Eighteenth-century London and Sussex. In the hallowed rooms of Thornleigh Hall, murder, deceit, and misery bleed though Robertson’s sensational debut novel. All is revealed in this complicated gothic mystery when mysterious recluse Gabriel Crowther and his sleuthing partner, Mrs. Harriet Westerman, join forces to unlock secrets that center around bitter family animosities long since thought buried.
A body is found lying atop a hill between Mrs. Westerman’s home, Caveley Park, and the lands belonging to those of the great estate of Thornleigh Hall.
The corpse’s waxy gray hand extends at right angles from the tumble of a dark blue cloak,
and Crowther and Harriet discover a ring emblazed with the arms of Thornleigh Hall. Harriet is positive the body is that of a stranger,
but the local villagers are sure the corpse is that of Alexander, the eldest son of Lord Thornleigh, who left the protection of his family some fifteen years ago.
As Harriet and Crowther work to solve the identity of the man, in London, Susan and Jonathan Adams become unlikely heroes of Robertson’s story when their father is brutally murdered with
a single cruel knife thrust to his stomach by a “yellow man.” Left defenseless and motherless, the children are placed under the protection of Mr. Graves, who notices there’s something unique about Susan, so
in thrall to the elegant passions of the well-to-do.
Moving between both parties, Robertson’s serpentine plot unfolds in a slippery puzzle, immersing the reader in the machinations of villains, scandalmongers, and pretentious aristocrats. Harriet feels the world shift around her when she sends a note to Hugh, the younger son of Thornleigh Hall, convinced that the body is that of his long-lost brother. Hugh, with his scarred face and dead eye, served in the Revolutionary War
but was forced to return to England almost four years ago when his father took ill.
The devil has marked Hugh under his “torn skin.” As he fields the attentions of Harriet’s delicate sister, Miss Rachel Trench, he drinks and rides the streets at night, his life ruled by his evil steward Wicksteed, who runs the Hall with a Machiavellian eye. The family patriarch Lord Thornleigh (rumored to have suffered a crippling stroke) is rarely seen and never mentioned. The shadowy odors of murder are painfully revealed, the ties binding two brothers together bonds of blood that go far beyond titles and land.
Images swim through Harriet’s tired brain: a nurse hanging in an old cottage; the foul depths of a wounded corpse; the "hissing hatred" of a letter that has found its way into her hands; and menacing Wicksteed, arm raised to whip Hugh’s lover. Crowther is determined to wrestle the lonely desperation from the last soul in hell, while Harriot - far from a shrinking violet - doesn’t flinch when invited by Gabriel to conduct an autopsy on yet another dead body.
Robertson showcases an impressive command for dialogue and gathers an inspiring lineup of eccentric characters as she frames her story around strong-willed Harriet and Crowther, both fierce defenders of liberty in their battle to discover the truth behind the sinister intrigues of Lord Thornleigh and the twisted actions of Wicksteed, a gentleman unmatched in his cunning reach for power and influence.