A Sequel to The Skull Beneath the Skin
Cordelia Gray, during the course of her last adventure, somehow lost sight of herself. Rather than being tough and smart–and the skilled detective that she had thought herself to be, she had fallen into the “weak, foolish, and illogical female” trap. Although she had thought herself satisfied with the conclusion of the case, over time she has experienced a growing sense of dissatisfaction. Once again plagued with self-doubt, she continues investigating pet cases after her return from Courcy Island. Only in the last year has she managed to begin pulling herself out of her decline, having started doing preliminary investigations for a British television programme that exposes partners who cheat on each other. At the moment, she feels satisfied. She has a retainer large enough not to be too concerned about finding a great deal of additional work and, even though she is working on volatile cases, none of them have led to murder just yet.
Not everything is ideal, however. She and Ambrose Gorringe parted on less than perfect terms, even though he had admitted that adding another murder to the history of the island did increase its allure. Now that several years have passed, she’s beginning to understand his point of view: she fell apart, she left the job half done, and she needed to get a grip, just as he had said she did. He had not written her from New Orleans, where he had gone to track down relics from a pair of Victorian mansions on St. Charles Avenue, and had only called her once in that time. She had let it go for a while, but now she was considering giving him a ring to see if she could resolve things between them. He is pleased to hear from her and invites her to meet him at the Dorset Derby (fictional event), where she can see his new winner run. She agrees to meet him, expressing her surprise at his bringing back a horse, rather than relics, from New Orleans.
“Oh, I have some of those, too,” he assures her. “I brought back a polished alligator skull used in a voodoo altar in one Victorian. Excellent condition. The house was used as a brothel–”
After assuring him that she’d be happy to meet her for the Derby, she goes about the course of her day, preparing invoices and weekly progress reports for the few cases that she has. The new(ish) computer makes it easier to do billing than in the past, which is a great help now that Miss Maudsley has retired and Bevis is hardly ever available. She leaves the office an hour early to follow up a lead that she has on the missing Coricopat, a golden tipped British Shorthair who went missing after earning his first Imperial Grand challenge certificate.
Jump forward two weeks. It is Derby day and Cordelia is sporting a new hat fit for the occasion. She and Gorringe have a drink together, with him explaining the background of the horse. He was thrilled to have found such a prize, for almost nothing. The stable was going out of business–the owner and his mistress were murdered by the wife who was slowly going mad from something or other and who had sent a hired killer off to dispatch a waitress . . .
Eventually, the conversation gets around to Cordelia explaining that she had been embarrassed by her failure the last time they saw each other. Gorringe tells her that the reason for her being embarrassed was that she had not been true to herself. Look at him, he says. He knows that some of the things he says and does seem ridiculous to others, but it makes no difference to him because he is comfortable with who he is. Cordelia thinks about this revelation, the horse places second, and she goes home.
Another week goes by. Cordelia finds Coricopat, who was victim of a custody dispute between ex-husband and wife and turned up begging for scraps outside a school in the next town over. The kitchen staff has been feeding him, hoping that he’d stay and hunt some mice for them. She watches the news. A report about a famous racehorse that has been killed catches her eye. The story ends with the mention that race horses are buried “head, hooves, and heart.” The following day, Cordelia gets a call from Gorringe. It’s fuzzy and sounds far away, but he asks her to come right away. Through the static, she determines that someone is missing and may be dead. Can she come help find him? Cordelia leaves some food for Tomkins, takes a bit of money from the petty cash box in case she needs it, and quickly leaves the office.
When she arrives at the villa that Gorringe the front door is unlocked and the lights are out. She attempts to turn them on and discovers that there is no power at the house. Using an electric torch that she digs from her handbag, she follows a trail of blood drops into the bathroom, where she finds everything sparkling clean. She continues searching and finds a body on a bed: its head and feet are missing and the hands are crossed over a chest wound. She forces herself to approach the blood-soaked bed and look for clues. Who would kill Gorringe and why? And what is the meaning of the little red flannel bag on the nightstand beside him?
Over the course of the book, clues suggest that Gorringe is not dead at all, but that the body was a warning to him. The horse and he are both missing. The horse turns up in a riding stable, where he is drugged to keep him from being identified as more than a hack horse, and clues about Gorringe lead Cordelia out of Dorset and into the brooding moors. Only the horse can lead Cordelia to Gorringe, and he’s not talking.
Ultimately, Cordelia finally solves a mystery and brings someone to justice. Gorringe’s words to her at the race are what bring her to bring the case to a satisfactory conclusion. Unfortunately, he’s not around to thank any longer. After she concludes the investigation, Cordelia returns to her office, wondering why she feels so dissatisfied, now that she’s actually managed to solve a case that ends with the prosecution of the prosecutor. She is in the news and there are already three messages on her answering machine. She was successful, but somehow the last case with which Gorringe was involved seems like more of a success.