Kingsmarkham, Sussex, is having one of the hottest days on record when nineteen-year-old Amber Marshalson
is brutally murdered with a blow to the head, her body found in a corner lane not far from her home. There are few clues to the murder as Chief Inspector in Wexford and his friend and colleague, Mike Burden, are called on to inspect the shocking crime scene.
Amber's friend Ben Miller, who dropped her off that night, was the last person to see Amber alive, but he can offer no explanation for what happened. George Marshalson, Amber's father, is quite devastated; the spoiled Amber was
the apple of his eye. She leaves behind a young son, Brand, who is being raised by Diana, her frostily aggrieved stepmother.
It doesn't take long for Wexford to figure out that the Marshalsons' lives
are defined by petty grievances and jealousies. Amber's teen pregnancy came as a terrible shock to both Diana and George. Amber hated Diana almost from the start; she preferred to party rather than take on the responsibilities of motherhood.
As the stultifying heat of summer wears on, Megan, a young acquaintance of Amber's. suddenly goes missing.
Her rotting body is later found in a derelict house. Are the two murders connected? And how could Amber and Megan, both girls from remarkably different social classes, have known each other? Amber came from a well-off
(if not rich) background, where college and a paid-for flat in London were taken for granted. Megan's single mother brought
her up in various dumps where she most likely left school at sixteen to become a shop assistant.
The destinies of Megan and Amber are forever interlocked when Wexford and Burden discover white powder and bundles of cash in Amber's bedroom. And why did the two girls go on a sudden holiday to Frankfurt?
Several months ago, a man wearing a hooded jacket was seen on Yorstone Bridge at the time of a fatal car crash
- a crash perhaps meant to kill Amber. He was also spied among the trees by the lane where Amber was killed. As various suspects loiter in the shadows, the focus eventually tightens on twin brothers, interior decorators who were working on the Marshalson house at the time of Amber's murder.
Ruth Rendell keeps the action moving even though her narrative is peppered with the usual countless subplots, false leads and red-herrings involving Wexford's newest colleague, Detective Sergeant Hannah Goldsmith, and her budding romance with Detective Constable Bal Bhattacharya. The old and new worlds clash in a subtle blend
of personalities and yearnings with many of her characters, including the police having to struggle with petty insecurities and prejudices.
In the end, the novel spirals into a complex web of events as the real identity of the killer is finally made known. Despite its long-winded plot, Rendell's prose is always taut and controlled.
Its themes of class, family and even surrogacy are compellingly relevant in today's rapidly changing world.