Lady Matilda's, the only remaining all-female college in Oxford, is teetering on the edge of great change, and celebrating one of its finest talents. The college has recently voted (after robust discussion) to admit men, and is simultaneously seeing Professor Diana Ellerby, one of its luminaries, set out for Princeton. A grand celebration marking these events has brought the best and the brightest back to campus. Freya Carlisle, a newspaper columnist, and Lakshmi Eyre, a retail chain CEO, are two of the attendees, part of Ellerby's "golden set" students — a circle of her most capable protégés.
Standing decidedly outside that circle is Poppy Toynton, an alumnus whose career rise hasn't been exactly meteoric. Considered average by her fellow alumni (when they would deign to consider her at all), Toynton's longstanding inclusion in Ellerby's elite remains baffling.
Toynton's lesser light is soon extinguished — she's found dead on the stairs during the celebration. Lewis and Hathaway arrive to investigate, and for Lewis, it is a return visit to Lady Matilda's. A decade earlier, Lewis was on campus to inquire into the attack on a 15-year-old girl, Chloe Brooks, who was visiting her sister, student Ruth Brooks. His work on the case was cut short by the death of his wife, but his questions and suspicions lingered, and have now been rekindled by the new case. Lewis meets with former DS Ali McLennan who finished work on the Brooks case. She is convinced there were no loose threads: Ruth's ex boyfriend, Judd Havelock, attacked Chloe, then used his family's money and influence to escape.
Lewis can't seem to turn his back on the past, unable to bring himself into the increasingly unhappy events of the present. But his intuition is confirmed when someone connected to the old case is found brutally murdered. The far-off details of the Brooks case suddenly become entirely relevant, and lead Lewis and Hathaway into some shocking events from the past with very contemporary repercussions.
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
Shock and secret delight strike Lady Matilda's College at Oxford, when despised development officer and alumna Poppy Toynton is found dead during a reunion at the all-female college. The event was to honor Professor Ellerby, a prominent feminist scholar, departing for Princeton University and leaving behind a band of devoted former students, some of whom lived in her communal house, including Poppy.
At the crime scene, Hathaway notices that Lewis is unusually distressed. He later learns that ten years earlier Lewis was investigating an attack on a young visitor to the college who was left in a coma. Her name is Chloe, and she is still unresponsive in a local hospital. But before Lewis could solve the case, his wife was killed in a hit-and-run accident.
Investigating Poppy's murder, Lewis and Hathaway establish that for years she had been anonymously undermining the careers of her classmates out of jealousy for their success. This leaves no lack of suspects that might have learned of her sabotage and retaliated — among them Freya, a prominent journalist, and Lakshmi, a lingerie magnate. Both are regular visitors to Professor Ellerby's commune.
As the investigation develops, the unsolved assault on Chloe looms larger, since the prime suspects in Poppy's murder were also present the night of her attack at a masked ball. A new witness emerges when Chloe herself revives after a decade and says her first word: "murder!" Under hypnosis, she reveals that her presumed but never found attacker — a ladykiller named Judd — was apparently bludgeoned before her eyes.
The plot thickens when two more murders take place: the student who found Poppy's corpse becomes one herself; and Lewis's former sergeant, Ali, a retired female cop who has a lively interest in the Chloe case (and a romantic interest in Lewis), also ends up dead.
The long-missing Judd becomes the key to the mystery. He had been having affairs with Freya, Lakshmi, and other protégées of Professor Ellerby, including Chloe's sister, Ruth. But it was his attempted seduction of the underage Chloe at the masked ball that touched off the murder spree, since one of his secret lovers observed it and got viciously jealous: Professor Ellerby.
Disguised in a Renaissance costume, the distinguished don cudgeled Judd but was interrupted by Chloe, who then got thrown from a window. Ever loyal to her prof, Poppy hid Judd's body at an abandoned airbase. Ten years later, when the reunion brought together several people with motives to wish Poppy dead, the don took advantage of the situation and did Poppy in — just to be on the safe side. She also took care of Ali, who had been blackmailing Poppy, having learned about Poppy's disposal of Judd from a prostitute who witnessed it and sold the information as part of a private plea bargain.
Cornered by Lewis and Hathaway at the hiding place for Judd's corpse, where she has finally gone to douse it with gasoline and set it afire, Professor Ellerby confesses all and then sets herself alight. Cases closed.