A young man, Will McEwan, commits suicide in a church in front of the stunned vicar, Rev. King. McEwan left a symbolic but obtuse suicide note — "On the road from Gethsemane to Calvary, I lost my way," along with a leaflet about a religious group "The Garden." Lewis and Hathaway enter the sanctuary to begin their investigation when Hathaway realizes he knew the victim and runs out. Hathaway and Will were friends when they were young, but Hathaway is quiet on Will's current life.
Rev. King is then murdered and it turns out he was one of the founding members of "The Garden," but fell out with the others. Soon, more people closely associated with "The Garden" are dying, each death a variation on the theme of death by fire. At each crime scene, the same DNA is left as evidence. The police discover the DNA of this serial killer matches that of someone from Will's life who hasn't been seen in years.
As the case deepens and revelations about Will's personal life come to light, Lewis struggles to understand the world of "The Garden" and his former seminarian partner Hathaway. When it becomes clear that Hathaway knows more than he is telling, Lewis wonders if his faithful sidekick is in fact a suspect.
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
A young man, Will McEwan, shoots himself in front of a church altar, leaving behind a suicide note: "On the road from Gethsemane to Calvary I lost my way." The only witness is the vicar, Reverend Francis King.
When Inspector Lewis and Sergeant Hathaway arrive to investigate, it turns out that Hathaway knew the victim during their Oxford university days. Clearly shaken by the death of his former friend, Hathaway nonetheless refuses Lewis's suggestion that he pass up the case because of a conflict of interest.
The only clues at this stage: Will may have had a grudge against a mysterious church group called The Garden; he was on bad terms with his father, who objected to his lifestyle; and Will's last message was on the back of a photo showing him with a male friend, Feardorcha Phelan, whose whereabouts are unknown.
It later develops that Will briefly had a girlfriend, Zoe Kenneth, a scholar of symbols and names, who is convinced that someone drove Will to kill himself. During the investigation, Hathaway develops a friendship with Zoe.
The day after Will's demise, Reverend King is found murdered in his study, slain by a red-hot poker through the brain, while Igor Stravinsky's Firebird Suite plays on the speakers. On the door is a scrawled, "Life Born of Fire."
Next to die is Reverend King's predecessor as dean of Oxford's Mayfield College, the invalid Dr. Carey Melville — burned from the inside with a lethal injection of magnesium sulphate. The syringe bears the inscription, "Life Born of Fire."
Then it is the unfortunate turn of the college's warden, Lady Hugh — bludgeoned to death with a statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. Again, the killer's signature message appears at the scene.
Fingerprints and DNA identify the murderer as Feardorcha Phelan, who by all accounts disappeared to Brazil three years earlier and has not been seen since.
Meanwhile, Lewis's growing suspicion that his sergeant knows more than he lets on is confirmed with the revelation that Hathaway and Will had a traumatic falling out years earlier over Will's sexual orientation, with Hathaway urging his friend to go straight. Hathaway's role becomes even more ambiguous when someone pins a note to his back reading, "Life Born of Fire."
Fearful that Hathaway is to be the next victim, Lewis has him followed by a police detail. But the team loses the trail when Hathaway is on his way with Zoe to her apartment for a presumed tryst.
There, she drugs him and sets fire to the adjoining room, intending to immolate them both. Only then does she reveal that she is Feardorcha Phelan; that she had a sex-change operation in Brazil and took a new name; and that she is wreaking revenge on behalf of Will, her former lover, for all those who sparked his suicide by trying to repress his homosexuality — namely, Hathaway and The Garden, a group dedicated to overcoming homosexuality through religious devotion consisting of Reverend King, Dr. Melville, and Lady Hugh.
The Garden based its method on the stations of the cross — from the Garden of Gethsemane to Cavalry — which explains Will's suicide note.
Fortunately, Lewis saves the day after he realizes that Zoe Kenneth means literally "life born of fire." Rushing to her burning building, he and his team manage to get Hathaway and Zoe out alive. But then Zoe rushes back in to meet her fiery end.