Against Rosemund Thurley’s better judgment, she agrees when a letter appears out of the blue from wealthy socialite Edwina Martagon asking her dearest friend if she would be prepared to let her daughter, Grace, help her out. Edwina wants Grace to stay at her house in London to assist her with her voluminous correspondence, particularly the details of her extremely busy social life.
Soon finding herself in the service of the Martagons at Embury Square, Grace becomes caught in a complicated web of secrets and lies. Edwina remains devastated over the death of her husband, Eliot, "an artist manqué" who hung around the fringes of the art world promoting those more talented than himself.
There was never any satisfactory explanation as to why Eliot Martagon, a man in excellent health, his life flourishing, should have shot himself dead six months ago. Eliot left no note, but in the interests of propriety, a verdict of accidental death while cleaning his gun
was eventually given.
Just before his death, Eliot had developed a vested interest in the small, exclusive Pontifex Gallery, just off Bond street.
Here the promising young Theo Benton had been exhibiting his work. Theo, at the very height of his success and a painter with a growing reputation,
had been working on a series of paintings - "nocturnes," he called them, similar only in that they were all painted toward dusk, “each painted what to the casual eye is nothing but a shadow."
When Theo is found dead, an apparent suicide who plummeted to a premature and unnecessary death from a terrace in Adelaide Crescent, Chief Inspector Philip Lamb and his assistant, Detective Sergeant Cogan, are called to investigate. Both men are flummoxed at why either man needed to kill himself - Theo by jumping out of a window and Martagon by blowing his brains out.
Eccles’s gorgeously detailed portrait of Edwardian-era English life is the highlight of this novel, but more striking is the constant heartbeat of Belle Epoch Vienna and the heartbreaking love affairs of Isobel Amberly who anxiously watches her lost dreams pass away. It is clear that Isobel is somehow linked to the lives of Theo and Eliot, but she’s also connected to Julian Carrington, a wealthy banker who is all too willing to curry favor with her.
As Isobel’s dramas with Julian and Eliot play out in Vienna, Eliot’s son Guy walks the quiet gas-lit streets of London and broods about how he will ever manage to clear up the mystery of his father’s death.
Each character is tormented by treacherous doubts and the sense of betrayal that inexorably follows. The kaleidoscope is shaken, and a new pattern emerges. Eventually a forbidden love affair is exposed against the dangerous passion of bohemian artists and a turn-of-the-century world that is littered with jealousy, temptation, blackmail and murder.