In an effort to rejuvenate his flagging career, crime novelist Ethelred Tressider decides to set his new book in Egypt and embarks on a 'research trip' with his literary agent, Elsie Thirkettle, in tow. No sooner has their cruise on the Nile begun, however, than an attempt is made on Ethelred's life. When the boat's engine explodes and a passenger is found bloodily murdered, suspicion falls on everyone aboard.
When obscure crime writer Ethelred Tressider vanishes, his dogged literary agent, Elsie Thirkettle, is soon on his trail. Finding him (in a ramshackle hotel in the French Loire) proves surprisingly easy. Bringing him home proves more difficult than expected - but (as Elsie observes) who would have predicted that, in a hotel full of stamp collectors, the guests would suddenly start murdering each other? One guest is found fatally stabbed, apparently the victim of an intruder.
Crime writer and reluctant sleuth Ethelred Tressider is handed his strangest case yet. Crime reviewer Henry Holiday is an unlikely murderer who’s convinced he’s killed somebody but doesn’t know who or when. Worryingly, Crispin Vynall, another crime writer who Henry had been drinking with, has vanished. After agreeing to help, Ethelred received a death threat. His impervious agent Elsie Thirkettle encourages Ethelred to continue since it is well worth risking death in exchange for a few good reviews.
The theatres are padlocked. Christmas has been cancelled. It is 1657, and the unloved English Republic is eight years old. Though Cromwell's joyless grip on power appears immovable, many still look to Charles Stuart's dissolute and threadbare court-in-exile, and some are prepared to risk their lives plotting a restoration. For the officers of the Republic, constant vigilance is needed. So, when the bloody corpse of a Royalist spy is discovered in a small Essex village, why is the local magistrate so reluctant to investigate?
It is December 1657. John Grey, at his cramped desk in Lincoln's Inn, is attempting to resume his legal career. A mysterious message from a "Mr SK" tempts him out into the snowy streets of London and to what he believes will be a harmless diversion from his studies. Mr SK's letter proves to have been intended for somebody else entirely, and Grey finds himself unwittingly in the middle of a plot to assassinate the Lord Protector - a plot about which he now knows more than it is safe to know.