When C. H. Underwood arrives in the village of Bracken Tor in the spring of 1820, he intends only to visit his brother, the vicar, and take a long rest from his work as a Classics tutor at Cambridge University.
However, almost as soon as he arrives he finds himself intrigued by an unsolved murder, committed the year before.
The headless corpse of a young woman was found in woods belonging to the local landowner and Magistrate, Sir Henry Wynter.
Underwood finds the notion that the body lies in a grave marked “Unknown” to be abhorrent. He decides to use his free time to discover the identity of the victim – and if possible bring her killer to justice.
His brother begs him to proceed with caution, as the murder had roused feelings of a controversial nature amongst the villagers.
Before long he has uncovered not only the girl’s final movements before her death, but also the possibility of two other murders having taken place in Bracken Tor.
His task is not made any less complicated by his developing relationship with Charlotte, one of Sir Henry’s daughters, and by the myriad characters he comes across in his investigation.
The theory that the girl had been killed as some sort of barbaric ritual is only one of his difficulties, and when a young man arrives in the midst of a cricket match, claiming to be the victim’s husband, the whole village becomes privy to the fact that Underwood is attempting to solve the mystery.
When the newcomer is shot through the heart whilst in Underwood’s company, he finds himself not only universally reviled for his interference, but also accused of murder himself.
It takes all his ingenuity to extricate himself from the chaos he has caused, but he always has Verity Chapell, governess to the Wynter girls, to help him in his quest to find the murderer.