The Nice and the Good (1968)

by Iris Murdoch

The Nice and the Good opens with a revolver shot. A British civil servant has killed himself in his London office. John Ducane, legal adviser to the government department headed by Octavian Gray, is put in charge of the investigation. John is more to Octavian than a coworker. He spends many weekends at Gray's Dorset home and is "somewhat in love" with Octavian's wife, Kate. And she with him, but not on the sly. Octavian and Kate consider themselves happily married, and Octavian finds it charming that his wife doesn't keep secrets from him. John knows that he and Kate won't get past kissing and love letters, yet he's trying to end a relationship with another woman because of Kate. He fears the two women will find out about one another — which they do, and, as John feared, Kate then feels differently about him, even though she has no right to.

Such is the unusual state of relationships in an Iris Murdoch novel. The Nice and the Good has a number of other
more or less conventional pairings, some unexpected. Manipulation is a common Murdoch theme, and in this book she uses it to explore the difference between being nice and being good. Octavian and Kate are oh so nice — always cheerful, gracious, welcoming people to live with them — and think themselves good, but they're really self-serving, meddling, and insensitive.

And what about that suicide investigation? Like the relationships, it has bizarre twists. These include blackmail and black magic. Central character Ducane descends into the underworld to get to the truth about the suicide. His personal dilemmas yield another truth: that niceness isn't enough, that "the best love is . . . a love of what is good."


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