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on 10 July 2008
Headlined as an investigation into the lives of three of the UK's most notorious 60's gamblers - James Goldsmith, John Aspinall & "Lucky" Lord Lucan - and claiming to reveal, for the first time, the true story behind Lucan's even more notorious "disappearance" - one of the UK's longest running murder mysteries - "The Gamblers" is a quite riveting insight into a bizarre world of power, glamour, addiction, fabulous wealth and self destruction. Like the friend who recommended it to me I read it virtually straight through and while I left with as many questions as answers I discovered, on the way, a whole host of mind-boggling facts about the people who populated London's most exclusive gambling den, "The Clermont Club", and its now iconic sister night-club, "Annabel's".

Cleverly underpinned by sufficient clearly genuine information to make you believe it all, you are, by the last third of the book, quite prepared to fully accept Pearson's take on Lucan's fate, even though the lines between objective analysis and sensationalist interpretation have in fact become fairly blurred. But no matter because, in the end, "The Gamblers" is much more than simply another title-selling angle on the Lord Lucan saga, rather an intriguing exploration into a part of London's "swinging sixties" scene that most of us never knew existed and a fascinating study of what draws the rich & privileged into the ridiculously high-risk world of big-money gambling.
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on 28 May 2010
The noted writer John Pearson here attempts a look back at the Lord Lucan mystery. He has been able to interview a few of the leading players in the post-murder mystery and gives a general picture of the Lucan or, more often said, Clermont Set, the hard core of heavy gamblers who all but lived in the Clermont Club from the middle 1960's to the mid-1970's aftermath of the "Lucan murder" case.

Pearson goes into some detail in respect of the backgrounds and characters of three of the main players, Lucan himself, John Aspinall and James Goldsmith. The strange and detached personality of Aspinall is well drawn and confirms what a lady who knew his family told me, i.e. that he preferred animals to people and accepted that from time to time one of the keepers at his private zoo would be "eaten" (not so, but no less than five were killed by tigers and other powerful animals over the years; Aspinall himself and also Robin Birley were among the injured).
Pearson proposes his own theory about what happened to Lucan after he murdered, as is generally supposed, his children's nanny, Sandra Rivett (he is supposed not to have intended to murder Sandra Rivett, but Lady Lucan, his wife...that counts as murderous intention in English law, under the "doctrine of transferred malice").

According to Pearson's theory, a mysterious unnamed "Mr X" (said to be still alive at time of publication), a financial wheeler-dealer and criminal, may have arranged for a leading gangster (the name of Freddie Foreman, the so-called "Managing Director of British Crime", is mentioned) to let Lucan escape via fishing boat or yacht from Newhaven, Sussex. When Lucan became "too hot", he was killed and the body disposed of, in, of all places, tidy little Switzerland.

In the end, I found the book interesting (and a good read) rather than convincing. I liked the general background about the main people involved and their rather affected though arguably sincere old-fashioned British attitudes (reactionary, snobbish etc) though Pearson does make the point that in fact Goldsmith was in attitude as well as ethnicity part-French, part-Jew, while Aspinall, notionally the son of a half-Maltese doctor, was in fact illegitimate, his step-father inheriting a baronetcy in late middle-age and so making his mother Lady Osborne, a fact of which Aspinall seems to have been volubly proud.

Pearson makes the point that while the Clermont Set may have imagined that they were on some kind of pinnacle of "Society" in the 1960's, that was really not so even then; by the time the oil well Arabs came in the in mid-1970's and then fabulously wealthy businessmen from the formerly Communist lands of China and the Russian Federation, the Clermont Set were really only small-time from the money point of view. Like a lot of the English often semi-fake "aristocracy" and "country gentry", these are ice-floes melting in the ever-warmer sun, their standards and ideas ever less of importance, relevance, or even interest as they sit out their now very elderly lives in Sussex and Gloucestershire etc.

Enjoyable.
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on 23 December 2013
A thoroughly enjoyable book that provides an interesting insight into the lives of one privileged group in mid 20th. century London.
Surprising how some public schoolboys cling to their friends from school. They seem reluctant to move on and for this lot it certainly seems to have resulted in retarded social development. They had a lot of money but didn't know what to do with it so they just played games. After all, much of it was inherited wealth so it wasn't as though they had to work for it. All in all a thoroughly unpleasant crowd with Aspinall coming across as being clearly unbalanced and Lucan as a thuggish self centered bully, the rest behaved like young schoolboys in thrall of a prefect (Aspinall)
Anyone interested in social history will enjoy this book, it captures the mood of the time amongst the upper classes.
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on 5 September 2005
Headlined as an investigation into the lives of three of the UK's most notorious 60's gamblers - James Goldsmith, John Aspinall & "Lucky" Lord Lucan - and claiming to reveal, for the first time, the true story behind Lucan's even more notorious "disappearance" - one of the UK's longest running murder mysteries - "The Gamblers" is a quite riveting insight into a bizarre world of power, glamour, addiction, fabulous wealth and self destruction. Like the friend who recommended it to me I read it virtually straight through and while I left with as many questions as answers I discovered, on the way, a whole host of mind-boggling facts about the people who populated London's most exclusive gambling den, "The Clermont Club", and its now iconic sister night-club, "Annabel's".
Cleverly underpinned by sufficient clearly genuine information to make you believe it all, you are, by the last third of the book, quite prepared to fully accept Pearson's take on Lucan's fate, even though the lines between objective analysis and sensationalist interpretation have in fact become fairly blurred. But no matter because, in the end, "The Gamblers" is much more than simply another title-selling angle on the Lord Lucan saga, rather an intriguing exploration into a part of London's "swinging sixties" scene that most of us never knew existed and a fascinating study of what draws the rich & privileged into the ridiculously high-risk world of big-money gambling.
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on 23 August 2014
The author of The Gamblers, John Pearson, earlier this year appeared as himself in ITV's Lucan, a biopic of the eponymous Lord Lucan - a two part film which used this book as its source. Although excellent, the focus in Lucan aimed more-or-less squarely at the now infamous murder of Sandra Rivett, the attack on Lady Veronica Lucan and the sudden and seemingly inexplicable disappearance of Lord Lucan himself. In contrast, the violent events on November 8th 1974 don't begin to explicitly reveal themselves in The Gamblers until halfway through the book. Instead, one is unwittingly introduced to the other players - an apt word perhaps, both figuratively and literally, who eventually coalesce into a somewhat sinister coven, gathered protectively around the fuming and raged Lucan. The other 'players' in question were the small coterie of frankly ghastly aristocratic men and women at the epicentre of the Clermont Club, a members-only casino in Berkeley Square, Mayfair.

John Pearson has an unusually emotionally insightful writing style, and rather than doling out potted mini-biographies of the Clermont Set, he adroitly knits their friendships and relationships together, so that insight into these characters is gained by the way each interacts with the other. The centrifugal figure in The Gamblers is not Lord Lucan, but rather John Aspinall; the owner of the Clermont, sometime zoo-owner and a man with a very unhealthy interest in eugenics. Whilst doubtlessly charismatic, Aspinall had the shallow, intense and glib charm in the manner of a true Ian Fleming James Bond. Watching sphinx-like in the background, he stood by impassively as his Swiss bank account exploded with funds drained from squandered inheritances and debts settled by selling off country estates as the Clermont Set played the crack-cocaine of card games, Chemin de fer. He liked to brag that his member's list included five dukes, five marquesses and twenty earls. Yet he remained a popular man to those who wasted unmeasurable sums. The Clermont Club itself a remarkably beautiful Palladian townhouse and Aspinall spared no expense in its renovation, making it feel more like a miniature Edwardian palace, which would have made the higher echelons of the peerage feel at home. The alcohol flowed free, and as with the food, was of superb provenance. More importantly, the converging of so many old Etonians in a beautiful space, with the high speed thrill of Chemmy and fabulously rich, titled people and Aspinall played the briskly amiable host to perfection. Yet even his inner circle didn't know he rigged the cards every night.

Aspinall's soulmate shared as many differences as they did similarities. Their characters were alike in their ruthlessness, lust for life, risk taking and arrogance. His soulmate was the Anglo-French Sir James (Jimmy) Goldsmith, the father of MP Zac Goldsmith and Jemima Goldsmith. One gets the sense by interpreting Goldsmith's character from The Gamblers that whatever small goodness this man may have possessed, by the time he reached thirty it had completely deserted him. His relations with others reveal him to be quite insanely vengeful - due to his actions he drove one of the other 'players' in the Clermont Set to suicide. A philanderer and misogynist. A deeply spoiled, brattish man who used his money to wreak revenge rather than do any good or leave any kind of worthwhile legacy.

He differed from the Clermont Club owner in that at least John Aspinall was capable of something approaching devotion - not only to his third wife - they were happily married until his death, but to animals. Aspinall first bought a monkey, which was swiftly followed by two bears which lived in his house until they became too unruly. Eventually when the cut from the Chemin de fer games played for absurd stakes night after night had swollen the coffers, he bought Howletts - fulfilling his ambition to live a truly epicurean lifestyle with enough acreage to house a zoo. He had the first colony of gorillas in the UK, along with his tigers, bears, wolves and many other animals. His genuine affinity with animals was unusual - a true gift bolstered by his willingness to take risks. His determination to create real bonds particularly with his gorillas paid off. Perhaps he only demonstrated true tenderness with animals. His son said that he loved his gorillas more than he loved him.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Goldsmith eventually decided to dump his wife in France and slobber all over Annabel Birley. She enjoyed the slobbering, divorced her husband and married him. They don't talk about having kids, they talk about "breeding Jemima" like they are a pair of anthropomorphic pedigree ferrets. But Lady Annabel Goldsmith has served one purpose in life: when she was Mark Birley's wife, he opened a nightclub in the basement of the Clermont, and he named it after her. At least it wasn't a petrol station. Annabel's was the club to be seen in, if you could get beyond the door policy, the velvet rope and on to the member's list. Whilst Jimmy was busy bonking his way around Belgravia and the Bois de Boulogne, Annabel could be found in Annabel's, probably drinking a cocktail called Annabel, talking to her chum and fellow horse-lover Camilla Parker Bowles about "breeding" and chomping away on the nightclub's infamously overpriced Steak Diane. One day, Lady Annabel decided to take her children to John Aspinall's zoo. She thought it would be a fun idea to let her young son, Robin Birley, play with Aspinall's tigress. Perhaps she'd been on the cocktails. Tragically, the tiger turned on the poor young child and his head had to be prised from the tiger's mouth by Aspinall. He suffered extremely severe and permanent disfigurement to his head, leading to years of excruciating surgeries in an attempt to rebuild his face. Even the impartiality of the biographer leaves John Pearson at this junction in The Gamblers; his words seem to spiral like water down a plug-hole into six word sentences "How could she be so stupid?" Quite. If two people ever seemed made for each other - for all the wrong reasons, it is Jimmy & Annabel. Over entitled, intellectually under-endowed and comedically snobbish.

The remaining pivotal characters in the Clermont Set, apart from Lord Lucan were Ian and Susan Maxwell-Scott and finally, Dominick Elwes. Through the machinations of the odious Jimmy Goldsmith, Elwes took his own life. Elwes, a portrait painter, was a sparkling raconteur, a fabulously good looking man, faithless, but somehow, unlike Goldsmith, he was a thoughtful and sensitive man despite his rampant womanising. He became an integral facet of the club because of his wit and social sophistication, and his looks were not a hindrance either. Oddly, despite Aspinall's macho posturing and babblings about the 'Alpha Male', he was not a sexually confident man as was Elwes. Neither was Aspinall from the same social strata as Elwes. Dominick's presence in the Clermont oiled the wheels, attracted the 'right' kind of women, and he was capable of lifting the mood and discourse if it dropped. I won't say what it was that Goldsmith did, as it forms an important part of the book, but it goes without mentioning that it was typically pitiless.

Ian Maxwell-Scott was a link between both Lucan and Aspinall. He was a rabid gambler, as was his gloriously uptight wife, Susan Maxwell-Scott, a barrister. Out of the entire group, perhaps Ian Maxwell-Scott and Dominick Elwes come out unscathed; a reflection of their relatively benign personalities. Susan Maxwell-Scott is a more complex character. She herself admitted to having more than a soft spot for Lord Lucan, and her actions on the night of Sandra Rivett's murder gives one a distinct sense that she enjoyed being pulled into the drama of it - and withholding evidence from the police. A charge that, in the light of day, few would disagree. Whilst doubtlessly adroit, John Pearson paints an image of a person who gave out light but little warmth or compassion.

As the book heads towards the grand entrance of Lord Lucan into the story, there is a curious effect that these previously described characters seem far more shadowy than earlier reading. Their reasonings and motives appear to retreat into unpleasant dark corners, and he carries this off with aplomb. It isn't the case that John Pearson simply doesn't like most of them, rather it is just a fact that these high-born savages are extraordinarily unlike-able. By the time Lady Veronica Lucan and Sandra Rivett appear, one almost feels a sense of relief that finally people with the normal range of human emotion appear, even if they are accompanied by the horrid but ultimately pathetic Lord Lucan.

One immediately empathises with Veronica. It would be hard not to. She is a fiercely intelligent, warm but fragile woman, who on the surface, as a Countess living in a beautiful part of London might appear to have the lot. But as a family, and after several years of marriage and three children, Lucan has ruined them by his addiction to Chemin de fer. His moniker "Lucky" Lucan became an albatross after once winning a huge sum and then swiftly losing many times what he won. Veronica clearly loves this man, perhaps she still does. As of writing, both her and Annabel Goldsmith are still alive - the only main individuals in The Gamblers who are. Lucan notices the chink in Veronica's armour is her nervous anxiety, and he expands to the point that on one occasion he drives her to The Priory Clinic in an attempt to have her committed. She point blank refuses. She has the foresight to see that Lucan is trying to paint her as insane, and eventually she checks herself in to the clinic for evaluation and is deemed perfectly sane, resulting in her being granted the ward of court of their children rather than Lucan. The judge makes one condition, their current alcoholic nanny has to go, and must be replaced. Sandra Rivett, is taken on the old nanny's stead, a deadly turn of events.

To describe the rest of the book would be to give too much away - and the tale becomes a cross between a thriller, a murder mystery and a psychodrama. But who must be described is Sandra Rivett. In the entire media frenzy that followed her death she was completely overlooked. It made far more thrilling column inches to talk about the ennobled and titled being hunted down than contemplating the fact that an entirely innocent young woman was bludgeoned to death. She was a naturally caring woman who had worked at an old people's home and an orphanage before become nanny to the Lucan's children. Her friends described her as bright and funny. She had recently started dating a man and was happy for the first time in several years. The week prior to her death she had asked Lady Lucan if she could swap her night off to match that of her boyfriend's, as his shifts had changed. The outcome would have been very different though just as awful and violent if this change had not occurred. The chances are that it would have been Lord Lucan's intended victim - Veronica Lucan.

This book is not a murder-mystery in the traditional sense. One almost has to keep telling oneself that it is fact and not fiction. The coup de grace in the final pages is astonishing and at the same time completely plausible. You may have noticed that I have purposely minimised any description of Lucan in this review, as he is the ground glass in the bombe-surprise and to expound on him would be to give away too much. However, like the rest of the 'cast', Lucan is vividly put over and this incredible story has been beautifully constructed by Pearson. It is a story of a time, that feels like it should be recent but sociologically it is from another age - a lost age, yet the events happened only forty years ago. It is one the best non-fiction books I've read for some months. As an aside, the ITV film Lucan is well worth watching as it sticks remarkably close to the book, but I would implore people to read the book first.
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on 12 May 2014
An interesting book, especially after it was televised in late 2013 (with Rory Kinnear as the Murderer Lucan) which dwells on the aesthetic, privileged life of the Clermont Set, those folks that most of us commoners will only ever read about in 'Who's Who'. The twist regarding the disappearance of Lucan, the theory here being that he became a liability to his rich chums and was promptly murdered (I'm sure the irony was not lost on mi 'Lord) is interesting, though as with all previous books on the Lucan murder, it remains a theory. One things for sure, he's still missing!

On a more personal note - and the book aside, it would seem as though Bingham's progeny cry his innocence from the roof-tops and castle battlements, seemingly forgetting that the innocent 29 year old Sandra Rivett was brutally murdered when Lucan mistook her for his estranged wife, Veronica, Countess of Lucan. Sure, he never went to trial, for the simple reason that he ran away with his lordly tail between his legs. Was he murdered, then? I think it's a plausible explanation, as I suspect he was just to damned cowardly to take his own wasted life.

Perhaps there is a green baize table, somewhere in a shadowy corner of Hell, where sits Lucan and the Clermont set, throwing dice for the rest of time.....
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on 28 December 2013
Details the rise and fall of some of the 20th century's prominent London gambling men, including the despicable, insular Clermont Set. Well written, with pictures of the main protagonists. The rich are certainly different - they think rules only apply to the rest of us.
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This is by no means a great work of literature but it is a good read and an interesting book. John Pearson, who has also written about the Krays, has taken a close look at The Clermont Set, a group of high stakes gamblers including Lord Lucan associated with the Clermont Club in Berkeley Square, in exciting 1960s London. The leader of the set was the eccentric John Aspinall who was perhaps better known as the man who allowed a tiger to roam free around his house and later formed a complete private zoo in which two keepers were killed and a young boy very badly injured. Later the financier Jimmy Goldsmith assumed a leading role in the group by virtue of the immense fortune he made asset stripping companies and playing the stock market. This set of West End celebrities and their associated group of rich aristocratic gambling friends dramatically came to the notice of the general public following the disappearance of Lord Lucan and the murder of his family’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, in November 1974. Pearson carefully reconstructs the events of that fateful night and speculates on the possible fate of Richard John Bingham, the 7th Earl of Lucan.
Pearson has a gift for keeping the forward momentum of the book and for supplying a constant flow of interesting titbits about the connections, family anecdotes and bizarre sexual practices of the various characters in the Clermont Set, so there is never a dull moment. This was a group of people amongst whom some achieved great success, and others succumbed to great tragedy, whilst all the time leading complicated personal lives.
An interesting, highly readable, true story of an unscrupulous group of entrepreneurs who briefly blazed in the firmament of swinging London in the 1960s and 70s.
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on 19 March 2014
I really enjoyed this glimpse of upper class life in the 70's. John Pearson has written a wonderful biography that will be of interest to anyone who remembers the Lucan scandal and the friends who allegedly aided his escape. It is certainly not just about Lucan though, rather the larger than life individuals who inhabited the famous gambling clubs operated by John Aspinal. So many interesting characters beautifully portrayed. This book is a little gem.
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on 7 July 2015
John Pearson, best known for his account of the Kray brothers, 'The Profession of Violence', has written an equally engrossing account of another sercretive private business: the Clermont Club created by John Aspinall as a refuge for compulsive, mostly aristocratic, gamblers. Pearson presents the story chiefly through biographies of Aspinall and James Goldsmith, and no two more colourful or enigmatic figures could be found. By contrast John Bingham, the notorious Earl Lucan, appears tawdry, small minded and inept; perhaps even, in Aspinall's eyes, pitiable. Years of gambling in closed rooms seems to have deprived Lucan of all judgment or sense of proportion. Pearson theorises that the Clermont circle helped Lucan to escape after Sandra Rivett was murdered, but that Lucan was later himself murdered when he risked drawing attention to himself. It is an intriguing theory, but based on little more than supposition.
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