Author, Book review, Fiction, Jill Dawson, literary fiction, London

‘The Language of Birds’ by Jill Dawson

Fiction – Kindle edition; Sceptre; 272 pages; 2019.

Giving voice to the victim of a horrendous crime is the central purpose of Jill Dawson’s excellent novel The Language of Birds.

The story is based on the events of the real-life Lord Lucan murder mystery in which British peer  (and professional gambler) Richard John Bingham disappeared on 8 November 1974, never to be seen again. He was suspected of murdering the nanny of his children and severely injuring his estranged wife in their Belgravia home.

Dawson’s fictionalised account reveals what happens from the murdered nanny’s perspective. It’s an effective — and compelling — literary device, putting a human face on a woman long forgotten by a culture obsessed with what actually happened to Lord Lucan, who was declared officially dead in 2016.

But this is NOT a crime novel.

A new life in London

In The Language of Birds, the nanny is given a different name — Amanda ‘Mandy’ River — but her impoverished background, including having two secret children out of wedlock in rural Norfolk, remain pretty much the same. She’s a vivacious, warm, friendly and attractive 26-year-old keen to escape the claustrophobic control of her mother, who has raised Mandy’s son, Peter, as her own.

She moves to London, encouraged by her friend Rosemary who is working there as a trained nanny, and within 24 hours is in the employ of Lady Katharine Morven, looking after infant Pamela and 10-year-old James. But the household is in disarray. Lady Morven spends most of her time in bed, Pammie never stops crying and James is watchful and sickly looking.

There’s a bitter custody battle being played out, and Lord Dickie Morven, who no longer lives with the family, is having the property and his estranged wife’s movements being watched by a series of private detectives.

Both Morvens befriend Mandy, who isn’t quite sure whose side she should take. Lady Morven claims her husband is violent; Lord Morven says his wife is unstable and an unfit mother.

Two narrative threads

The story follows Mandy’s new life in London — she falls in love with a black man she meets in the local pub, hangs out with Rosemary, gets to know the debonair Dickie — and contrasts this with her previous troubled life, which included a stint in a psychiatric hospital. This, it turns out, is where she met Rosemary, who was also a patient because she could hear voices and believed she could see the future and commune with birds (hence the title of the book).

It is structured around two narrative threads: Mandy’s story told in the third person and Rosemary’s told in the first person. This means that when Mandy meets her unfortunate end, Rosemary can take up the baton, leading us through the inquest that follows and ensuring Mandy’s life is not forgotten in the (media) obsession surrounding the missing earl.

I really loved this novel. Mandy is wonderfully realised. She’s a brilliant creation, a woman who wants to control her own destiny (and sexuality) despite society putting rules and barriers in the way. And both Morvens, posh, aristocratic and deeply troubled, are also well drawn — and from what I know of the real Lord Lucan mystery rooted in reality.

Perhaps what makes The Language of Birds really work is the tension and pacing. It reads like a thriller but has all the nuance of a domestic novel about flawed people making poor decisions that have long-lasting and unforeseen repercussions.

The ending is especially powerful. It achieves Dawson’s aim because it presents a fresh perspective on a terrible crime: it gives the nanny her rightful place in history, not as a murder statistic but as a young woman, full of dreams and a zest for life, who had her time on earth cut so cruelly short. This was my first Jill Dawson novel; it won’t be my last.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Aiding and Abetting’ by Murial Spark: Suspenseful black comedy in which a Paris-based psychiatrist takes on two new patients, both of whom claim to be Lord Lucan. But which one is the real one?

‘The Butterfly Man’ by Heather Rose: Lord Lucan reinvents himself as a Scotsman now living a quiet life in rural Tasmania. But when he is diagnosed with a brain tumour his illness makes it increasingly difficult to keep his murderous past a secret.

‘The Dead Eight’ by Carlo Gébler: This brilliantly compelling novel is told from the perspective of a prostitute, long forgotten by history, who was murdered in rural Ireland in 1940. It is based on the true story of Harry Gleeson who was framed for the woman’s murder and hanged at Mountjoy prison for the crime.

Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, London, Muriel Spark, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Aiding and Abetting’ by Muriel Spark


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 212 pages; 2000. 

Truth is often stranger than fiction, and no more so than in the case of Lord Lucan, an English aristocrat, who has been missing since the night of November 7, 1974. On this night the nanny looking after Lucan’s three children was brutally murdered and his wife suffered severe head wounds in the attack. Lucan, who had a gambling problem and had racked up considerable debts, was suspected of the crime. Wanted on charges of murder and attempted murder, he was never brought to court, and despite being declared officially dead in 1999, numerous “sightings” of him still occur around the world.

The late Muriel Spark, one of Britain’s most acclaimed and prolific writers, takes this real life story, one that has fascinated generations of Brits, and turns it on its head. She has Lucan still alive, on the run from the law but supported by a closeted network of aristocratic friends. When he presents himself for treatment at the consulting rooms of a Paris-based psychiatrist, Dr Hildegard Wolf is immediately intrigued — and not just because of Lucan’s mysterious past. It turns out she is already treating another man, who also claims to be Lord Lucan. And so she must try to unravel which Lucan — if any — is the real seventh Earl, and then she must determine what threat each poses to her new life, far from the one in which she was a fake stigmatic defrauding people of money for her own gain.

What follows is a fun, high-tension, hilarious romp that spans Paris, London and the Highlands of Scotland as Lucan and Dr Wolf both go on the run. Without wishing to give too much of the remaining plot away, I can safely say the ending is a satisfyingly wicked one.

Aiding and Abetting is, quite simply, a delight from start to finish. Its pared down, elegant prose and fast-moving storyline makes it a deliciously quick read. But because it strays into areas of morality and crime there’s enough substance to give real food for thought. It might appear to be a rather simple novel but don’t let that trick you into thinking it doesn’t deal with rather complex issues…

If you like this book, you might also like The Butterfly Man by Heather Rose, which has Lord Lucan reinvent himself as a Scottish expat living in Tasmania.

You can find out more about the real life Lord Lucan story on the Channel 4 website.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Heather Rose, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘The Butterfly Man’ by Heather Rose


Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 315 pages; 2006.

Some of the best novels take a real life story and turn it into entertaining fiction. Jake Arnott’s The Firm particularly springs to mind.

In The Butterfly Man, Heather Rose takes the real life case of Lord Lucan, who disappeared on the night of November 7, 1974 following the brutal murder of the nanny looking after his three children, and poses the question, what if?

She has Lord Lucan reinvent himself as Henry Kennedy, a Scottish man, who emigrates to Australia. Here, he lives a quiet life in a house he built himself on a forest-covered mountain in Hobart, Tasmania. Together with his lover, Lili, a TV presenter, who has secrets of her own to keep, he is far from the gambling upper-class Englishman he once was.

But when Henry is diagnosed with a brain tumour, his illness has an uncanny way of making him say things he does not mean to say. And so he must do all he can to prevent himself from inadvertently confessing the sins of the past as his illness takes a hold.

Rose paints a very convincing portrait of a deeply troubled man not fully able to escape his past.

Her carefully constructed narrative reveals how Lord Lucan transforms himself into a new man, first by having his face “repaired” by a dodgy surgeon, and then slowly but surely losing his posh accent and upper-class manners in the wilds of Africa.

She undercuts this with glimpses of Lord Lucan’s previous life in Belgravia, London, as a man heavily in debt and unable to deal with his increasingly demanding wife, Veronica.

And this is further intertwined with Henry’s new existence in Tasmania, the peace of which is not only shattered by his terminal illness but the appearance of Lili’s estranged and drug-troubled daughter, Suki, and young bubbly grandchild, Charlie.

This is a highly original work of fiction about deception and the ties that bind us to the past. At first, it took me awhile to get used to Rose’s staccato style of writing, but I soon learned to enjoy her short, snappy sentences. This stripped back prose allows the story to shine through without the clutter of unnecessary language.

The dialogue is particularly good, and her cast of characters, including Henry’s neighbour Jimmy and his business partner Stan, are convincing and give added weight to the narrative.

Unfortunately, the book does not seem to be available outside of Australia, which is a great shame given it is such a fascinating story that would appeal to anyone intrigued by Lord Lucan’s disappearance.

[You can find out more about the real story of Lord Lucan’s disappearance at Lord]