Secretive young artist Nick Bassington-Hope is found lying on the floor of the Svenson
Gallery in London with his neck broken. He was working late the night before the opening of his first major exhibition in years, and it appears
that he fell from scaffolding set up in the gallery to allow him to construct his main piece.
The police label it a terrible mishap, and a verdict of accidental death is recorded. Georgina Bassington-Hope, however, is convinced that her beloved brother has met with foul play. There is little to be gained from badgering the police, particularly Detective Inspector Stratton of Scotland Yard, who believes that Nick was a victim of his own ineptitude and that Georgina, in her neurosis, is just being a nuisance.
In desperation, Georgina enlists the help of chief investigative agent and psychologist Maisie Dobbs, sure that only Ms. Dobbs can be her "messenger," perhaps leading her across the threshold from her doubt-ridden wilderness and through the door of truth.
Maisie eagerly takes on the case; indeed, solving Nick's murder becomes a personal challenge, if nothing else,to prove she is just as adept at solving a criminal investigation as Stratton. Nick's paintings were controversial at best and were considered much more than a record; they were "a mirror and a reflection of the very soul of war and of death."
Maisie notices that on one or two pieces Nick had depicted the faces of people he knew in scenes they couldn't possibly have posed in. Together with her
Cockney assistant Billy Beale, Maisie begins to unravel the mystery, untying clues that stretch from Dungeness in Kent to the murky underbelly of Londonís art world and the shadowy edges of international war profiteering.
Everyone has assumed that Nick's final piece, the grand illumination, was in the form of a triptych, but the painting has mysteriously gone missing. Was Nick's final work really a triptych, or had the secretive artist something else up his sleeve?
For answers, Maisie turns to Nick's family, the eccentric Bassington-Hopes, whom she finds intoxicating,.
While staying with them, she learns much about how Nick felt the need "to do his bit" for King and country. The easy intimacy of their stories and the sharing of their family events warm her, yet Maisie is in danger of becoming blindsided - there is something about the Bassington-Hopes that is not to be trusted.
Richly atmospheric, this novel beautifully recreates the heady days of 1930s England, portraying a country still largely suffering from the ravages of the Great War, haunted by its legacy and reeling under the bitter stain of unemployment and the gnawing hunger of want.
As the great art wheelers and dealers gather to make great fortunes fresh off the backs of the poverty-stricken old world aristocracy. Maisie becomes terribly mindful of the web of connection that exists among this rarefied community of people, those who have money and power, where the artist often wields uncommon influence and where "people will do almost anything for something they really want."
The indefatigable Maisie rises above the fray, withstanding the ill intentions of others and at the last moment
recognizing the blind spot where feelings of doubt and lack of trust have been seeded.
It's a deceptive and illusory performance that goes on despite the shadow of Nick's Bassington-Hope's premature, terribly tragic death.