Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
When a middle-aged Oxford graduate is found dead near his run-down houseboat, detectives Lewis and Hathaway are thrown into a delicate murder case that implicates one of the University's most prominent figures, Sefton Linn.
But as Lewis and Hathaway discover, Linn was not always so respectable. As an undergraduate, he was a member of a hedonistic group of friends, who called themselves "The Sons of the Twice Born." All but one of them Classicists, they aspired to the Bacchanalian principals of Dionysus, pushing the limits of drink and drug-fueled debauchery. The dead man, Dean Greely, was part of this group too, as was meek bike-shop owner, Harry Bundrick. Harry dropped out of his medicine degree, and now in his forties, still lives with his domineering mother.
The fourth member of the undergraduate group is the only active proponent of that lifestyle in the present day; coke-snorting heir, Theodore Platt. Wheelchair-bound, following a fatal drink-driving incident a few years ago, Platt is married to his tolerant and beautiful younger wife, Anna Sadikov. Lewis struggles to understand what such a marriage could be based on, given the crude and selfish nature of Platt's behavior. A personal element also comes into play for Lewis, as Platt's remorseless attitude brings back painful memories of Lewis' late wife. The hit-and-run driver was never caught.
Lewis and Hathaway are on the verge of proving Linn's guilt, when he too is discovered dead. Lewis and Hathaway are now looking for a second murderer. They cut through the veil of Ancient Greek clues and tainted lives, to uncover the murky truth: as undergrads twenty years ago, in a frenzy of Bacchanalian warped ambition, the secret society of friends attempted to experience the ultimate drug: Adrenochrome. They pursued the myth that the only way to acquire this drug was to access it in its purest form; from the human adrenal gland. But removal of the gland brings about the inevitable death of the donor.
The bottom of the mystery lies in the identity of the person whose life was lost as part of this quest. And as Lewis and Hathaway search through the past of each member of the group, they discover that this case revolves around a clever and intricately planned desire for revenge. No matter how people change their lives and paste over past sins with the veneer of respectability, it seems their dark past will come back to haunt them.