Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers is in a lot of trouble with Superintendent Ardery since she nearly went off the rails in the previous Detective Lynley novel. So, Ardery is having Inspector Lynley keep her on a short leash. But Lynley thinks the leash is too short, because Barbara is tamping down everything, including her contributions to investigations. Finally, she is contacted about a case that Lynley thinks she can take charge of herself.
But the novel begins three years earlier. William Goldacre has been trying to reconcile with his girlfriend, Lily Foster. William has a condition that causes him to utter nonsense words and profanity when under stress. But Lily’s problem with him is the relationship he has with his family. William and Lily go on a camping trip, but Will commits suicide when he finds Lily reading his journal, and Lily is horrified about what she reads there.
In the present, Barbara encounters Caroline Goldacre, William’s mother, when she attends a talk by feminist Clare Abbott. Clare gives Barbara her card because she is interested in Barbara’s t-shirt, but Caroline, who is Clare’s assistant, takes it upon herself to ask for the card back. Rory Stratham, Clare’s agent and good friend, gives Barbara another card.
A few days later, Rory contacts Barbara to tell her that Clare was found dead in her hotel room. Although the death is considered natural, Rory finds it high suspicious. She also suspects someone, Caroline Goldacre, whose relationship with her employer seemed unusual at best.
When Barbara performs an initial investigation, she finds hotel staff who overheard Caroline and Clare arguing. An autopsy reveals that Clare was poisoned. Before Barbara can tell Rory, Rory herself has been poisoned, although she is not dead. Lynley dispatches Barbara and Sergeant Winston Nkata to Shaftsbury to investigate. Ardery’s orders are for Winston not to let Barbara out of his sight.
The evidence seems to point to Caroline Goldacre until the detectives find out that Clare borrowed Caroline’s toothpaste and that was the source of the poison for both women. But was someone trying to murder Caroline, or is Caroline simply a clever murderer who made it look that way? Caroline herself is manipulative and nasty to just about everyone.
I have been distressed by how melodramatic George’s series has been the past few books, basically since the death of Lynley’s wife. Although the Detective Lynley series is one of the few that has recurring characters who are as interesting as the mysteries, the last few years they have been behaving atypically. This book is the first in a while that seems back on track. The personal plots involve Lynley’s relationship with his current girlfriend and an amusing plan of Dorothea Harriman’s to spiff Barbara up and find her a boyfriend. I very much enjoyed this novel and feel that it is returning to the strong series it was when I first discovered it.