In 1956 Cornwall in the seaside village of St. Steele, 15-year-old Betty Broadbent runs Hotel Eden with her mother, Dolores, a drunken, vain, desperate woman who waxes lyrical over Nigel Forbes, the local greengrocer who has unceremoniously dumped her. A busload of reporters has just arrived to write about the Cornish Cleaver: the man who stabbed a pregnant local girl 40 times in the neck with a fishhook. As Dolores wriggles between them handing out cups of tea and cinnamon slices of loaf cake, Betty marvels at the Hotel Eden, crammed full with many men all sandwiched in, two to a room.
Betty is of course frightened of the man who chooses his victims because they're pretty and blonde look-alikes. She worries, too, about the nighttime activities of Dolores, constantly stepping out to meet Forbes. Lips slashed with scarlet lipstick and breasts bulging over her tight coral dress, Dolores tells her daughter little of where she's been or what she's been doing. In desperation, Betty turns to next-door neighbor Joan and best friend Mary, who is currently courting George Paxton, the very boy who Dolores wants for her daughter. John Gallagher, the most attractive of the reporters, is warm one moment and frosty the next. He sees Betty as just "a silly girl," though Betty herself is attracted to this sophisticated man with the curl of black chest hair rising up to his throat.
In a whirlwind of serendipity, Betty finds herself practically kidnapped by Gallagher, a man more of her mother's era. The accomplished, exotic journalist takes her to the movies and on day trips. Betty details her attraction to John with precision, rattling off details of her mother's drunken nights out and providing a startling view of Dolores as she attempts to spoil everything: "for weeks running the whole bloody hotel on my own while you do God knows what."
It is Betty's story, told in alterating third-person chapters, that holds the reader's attention as it sparks with love, romance, intrigue, and virginal naivety. The reader instantly loves her as her story moves from St. Steele to contemporary London, to the identity of the Cornish Cleaver, and finally to Mary, who serves as a dramatic foil to our present age. The mornings terrify Mary, hours filled with the emptiness that her loyal husband, Jerry, is unable to ease. When Mary's eyes fall absentmindedly on a London newsstand, she reads that the man imprisoned over fifty years ago for the St Steele murders is finally going to speak out. Over time, Mary has compressed her own role, yet she continues to see that poor man's face for the first time: "How could I have done that? How can choosing one's man's life over another ever be okay?"
Betty is innocently optimistic, caught between her need for John and loyalty to her deteriorating mother. She faces a difficult decision. She pretends not to mind after seeing Dolores kiss Nigel Forbes in the Hotel Eden kitchen two months previously, or the time her mother didn't come home from his shop until after 11pm for six nights in a row, smelling of meat, grease, and the butcher himself. Dolores leaves dozens of letters with Nigel as he pleads with her to stop. Betty wants to confide all this to John Gallagher, to tell him "every bit of it" and explain that Mr. Forbes, now the prime suspect, is "cowardly and un-killer-like," neither violent or nasty.
Powell has written a terrific melodrama wrapped up in the sad, sinister machinations of St. Steele's serial murderer and of Mary, who has spent much of her adult life convinced that the man convicted of the Cornish Cleaver killings was wrongly accused. Rather than a focus on the murders themselves, much of the tension is provided by Betty's dramas and the secrets emotionally suffocating Mary. Lost in a chasm between sleep and consciousness, images swim in and out of Betty's head: Jerry's oiled hair, swept in a sharp wide part; Nigel Forbes' prison mug shot; Jerry hunched over his typewriter wearing his tortoiseshell glasses. England in the 1950s was a time of stifling conformity and entrenched misogyny. Often this atmosphere can force stories from that period into an obligatory conventional ending. Powell, however, turns that premise on its head: it's not so much the Cornish Cleaver that Betty finds threatening, but rather the efforts by the local constabulary to convict Forbes at any cost.
It is not surprising that Betty's love for John will be damaged far beyond saving. John is now in the Eugenie Heights care home, desperately trying to get a grip on memories "laid out like a cartoon strips." He remembers Betty as a tiny, fragile thing, "a sparrow of a girl." Unfortunately, John--like Betty--was forced to play according to the rules of the time. Like a damaged bird, Powell's broken young heroine plays out a journey characterized by John's forbidden love and the secret that has eaten Mary up, a secret that she's just unable to put to rest.