The Nice and the Good opens with a suicide in a London government office. The department head, Octavian Gray, asks lawyer John Ducane to investigate the situation and any potential security breaches. Ducane then becomes the axis of rotation for the rest of the extensive dramatis personae in this book. Ducane interviews other members of the department by day, and by night attempts repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — to break up with his mistress. No one is quite what they seem.
On the weekends, he is often found at Gray’s seaside home in Dorset, where he mingles primarily with women: Octavian’s wife Kate and their teenage daughter Barbie, Kate’s long-time friend Mary and her son Pierce, and recent divorcee Paula and her nine-year-old twins. Rounding out the group are Octavian’s brother Theodore and a tenant, Willy Kost. Here as well, everyone has skeletons in their closet: why did Theodore leave India? What happened to Willy during the war? How did Mary’s husband die? What are the circumstances behind Paula’s divorce? How can Kate and Ducane carry on their bizarre, not-platonic-but-not-romantic relationship right under Octavian’s nose, and with his full knowledge?
Murdoch uses Ducane to move seamlessly between London and Dorset, while exploring goodness and morality:
What Ducane was experiencing, in this form peculiar to him of imagining himself as a judge, was, though this was not entirely clear in his mind, one of the great paradoxes of morality, namely, that in order to become good it may be necessary to imagine oneself good, and yet such imagining may also be the very thing which renders improvement impossible, either because of surreptitious complacency or because of some deeper blasphemous infection which is set up when goodness it thought about in the wrong way. To become good it may be necessary to think about virtue, although unreflective simple people may achieve a thoughtless excellence. (p. 77)
Well, that’s all a bit abstract. If I had been in a more deeply philosophical mood as I read this, I might have formed some profound thoughts about morality. Instead, I just enjoyed the twisting plot and the gradual revelation of secrets. This was philosophical, too, but in a different way: Murdoch’s style inevitably involves a lot of personal reflection and talking things out. The denouement was neat and satisfying, with a bit of high drama, characters getting exactly what they deserved, and an air of hope.