Early in the morning of the last day of 1842, in the middle of the small midland community of Churchfield, nominally a city because of its impressive cathedral, there is found the body of a murdered stranger, shotgun by his side, a finger clutched around the trigger in an attempt to suggest suicide. Nothing of the sort has occurred within living memory.
The enquiries of Constable Buckingham lead him to the household of Elijah Lightfoot, respected banker and pillar of the local community. It soon becomes clear that not only Lightfoot himself but most of his family and their acquaintances have guilty secrets to conceal: adultery, fraud, blackmail, even a taste for pornographic pictures. Which of them knew and had reason to fear the dead man?
Yet not every member of the Lightfoot household is corrupt. The exception is their young governess, Agnes Bell, despised by her employers, reduced to despair by the antics of their monstrous children, and grieving over the recent death of the man she loved. As a means of partial excape from her misery she sets herself the task of uncovering the truth.
Physically delicate and agonizingly shy, Miss Bell is nevertheless a more formidable young lady than she appears. As the cosy and complacent world of the Lightfoots disintegrates into a nightmarish scenario of financial ruin, social disgrace and violent death, it is Miss Bell, steadfast in her pursuit of the truth, unafraid of death, and bearing more than a passing resemblance to Anne Brontë, who finally succeeds in her perilous and near-fatal quest for the murderer.