Lord Lucan’s disappearance is a mystery best left unsolved

John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan (Lord Lucan) pictured working on the engine of his powerboat
John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan (Lord Lucan) pictured working on the engine of his powerboat

True crime is more popular than ever, with the anniversaries of dark deeds greeted rapturously by fans and journalists alike. So this being almost 50 years on, inevitably it was time for someone to dig up once again the story of how 39-year-old Richard John Bingham, the seventh Earl of Lucan, vanished in November 1974, allegedly after murdering Sandra Rivett, his children’s nanny, and injuring his wife Veronica.

He has since been sighted in places as far-flung as Paraguay, an Australian sheep station, a Johannesburg hospital and, my favourite, backpacking on Mount Etna. It is highly unlikely, but for all we know he is still alive. One of the more exotic tales of his demise involved him killing himself with a shotgun, and then being fed to one of his chum John Aspinall’s tigers at his private Kentish zoo.

That splendid and weird novelist Muriel Spark outdid all the frantic speculation with a novel, Aiding and Abetting, about two men claiming to be Lord Lucan who so annoyed a fraudulent psychiatrist that she had them invited to meet a chief in central Africa where one of them was eaten by cannibals.

There will be a podcast series next week called The Trial of Lord Lucan where two barristers will debate the evidence provided by a rediscovered 1975 60-page Scotland Yard dossier on the case. This seems to point to Lucan having been so deranged by a custody battle with his wife that he was telling friends he intended to kill her. The unfortunate Mrs Rivett was collateral damage. Omerta was the code of his loyal friends.

A whole new generation of conspiracy theorists will be busy reinventing the past assiduously. They shouldn’t bother.

We are all guilty of saying sometimes that truth is stranger than fiction, but it often isn’t. Lucan’s life was a disappointment. Evacuated to a millionairess’s estate in New York in 1940, he came home in 1945 grumpily to grey weather and rations. He disliked the life provided by his high-minded austere, Left-wing parents, and at Eton, during National Service, and as a young banker, he took to gambling so enthusiastically that he turned professional in his mid-20s.

His life revolved around the casino, his obsession made him terrible company, his marriage turned sour, his estranged wife neared breakdown, his children lived with their mother, and after a long losing streak so disastrous that he acquired the nickname “Lucky”, he seems to have seen murder as his only way out. Almost certainly, having killed the wrong woman, he panicked, fled and drowned himself in the Channel.

This brought back the memory of another famous disappearance around the same time, when the MP John Stonehouse – who had several ministerial jobs until Ted Heath defeated Harold Wilson in 1970 – was presumed dead in a swimming accident off the Miami coast.

He, however, did survive, and with the help of stolen passports began a new life in Australia with his beautiful mistress, only to end up in jail back home when he was caught. On release he wrote an autobiography called Death of an Idealist, had a mundane few years, and started a company manufacturing electronic safes.

Quite often, truth is duller than fiction.