Sue Trinder, a young denizen of back-alley 1860's London, considers herself most fortunate. Raised by the amoral Mrs. Sucksby, a "baby farmer" who oversees a dilapidated house of "fingersmiths" (pickpockets) and assorted petty criminals, Sue has been trained in the art of graft, illegal but lucrative. After all, hasn't Mrs. Sucksby raised Sue as her own daughter?
A dapper con-artist curiously named "Gentleman" appears in the damp and moldy kitchen of the dilapidated house on Lant Street. As a familiar acquaintance of Mrs. Sucksby, the dashing Gentleman requests Sue's assistance in a swindle with great potential, and how can she refuse? Mrs. Sucksby intuits an opportunity for Sue to make her fortune (half of which will go to the greedy Mrs. S.); seventeen-year-old Sue agrees with a heavy heart, reluctant to leave the only security she's known in her young life, but willing to take instruction.
After rigorous practice as a "lady's maid", Sue leaves London with Gentleman, bound for the quiet English countryside, well rehearsed for her entry into polite society. Her assignment: to please the heiress Miss Maud Lilly, Gentleman's "mark", and gain Miss Lilly's confidence. Never could Sue imagine that her heart would interfere with the carefully laid plans to fleece the vulnerable and lonely Maud.
As with Water's previous novel, Affinity, unexpected events occur, the plot as intricate as a spider web, skillful and innovative as any this author has written. On the surface, everything appears straightforward and innocent, yet nothing is as it seems. With a firm grip on a variety of dastardly characters and her trademark writing agility, Waters seduces her readers into unimaginable situations and through frightful experiences and harrowing ordeals, only to surface inside-out at the turn of a page. The first shock is delivered at the beginning of the second half of the novel, but from then on -- beware. Peopled with villainous "gentlemen", cruel servants and warped intentions, this is a dangerous world, and should be navigated with utmost caution. Be prepared to scream bloody murder at every turn. And only the exquisite cleverness of Sarah Waters can deliver the reader to safety.