A literary mystery; memorable characters who are all too human live and breathe in a vividly painted landscape, set mainly in Britain during the Seventies, a time when the old school tie network still prevailed. The scene is set as biographer Nigel Lush's latest (and only official) commission nears publication. His subject, Sir Maurice Brearley, served in the trenches of World War One, was instrumental in arming Britain for World War Two, and in retirement, was the founder of "Magnificent Britain", an annual "Best in Britain" garden competition. So far, so average. However, Nigel's last minute meeting with a dying man reveals a serpent in Sir Maurice's past.
This novel works on three levels. Readers are transported to the grandeur of country estates reminiscent of Brideshead Revisited. The author's descriptions vividly portrays the splendour of these great houses and gardens. Likewise, the scenes painted of London during the Seventies are wonderfully atmospheric and reminds us of an era when society sought to break free of the staid restrictions of class, social and sexual hypocrisy. Sir Maurice Brearley, recently deceased, together with his much younger (trophy) wife appear to epitomise the old guard. But then Nigel learns of a dreadful crime committed during the First World War, a crime which Sir Maurice helped cover up in order to save his own reputation.
Having clawed his way up from a terrace house in Lewisham, to an apartment in one of London's grandest squares, on the back of so called "Pop-Biographies", Nigel has fame and fortune. However, he is convinced that exposing the true nature of Sir Maurice's sinful past will bring the literary respect he craves; Nigel gets to work as an historical detective, so providing readers with a second theme of mystery.
Paradoxically though, apart from a few close friends, Nigel keeps his own emotions and desires a tightly guarded secret.
For me, this is where "Magnificent Britain" transcends the historical and mystery genres. It holds up a mirror to human frailties. Despite his faults, Nigel becomes very real, with fears of failure and ridicule, combined with ambitions to be accepted as a "serious" writer, and to find personal happiness: These sentiments are universal. The friendship between Nigel's housekeeper and the support he provides for her daughter is touching and poignant. But now moderate success as an hagiographer and a family man is thrown into jeopardy as Nigel uncovers the truth about "Magnificent Britain". He is faced with a stark choice: maintain the status quo or attempt to expose Maurice? By keeping quiet about the dreadful truth, Nigel will become an unwilling accomplice to Maurice's "crimes" and condemned to live with his own lies.
Finally, we hear from Sir Maurice himself, in the form of a diary. In addition to reliving the horror and outrage of WW1, Sir Maurice lays bare his own soul, and there is one final surprise; a completely legitimate twist that I dare any reader to predict. This third timeline added yet another dimension to the novel and marks Michael Murray as a gifted author; one who enables readers to suspend time and enter a different world, and really care about fictional characters who are so true to life, they actually exist.
"Magnificent Britain" is an exceptional novel, one I intend to re-read, and would highly recommend to friends and fellow readers.