Miranda Thornton, a successful Oxford English professor and author of a bestselling treatise on why women don't need men, had a change of heart and submitted an extremely vulnerable video to the Internet dating site Heart & Soul. But when her video is leaked to the subversive media blog, TheBarker.biz, she becomes the laughing stock of Oxford. Humiliated, then insulted when a former suitor tries to take advantage of her situation, she returns home. The next morning, she is found there, dead, with a newspaper article about her nemesis, David Connelly, clutched in her hand.
Where DCS Innocent sees suicide, Lewis sees murder. Looking to the virtual world for suspects, he attempts to enlist the help of TheBarker's founder, Kit Renton, and Heart & Soul's leader, Susanna Leland. But confidentiality conventions force Lewis and Hathaway to cut through swathes of Internet anonymity without help. Their investigation yields numerous suspects: David Connolly, a hedge fund manager whose property development was opposed solely by Miranda; Sebastian Dromgoole, a former student who holds Miranda responsible for his aborted academic career; a jilted love interest; a dating site hacker; and an Internet gadfly whose vitriol for Miranda seems almost personal. Yet, Miranda's death is still reported as suicide...that is, until an Oxford youth connected to the case is brutally murdered.
As their investigations continue, Lewis and Hathaway suddenly become the story when TheBarker turns its vicious sights on the detective team. Meanwhile, Lewis, haunted by Miranda's loneliness, struggles to navigate the virtual world to catch a killer whose identity is all too real.
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
Famous feminist Miranda Thornton is waxing eloquent on misogynist themes in Shakespeare when she is interrupted by laughter. Two students are distracted by something funny on a smart phone. When Miranda confiscates it, she sees they are making fun of her. It soon develops that her entire college at Oxford is mocking her for posting a video appeal for romance on an internet dating site.
Humiliated, Miranda goes to bed that night and doesn't wake up. The next morning she is found dead from alcohol and pills. An obvious suicide? Lewis is not so sure. For one thing, someone has tampered with her answering machine. For another, crumpled in her fist is the front page of the local paper with a photo of her apparent nemesis, hedge fund manager David Connelly. Miranda was determined to stop Connelly's development scheme on college land.
After interviewing a brusquely uncooperative Connelly, Lewis and Hathaway track down the dating site that first posted Miranda's video. The proprietor, Susanna Leland, can't explain how the subscribers-only message went viral on a gossip website run by sleazy entrepreneur Kip Thornton. Did Susanna or Kip have a grudge against Miranda?
To find out, Hathaway cultivates a contact inside Kip's business: Briony Keagan, who happens to be the girlfriend of Sebastian Dromgoole. Sebastian is a former Oxford student who despises Miranda for the career-sinking recommendation she gave him. He is also the one who fraudulently downloaded Miranda's video. Unfortunately, Briony is soon discovered bludgeoned to death.
Rounding out the list of suspects is Francis Mitchell, a married newspaper reporter who responded to Miranda's video appeal for romance. He later admits that he discovered Miranda's body with a plastic bag over her head. Removing the bag and seeing that she was dead, he panicked. He took the answering machine tape, wiped away his fingerprints, disposed of the bag, and told no one. It sounds fishy, but he may be telling the truth.
The key break in the case comes when Lewis establishes that Miranda, Connelly, Susanna, and Kit all knew each other in their student days at Oxford. Miranda and Kit had a bitter political rivalry at the time, which Kit pursued with anonymous slander about Miranda's love life. This torpedoed a budding romance between Miranda and Connelly, gratifying Susanna who had a crush on Connelly.
Nonetheless, love letters later discovered by Mitchell show that an unquenchable spark continued to smoulder between Miranda and Connelly.
This emotional polygon didn't become homicidal until years later, when Susanna feared that Miranda and Connelly would at last get together. With Kit's cooperation, she orchestrated the leaking of Miranda's video, giving Miranda a motive for suicide. After killing her, Susanna had to dispatch Briony, who had discovered the conspiracy between Susanna and Kit. Then Susanna made her move for Connelly's affection.
Ironically, at one point Susanna offers dating advice to Lewis and Hathaway. "Try us out some time," she tells the lovelorn cops. "You're lonely, and you needn't be." She forgets that the business card she hands Hathaway has her fingerprints, which is just the evidence they need to compare with traces left by the killer.