While walking his dog in the tranquil Flagford fields just outside of Kingsmarkham, local farmer Jim Belbury is shocked to discover a skeleton buried in a trench. The body is nearly impossible to identify, its tissues long since dissipated
- flesh, skin, veins, tendons all gone, along with any clothing. The only clues are that the body has been wrapped in a crumbling purple sheet and there appears to be a crack in one of the ribs.
There seem to be no other signs of violence of any kind.
This discovery proves to be an impossible mystery for Chief Inspector Wexford, Detective Inspector Burdon, and the other staff of the Kingsmarkham Police. A closer forensic examination concludes that the body was most likely placed in the trench eleven years ago, when the site was being quarried for a new housing development which was ultimately refused by the county’s planning commission.
Determined to solve the mystery, almost at once Wexford’s investigation turns to the odd cast of unconventional characters that inhabit the surrounding area, particularly the truculent and unpleasant John Grimble, whose father owned the land where the body was discovered.
Apparently, Grimble decided to put in the main drainage before permission was granted from the local county.
Once denied, Grimble had his friend Bill Runge fill in the trench a few days later. Grimble and Runge, however, can shed little light on how the body may have actually gotten into the trench.
Common sense dictates that someone in the surrounding estates must have an idea of what transpired eleven years ago, especially the aging Irene McNeil who tells Wexford that Grimble had a lodger in
his cottage. When it is revealed that her husband, Ron, shot a man who was trespassing, a portrait develops of two self-appointed
vigilantes who somehow convinced themselves that it was their job to police the surrounding district, including Grimble’s property.
Far more relevant to the case, however, are the people at Athelston House - the famous author Owen Tredown, his wife, Maeve Tredown, and his ex-wife, Claudia Ricardo, both of whom now live with him. Tredown has made a fairly lucrative career writing novels about biblical characters.
Now riddled with liver cancer and at death’s door, he remains closeted in his ivory tower, writing for all he’s worth to keep his wives in comfort, his nose apparently kept to the grindstone
and also protected by Maeve and Claudia.
The case progressively unfolds with a serpentine-like vigor, with Wexford finding it increasingly difficult to figure out the identity of the body.
A large number of men have remained missing in the greater mid-Sussex area; two men in particular appear still unaccounted for and have become possible candidates for
the remains found in Grimble’s field.
When another body is discovered under the logs in the filthy cellar of Grimble‘s house, with the
black and coarse hair exposed, only then does the case take on a new and much more profound complexity that hinges on a once-white
T-shirt with a black scorpion printed on it, two gold wedding rings chased with leaves and inscribed with FOREVER, and an article in the
Sunday Times detailing a book soon to be published about the day a father suddenly went away forever, vanishing off the face of the earth.
In typical fashion, Rendell steadily unloads her multi-faceted narrative, introducing a number of peripheral characters and a series of complicated red herrings that revolve around her theme of missing persons. The author also weaves in a subplot involving the Somali community in Kingsmarkam and one family’s secret plan to perform female circumcision on their three-year-old daughter.
This incident adds yet another troubling layer of duplicity for the busy Wexford.
The case altered in surprising ways, the investigation of the two dead bodies almost takes on the appearance of a death's-head smile as Wexford and his colleagues work ever more frantically to stitch together the threads and connections in a tale that soon becomes a story of revenge, murder and literary jealousy.