The author lays the groundwork for her tale in the midst of a minerís strike in 1984 Scotland, a dark drama of the terrible damage done to miners and their families and the consequences of a bitter conflict. When Mick Prentice disappears soon after five other men leave Fife to seek employment elsewhere, Mickís wife and neighbors assume he has done the same, his wife and child outcasts in a tightly-knit society.
It is only years later, in 2007, that Mickís daughter files a missing persons report, her young son needing a donor match for a fatal illness. Misha Prentice appeals to Inspector Karen Pirie of the Cold Case Team. Although her job is to designate, Pirie is drawn to this strange case, her native curiosity piqued by Mickís strange disappearance and the lack of inquiry at the time.
Yet another mystery resurfaces, soon to be delivered to Inspector Pirieís desk as well. In 1985, also in Fife, a wealthy manís daughter was kidnapped with her baby son and held for ransom. Appealing to the police, Catrionaís father, Brodie Maclellan Grant, injected himself into the handover with all the arrogance of his position, meaning to exchange ransom money for Catriona and her child.
When the ensuing violence leaves Cat dead and the child missing, Brodie has only himself to blame. Then, in 2007, while vacationing in Tuscany, an enterprising reporter discovers a fresh clue relating to the 1985 kidnapping. The reporter, Bel Richmond, notices signs of recent violence in the abandoned villa; inspired, she decides to report the nature of her discoveries to Brodie in hopes of an exclusive interview.
At last offered an answer to the long search for his missing grandson, Brodie grants Bel an interview and engages her services in finding more information in Tuscany. Wherever the trails leads, Brodie is determined to put this unsolved dilemma to rest. With Belís help, that goal seems realistic to an aging man with a troubled conscience.
Manipulating Pirieís investigation to include Mickís disappearance, the Minerís Strike, and Belís search for the occupants of the Tuscan villa, McDermid writes of a country embroiled in the ugly realities of the minersí hardscrabble lives and the privilege purchased by Brodieís wealth. What the man cannot control is his daughterís independent streak or her unwillingness to name the father of her child.
In atmospheric prose, the author describes a place riddled with ambiguities, desperate families, the rigid social code of the minerís lives, the long months of near-starvation, and the hubris of a wealthy man who fails to appreciate the consequences of failure. Wading through intransigent witnesses and those reluctant to recall a painful past, Pirie brings to a close the years of mystery surrounding the missing miner and the kidnapped little boy, the Inspector faced with the implacability of power and the limits of bureaucracy.