The Butterfly Man | Heather Rose #AWWfiction

September 1995

I wake to find a young woman sitting beside me. She is Asian. Japanese. Chinese. I don’t know.

Book club throws up some interesting choices. The Butterfly Man by Heather Rose was such a one.

I had never heard of Lord Lucan or the mystery surrounding him. Yet when this book was nominated for our June read, several book club members got VERY excited. Turns out they were fascinated obsessed by the whole story. Original members of the group recalled (fondly?) the first book they had read about Lord Lucan together and were thrilled to jump into another one. I was left feeling rather bemused…and curious.

When I popped the book onto my 20 Books of Winter list, I was greeted with a similar response by Kim @ Reading Matters. Turns out she is also fascinated obsessed by all things Lord Lucan, having visited a number of the key sites that feature in the murder and disappearance at the heart of this rather bizarre story.

At this point, I felt it was wise to do a little research on Lord Lucan prior to starting The Butterfly Man.

If, like me, you knew absolutely nothing about Lord Lucan or the murder of Sandra Rivett, then here is a little potted history, compiled BEFORE I read the book.

  • Lord Lucan, a.k.a. as Richard John Bingham the 7th Earl of Lucan, was born in 1934.
    • He was a child evacuee during WWII.
    • Initially sent to Wales with his elder sister, Jane, then to North America in 1940 with their younger siblings, Sally and Hugh.
    • They stayed the next five years with multi-millionairess Marcia Brady Tucker, in Mount Kisco, New York.
  • Returning to a London in the grip of post-war austerity, Lucan suffered nightmares and visited a psychotherapist to help him adjust from a life of luxury to his parents more socialist, agnostic tastes.
  • Attended Eton College where he ‘developed a taste for gambling’ (wikipedia), mostly horse racing and book-making.
  • His National Service was in his fathers regiment, the Coldstream Guards, where he was second lieutenant from 1953-55, stationed in West Germany. Whilst there he learnt to play poker.
  • In 1954 he went to work for merchant bankers, William Brandt’s Sons and Co.
  • In 1960 he met Stephen Raphael, a skilled backgammon player.
    • Around this time, he stopped working saying, “Why should I work in a bank, when I can earn a year’s money in one single night at the tables?” (Ranson, Roy; Strange, Robert (1994), Looking for Lucan)
  • Lucan was an early member of John Aspinall’s Clermont gaming club.
  • In 1963 he met Veronica Duncan.
    • They married on the 20th November, the same year.
  • Two months later, Lucan’s father died, making Lucan the 7th Earl of Lucan plus a string of other titles.
  • Frances was born on 24 October 1964.
    • A nanny, Lillian Jenkins was employed shortly after.
  • George was born in 1967 and Camilla 1970.
  • Veronica suffered from post-natal depression.
  • They separated after Christmas 1972 and Veronica sacked Lillian Jenkins.
  • Lucan wanted custody of his children and took to spying on his former wife, to prove she was an unfit mother.
  • A bitter custody battle ensued.
  • Veronica employed a series of temporary nannies.
  • In late 1974 she employed Sandra Rivett as the nanny for the children.
    • Sandra was 29 years of age.
  • By this time, Lucan’s financial position was ‘dire’, he was drinking too much and telling family and friends that murdering his wife would save him from bankruptcy.
  • On the 7th November, after putting the children to bed, Sandra asked Veronica if she would like a cup of tea, and went down to the kitchen to make it.
  • She was attacked and killed in the kitchen by an assailant with a bandaged lead pipe.
  • Her body was then placed in a canvas bag.
  • Veronica, wondering what was taking so long, called out to Sandra from the top of the stairs.
  • She was then attacked on the stairs, claiming to recognise her husband’s voice.
    • They struggled.
  • He revealed he had killed Sandra.
  • Veronica suggested he could hide out at her place.
  • While he was in the bathroom, she escaped, running to the nearby Plumbers Arms for help.
  • Lucan drove to Uckfield in East Sussex to visit friends.
    • Susan Maxwell-Scott’s meeting with Lucan was his last confirmed sighting‘.
    • He wrote two letters to his brother-in-law, Bill Shand-Kydd whilst there.
  • On the 8th November, Lucan spoke with his mother on the phone but declined to talk to the police.
  • His abandoned car was found in Newhaven on the 10th.
    • A piece of lead pipe was found in the boot.
  • Lord Lucan was never seen or heard from again.
  • His son initiated proceedings to have him officially declared dead on the 3rd February 2016.
    • He would have been 81 years of age.
    • George became the 8th Earl of Lucan.
  • Since 1974, sightings of Lucan in France, India, Paraguay, Italy, Mozambique, New Zealand and Australia have been reported, but never confirmed.
  • Veronica died in 2017.
    • She was estranged from her children for most of their lives.
    • Custody of the three children had been awarded to her sister, Christina and her husband Bill, eight years after Lucan disappeared.
    • Mental illness was cited as the reason.

I am reminded of Tolstoy’s famous quote “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Lucan and Veronica, together, were an unhappy family. Nothing about any of the news articles that I read, shone either of them in a very positive or sympathetic light. They cam across as being very selfish, over-indulged and entitled. I wasn’t sure how on earth Rose was going to write a book that I would want to read about these people.

But she did.

Heather Rose’s imaginative and poignant exploration of what might have happened to Lord Lucan the night he disappeared in 1974 is compelling and convincing stuff. Starting in 1995 in Tasmania, she not only gradually revealed how and why Lucan came to be there, but by the end, she also revealed a possible and plausible alternative to the reported events surrounding Sandra Rivett’s murder. She is not claiming that an innocent man was falsely accused, but she does suggest that the story could have been more complicated and murkier than it looked from the outside.

Rose imagined that Lucan had spent his life living under a new name (Henry Kennedy), with a new face. In Tasmania, he eventually fell in love with an SBS news reporter, Lili. She was a refugee from Vietnam and had her own secrets. As Lucan/Henry’s health slowly deteriorated thanks to an inoperable brain tumour, his ability to keep his own secret was compromised, just as they were confronted by Lili’s past coming back to turn their quiet lives upside down.

The story explored lies and deceit, the fear and risk of exposure, and the burden of maintaining a double life. But it also explored love and tenderness, forgiveness and acceptance. Rose managed to create a sympathetic version of Lucan, something that I honestly did not think would possible. She allowed a selfish, thoughtless, arrogant man to grow and change thanks to the dramatic events of 1974. Rose seemed to be saying that people can indeed learn from their mistakes and that redemption is possible. Although not complete redemption.

Lucan may have been able to love more freely and openly than before, he may have cast aside his English life for a new Scottish persona, but he was still rather racist and judgemental. His thoughts about Lili were often quite jarring and I did wonder what Rose intended here.

I’m glad I compiled my list above, as several times Lucan/Henry had flashbacks to events and people from his younger life. For each one, I knew exactly what he was referring to.

A fascinating author interview with Rose back in Nov 2005, revealed that the character of Lucan/Henry came to her in an almost delusional state after being ill herself. As often happens with writers, her character ‘spoke’ to her and told her his story. At some point Rose saw a picture of the real Lord Lucan and realised it was her character. She ‘asked’ her character if he was Lucan and he said yes. Believe it or not.

On the Fleeting Nature of Life:

‘Butterflies only live for a few days,’ he said. ‘They make their cocoons and turn into butterflies and then they die.’

On Ageing:

The curse of growing older is that we must live not only with what we have become but also with what we will never be.

On Addiction:

Addiction is a beast that befriends us. It offers comfort, reassurance, excitement. We think it distracts us from the emptiness but in truth it feeds it, until the emptiness is so big that everything, and everyone, is gone.

On Dying:

Some days I hated their kindness. My deterioration was repulsive. I was nothing more than a creature they had to feed and change. A creature slowly being stripped of the veneer of acceptance I had given him.

On Grief:

‘What will I do with my heart when you are gone? What will I do with all these memories, with the days when you are not here to smile at me?…How will I live without your voice on the phone? How will I sleep in the bed alone?

Also read and reviewed by Brona’s Books is Heather Rose’s 2017 Stella Prize winning book, The Museum of Modern Love.


A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


  • Shortlisted Nita Kibble Literary Awards 2007
  • Winner Davitt Award — Best Adult Crime Novel 2006
  • Longlisted IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2006
  • Heather writes children’s books under the name, Angelica Banks.
  • For a more expansive run down of the story read the review by Kim @Reading Matters from 2006.

Favourite Quote:

These were not people I trusted with the truth. They were people I trusted with my lies.

Favourite Character:

  • Charlie who was Lucan/Henry’s five year step-grandson. Charlie became a trigger for the ailing Lucan/Henry to remember his son George. Charlie was a quirky young boy who was surrounded by invisible tall people who wore blue robes and gave him advice (usually good, positive advice). Not sure what the point of that story line was, but it was one of the many traits that made Charlie so vulnerable and endearing.

Favourite or Forget:

  • Certainly a fascinating story, and I will now never forget the Lord Lucan murder mystery!
  • I don’t feel the need to read anymore non-fiction/bio’s about him or the murder, but I would not be opposed to reading another imaginative interpretation of the events. Suggestions?

Book 1 of 20 Books of Summer Winter

P.S. It snowed today in western NSW and in the Blue Mountains.

My sister’s street in Orange, NSW.
Book: The Butterfly Man
Author: Heather Rose
ISBN: 9780702236365
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Date: 2 July 2007 (originally published 2006)
Format: paperback

25 thoughts on “The Butterfly Man | Heather Rose #AWWfiction

  1. I hadn’t heard about Lucan either, until I read about this book a few years ago. How fascinating that so many people had. I still haven’t read this book, but am glad you have.

    BTW Were you obsessed bookgroup friends pleased with Rose’s version?


      1. I drove to Berrima and back yesterday to lunch with a Sydney friend. We had coffee at a cafe, then went straight to lunch at a restaurant, and then drove home. No strolling around the shops. It was 4-5° the whole time we were there. Brrr…


  2. I came to Heather Rose through The Museum of Modern Love which I think is one of the great books of recent time. I have often wondered about what she wrote before that, but of course done nothing about it. I actually remember this one coming out now I’ve read your review, but true crime, let alone re-imagined true crime, is not for me.
    I enjoyed the format of this review, I know you’ve done it before but it seems to be ‘developing’. Very expressive.


    1. I approached the story reluctantly due to its true crime nature, but it didn’t read like a crime novel at all. It was more a character study of a man wracked with guilt, remorse and loss, trying to live a better life, and be a better man, the second time around. (I wish I had thought of that sentence before posting!! So thank you for your thoughtful comment Bill)


  3. Thanks for linking to my review. Lord Lucan is a kind of cult figure in post-war British history and is referenced a lot in the media there, so that’s how I found out about him. It continues to fascinate because it’s so open ended: no one knows what happened to him. (Also, the British are obsessed with the upper classes and their shenanigans.)

    As a nice counterbalance I recommend Jill Dawson’s The Language of Birds, which is a fictionalised account of Sandra Rivett’s life leading up to the murder. It gives voice to the victim.


    1. Thanks for the TLOB recommendation – I’ll look into.

      I’m curious to see why/how my booksclubbers got into the mystery of it all. Most of them are a decade older than me, so lived through the events as adults, which would have some impact I’m sure.

      Did you notice that Heather Rose had left a comment on your post? I love it when an author reads and comments on a review 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for such an informative and interesting review. I remember the front page of the newspapers when Lord Lucan was under suspicion for murder. One particular black and white photograph of him coming out of a front doorway made him look a bit insane (deliberately?) and I guess that stuck in my teenage mind, but I never followed up his disappearance.


    1. I was alive, but too young to take any notice of the Lucan mystery at the time. I’m not sure how much coverage it got in Australia either. Many of the news stories seemed to cast Veronica in a very poor light – poor mother, mentally unstable etc – but I believe that many of them were generated by friends of Lucan. There was very little sympathy for a woman suffering from port-natal depression in the media at the time. Of course, there may have been other issues at play as well. However, it mostly seemed like two completely incompatible people coming together. Misery ensued for all.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. True, and how the family must have suffered, made worse by press speculation. According to archives, the story ran in The Age, Melbourne, from January through to December 1974. For a time, I recall his disappearance created the saying “As scarce as Lord Lucan” referring to taxis or buses.


  6. Lord Lucan’s named sounded familiar, and when you relate the story I remember reading about him. Always in for a mystery, so will check the book out.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: 2021 in Review

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