laura Thompson presented a BBC4 film on returning to ballet as an adult, Back to the Barre, and has since appeared frequently on television and Radio 4 documentaries, most recently with David Suchet in a 2013 ITV Perspectives about Agatha Christie. She has written columns for The Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times and the Racing Post, as well as features for Esquire, Arena and Vogue, and is now a contributor to the arts pages of The Daily Telegraph.
She is currently working on a new book for Head of Zeus, THE SILENTS, centred upon an unsolved murder that took place in 1922 within the Hollywood silent film community.
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