Grand wit comes in small packages

These two little English books make an irresistible sweet-and-sour pair: The Clothes They Stood Up In is the first novel from Alan Bennett, the playwright and screenwriter ("The Madness of King George"). Aiding and Abetting is by Muriel Spark, the grande dame of social satire. Both come in at 160 pages; both involve strange crimes; and both shimmer with wit.

Cleaned out

When Mr. and Mrs. Ransome return home from the opera one night, they have nothing left but the clothes they're standing in.

" 'Robbed,' Mrs. Ransome said. 'Burgled,' Mr. Ransome corrected.... Though 'burgled' was the wrong word too. Burglars select; they pick; they remove one item and ignore others. There is a limit to what burglars can take: they seldom take easy chairs, for example, and even more seldom settees."

But these burglars did. They took everything. They took the stereo, the carpets, the curtains, the clothes, the bed, the oven (with casserole), the phone, the dishes, the clock, the magazines, the soap dish, and (discovered too late!) the toilet paper.

Sitting in stunned silence on the floor where their chairs used to be, the Ransomes have no one to call. They know no one. Years ago, they had asked some new neighbors over for drinks, but "he had turned out to be 'a big band freak' and she had been a dental receptionist with a time-share in Portugal, so one way and another it had been an awkward evening and they had never repeated the experience."

When they finally contact the police, the response is not overly encouraging. "Do you think you'll catch them?" Mr. Ransome asks.

"Well, miracles do happen," the sergeant answers.

And indeed they do, though not the miracles one might expect. While chilly Mr. Ransome falls immediately back into his daily routine (work, bath, Mozart, bath II, sleep), Mrs. Ransome is left to re-create their home from scratch. The challenge forces her to discover that much has changed over the past 30 years.

There are Asian people living in her neighborhood. The newspaper contains wildly entertaining gossip about the royal family. The new grocery store offers something called a mango. On television there's "some sort of chat show in which an overweight American couple were being questioned by a black lady in a trouser suit about how, as the black lady put it, 'they related to one another sexually.' " She buys a bean-bag chair.

"Small adventures, it's true," the wry narrator observes, "but departures nevertheless, timorous voyages of discovery which she knew her husband well enough to keep to herself."

Part of Bennett's genius is his ability to compose an atmosphere of stilted repression in which bolts of scatological humor flash with heightened comedy. (Note to the Farrelly Brothers: Are you getting this?)

Before long, Mrs. Ransome considers the robbery a sort of cleansing, a chance to clear away the debris of 32 years.

Though her husband remains as dry and narrow-minded as ever, Mrs. Ransome begins, slowly, to discover the world and its ability to delight her, even arouse her. The effect is always charming and often hilarious.

Double doppelgangers

Muriel Spark follows absurdity into darker woods where you can't always see who's smirking at whom. The unsettling wit of "Aiding and Betting" hits the funny bone as hard as it pricks the conscience.

The story opens in Paris at the office of Dr. Hildegard Wolf, a Bavarian psychiatrist who treats patients by talking at them instead of listening to them.

"Some patients, angered, did not return after the first or at least the second session," the narrator admits. "Others remonstrated, 'Don't you want to hear about my problems?' 'No, quite frankly, I don't very much.' "

Naturally, with an offensive manner like this, she's the most successful psychiatrist in Paris.

But at the moment, she has a troubling pair of patients: two men who claim to be the long-missing seventh Earl of Lucan.

True story: In 1974, the seventh Earl of Lucan beat his children's nanny to death and tried to murder his wife. Since then, he has been wanted on charges of murder and attempted murder, of which he was found guilty in absentia.

Spark has adopted this bizarre tragedy, invented Dr. Wolf, and created a farce that skewers self-absorption to the spine. (Hearing of the murder, one of Lucan's friends exclaims, "Oh dear, and good nannies are so scarce!")

Both Lucans appeal to Dr. Wolf for relief. Not only are they racked with guilt, they're running out of money. The wealthy acquaintances who initially aided and abetted Lucan are dying away.

Meanwhile, Dr. Wolf has her own secret past to protect. The Lucans threaten to expose her previous career as the fraudulent stigmatic who collected millions from gullible fans throughout Europe in the 1980s.

With a keen ear for moral ambiguity, Spark pursues this triangle of con artists through the tunnel of their own vanity. It's kiln-dried wit that never cracks a smile and dares you to laugh. As always, she's breathtakingly deft with the anxieties of well-bred people, people who know how to dress, where to eat, and how to commit the most heinous cruelty.

If satire is your cup of tea, these are two perfectly seeped books to savor.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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