What starts as a scuffle between a distinguished Oxford lecturer and a doorman outside an exclusive club takes a dire turn when the lecturer is later found strangled. Lewis and Hathaway are roused in the middle of the night to investigate, and soon discover the incongruous murder weapon — boxer's hand tape. Lewis and Hathaway's investigation leads to Jack Roth, a university boxer with an implausible alibi.
Not all of Roth's fights were in the ring. He was also in an old-fashioned battle for the heart of a beautiful young woman, Sarah Kriel. Studying at Oxford, while living at home with her soon-to-be divorced mother, Ann Kriel, Sarah has to decide between two suitors: Jack and his best friend, Milo Hardy. When Sarah chooses Jack, Milo takes the news very badly, and is later found dead in a suspected suicide.
The obvious explanation doesn't sit right with Lewis, and he and Hathaway delve into the pasts of those involved only to find strong Cold War connections and a family with a tragic past.
Read full synopsis
Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
Hide full synopsis
Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
R.G. Cole, an esteemed Oxford lecturer specializing in European history and head of the Wagner Society, is in a very undistinguished situation — drunk and in a brawl with a doorman outside an exclusive club owned by Hansie and Ann Kriel. He staggers home with the help of his old friend Richard Helm. But when Helm returns from buying whiskey, Cole is in even worse shape — dead by strangulation. Lewis and Hathaway arrive to investigate, and discover an incongruous murder weapon — boxer's hand tape. What started as a case among Oxford's elite is about to take Lewis and Hathaway into the raw world of amateur boxing in Oxford.
Milo Hardy and Jack Roth are the best boxers at the university and are both competing for awards as well as the same girl, Sarah Kriel, daughter of Hansie and Ann. After a visit to the Oxford University Boxing Club, Lewis and Hathaway meet Roth, who has some suspicious injuries and an implausible alibi about being in a pub brawl.
Cole's appointment book made cryptic reference to a meeting with "Broughton" the night he died, and in fact Broughton seemed to be a regular fixture in Cole's schedule. Hathaway uncovers that Broughton is a farm where illegal fights are held, and when police raid it, they find Ryan Gallen there taking bets. (Ryan was the doorman who threw Cole and Helm out of the club the night Cole was murdered and what's more, he has a criminal record.) On some of the confiscated phones, the police find that other bare-knuckle matches had been video recorded and not only was Jack fighting the night Cole was murdered, but Milo and Sarah were spectators along with Cole and Helm.
Big row, the Helm obsession. Wotan-Siegfried. Patricide — the evocative and puzzling words from Cole's appointment book. Had Helm been in an argument? And is there some sort of Wagnerian twist? The line seems to reference characters from Wagner's "The Ring." Lewis finds his way to a music shop where Helm's mother Valli works, and her painful past starts to unravel.
Richard and his mother both left East Germany after Magnus Helm (Valli's husband and Richard's father) was arrested by the Stasi, the East German secret police, and allowed to die in prison. Magnus was a Wagner specialist and knew Cole when he was much younger as Cole had come to visit the family on a research trip. Could Cole have been the informant and was that why he was murdered? Richard becomes a suspect again.
Lewis and Hathaway's theories take a surprising blow when Milo is found dead. It looks like suicide, but the typed suicide note is a bit of a giveaway for Lewis — "Never trust suicide notes that aren't hand written," Lewis instructs.
From cell phone records, Hathaway finds that Milo phoned Helm from Berlin before his death. Milo was a student of Cole's, but why would he call Helm? Shaken, Helm says that Milo was investigating the Stasi for a paper. Eventually, Lewis and Hathaway learn that Milo's train in Berlin stopped near the Stasi Archive, and whatever he'd learned there had gotten him killed.
Hathaway goes to Berlin to see what exactly was in Magnus Helm's Stasi file. He finds that the crucial, damning letter has been taken and that both Milo and Valli have been there recently as had someone named AL Fischer. Valli and Helm had been visited by Milo saying that he had information, but someone else didn't want this to be revealed.
In the end the police discover that Sarah's mother, Ann Kriel, was originally from East Germany, and that she was the Stasi informant called Siegfried who had sealed Magnus Helm's fate. Richard Helm was in love with Ann and she had access to his father's study. She found a letter that was written by Morse, the great Wagner fan, to Magnus the Wagner specialist, but it had a British police postmark on the envelope. This was enough to convict Magnus in the paranoid Stasi times.
Ann went to East Germany to try and see what was in the Stasi file that was now public knowledge and could lead to her discovery. She used her birth name to sign into the Stasi Archive — AL Fischer.
By now, Lewis has figured out that Ann instigated Ryan to kill Helm (thinking Helm had recognized her at the club), but he had mistakenly strangled Cole. Ann tries to kill Helm, but the attack backfires. Valli turns up on the scene, but does nothing to save her — her attentions are focused on nursing her injured son.
Eventually the police work out that Milo died by being pushed from the balcony of Ann's home. He had apparently discovered an incriminating letter that indicted Ann as a Stasi informant. Ann's husband moved his body.