Using the English town of Salisbury as a picaresque backdrop, this compelling mystery novel is about brotherly enmity and a mysterious manuscript which threatens to shatter the reputation of a well-respected family if its elusive contents are ever made public. Thomas Ansell, lawyer for the London offices of Scott, Lye & Mackenzie, is
charged with traveling to Salisbury to secure the scandalous manuscript of the infamous George Slater.
Although George died many years ago, Felix Slater, George’s devoutly religious son, is of the opinion that his father’s controversial writings should never see the light of day. Casting himself as the inheritor of tradition and a repository of all that’s best in the Slater family, Alex’s instructions to Ansell are that the manuscript should be placed safely in his firm’s vaults and sealed up until Walter, Felix’s twenty-something nephew, can decide whether to read his grandfather’s words or dispose of them unread.
When Thomas arrives in Salisbury, he has a presentiment of danger - even the parting words of Helen, his dear sweetheart, tumble over and over in his mind: “You must take care of yourself my dear.” But a vision on the fog-shrouded Salisbury train platform and a silhouette at the platform’s edge, a black figure creeping upon it then another figure falling onto the tracks, cannot help but give Thomas a feeling of doom.
But Thomas is still not prepared for what follows when he finds himself caught in a strange battle of wills between the priggish and particular Alex, the undisputed lord and master of Venn House, and his estranged brother, the irresponsible, self-indulgent Percy, who is reportedly paying for a lifetime of indulgence while Northwood House, the Slater ancestral home, crumbles around his ears.
Soon enough a portrait develops of the two brothers: one lean and austere, the other slack and self-indulgent. Felix’s religious
passion for old artifacts and reverence for the Canon contrast passionately with Percy’s devotion to gambling and the turf. Neither brother is a fraudster, but Thomas soon learns that they are not quite
as they’ve been painted by others.
The long-held animosity between both Alex and Percy leads Thomas on an complicated investigation involving two seemingly unconnected events: the discovery of a body at Venn House, a flint spear-head plunged into the nape of the neck, and the mysterious disappearance of Mr. Andrew North, one of the sextons at the cathedral church of St. Mary who was rumored to have spent every spare moment looking for buried treasure or relics.
Written with a Victorian sensibility, Philip Gooden’s serpentine plot hinges on messages passed to Thomas by the other
canons, the gossip of local townsfolk and casual meetings at the local inn. Later, when Helen joins Thomas after he is imprisoned overnight as a suspect in the murder, both hero and heroine are thrust into the past, disturbing dust of centuries at Todd’s Mound, an ancient burial ground near the Salisbury Plains.
A subplot involving a surprise revelation of the Slater family shakes
everything up, but the wild ride finally culminates in a life-and-death struggle high atop the spire of the Salisbury Cathedral Tower,
making this novel of mistaken identities and brotherly animosity stunningly atmospheric.