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SPARK REMAINS MASTER OF THE GAME

Aiding and Abetting

By Muriel Spark

Doubleday

166 pages, $21

Muriel Spark, well into her 80s and perhaps the best of living English novelists, shows no sign of slowing down. This new novel, "Aiding and Abetting," is an imaginative ramble about what might have become of the British Earl, Lord Lucan, who disappeared in 1973. You may remember it was he who never stood trial for the bashing of his wife and killing of their nanny. Lucan vanished into thin air after the murder, thwarting police and prompting Lucan sightings' over the next 25 years. He was officially declared dead in 1999.

Authorities consider that he was helped by his upper-class friends -- thus the "aiding and abetting" -- to maintain himself. At the time, it wouldn't do for a lord to go to jail. Now, nobody cares. A fair number have been put away.

There's a whiff of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh in this wonderfully pared-down novella. I think it's as good as "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" that she wrote in the early 1960s.

Spark inserts into her fable of the Lucan story the make-believe character of Dr. Hildegard Wolf, a self-made unlicensed psychiatrist, alias Beate Pappenheim, who earlier faked being a Bavarian stigmatic. As a religious phenomenon, she embezzled millions of marks from believers in her miracles. Actually, she smeared menstrual blood about her body and had a cosmetics make-up artist paint the stigmata on her hands, feet and side each month, for the gullible to inspect. Two patients claiming to be Lord Lucan show up, seeking Wolf's medical care. Wolf figures that the two men must be in league as accomplices, to gain some advantage of her. And she's right. Each knows about her earlier unusual occupation in Bavaria and try to engage her in a blackmail by threatening to divulge her secret. What doppelganger duplicity this is!

More and more people get into the plot: a thirty-ish daughter of Lucan's acquaintance, and an old school chum, rum into his 60s, who have an April-October love affair while following their quarry, Lord Lucan. They don't want to turn him in to the police. They just want to interview him for a book. Thus runs the modern morality tale. There is an asymmetry to evil; its corners are not rounded. The plot, like life, is that "anything is possible," as one of Spark's characters says.

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