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Terrifying sagacity from Muriel Spark

"Aiding and Abetting," by Muriel Spark. Doubleday. 166 pages. $21.

Dr. Hildegard Wolf, therapist and protagonist of Muriel Spark's latest novel, "Aiding and Abetting," has an appalling, hilarious clinical method that has made her among the most successful practitioners in Paris: rather than addressing the problems of her analysands, she talks about herself.

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Surely this renown is why she finds herself being visited by not one, but two patients claiming to be Lord Lucan, the real-life minor English nobleman who, in 1974, very ignobly and mortally bludgeoned his children's nanny and left his estranged wife for dead. Lucan's apprehension was foiled by his upper class cohorts who circled the wagons in a conspiracy of obfuscation, protecting one of their own.

Spark's book is a speculative fiction, a book with a river of blood of all sorts running through it (the dramatis personae includes a fake Bavarian stigmatic, apparently also based in fact). The real Lucan was never found and declared officially dead in absentia in 1999.

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In "Aiding and Abetting" we catch up with the two Lucans and learn what life has been like as a fugitive, although the novel is somewhat vague as to whether they are seeking succor, absolution or simply an alibi on Dr. Wolf's couch. Indeed, "Aiding and Abetting" is consciously murky about what lurks in the hearts of men and women. In less assured hands than Spark's, a book with this premise might be just one more deconstruction of the banality of evil. Spark has staked her claim in far more treacherous and unchartable territory: What is really behind doing someone a good turn? Is there anything more selfish, Spark asks the reader, than altruism?

"Aiding and Abetting" doesn't seem to see much difference between the unpleasant and actionable words of its title and those more palatable terms like loyalty, empathy and friendship. Paradoxically, this results in a book with a more hopeful world view than it appears to have.

While quietly savage in its indictment of the upper classes, equally jaundiced in its view of Wolf, her lover and her band of narcissistic patients, and certainly not countenancing the grisly murder by any means, the book is ultimately informed by a strangely benevolent and hard-won knowledge that good and bad don't lie terribly far apart.

Either we are huing to outmoded social codes or countenancing the ultimate horrors of human behavior, all of it in the name of blood; its holy bond, its supposedly justifiable spilling. Claiming moral authority as a motive cuts no ice here. In Spark's world, blood is blood. As Hildegard points out: "It is not purifying ... it is sticky."

According to the biographical note, the octogenarian Muriel Spark has taken leave of the damp, gray British Isles and now makes her home in sunny, sybaritic Tuscany. It makes perfect sense, really. "Aiding and Abetting" is a dryly amusing, gently rollicking read.

Underneath everything in the book -- with its casual, almost indolent narrative and decidedly elastic morality -- lurks the terrifying sagacity and crocodile smile of a master who can toss off a casually brilliant bit of colored glass like this simply because she still can.

David Rakoff is a writer living in New York City. A frequent contributor to Public Radio International's "This American Life," the New York Times Magazine and Outside, his writing has appeared in GQ, Harper's Bazaar and Salon, among others. His first book, "Fraud," a collection of essays, will be published by Doubleday in May.


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