Lewis and Hathaway find a man drowned in his own bathtub. Beside his body, there is a postcard of a Renaissance painting with an anonymous message, "It was no dream." The man is identified by his roommate Alex Hadley as Steven Mullan.
Surprisingly, Lewis recognizes Mullan's name. Mullan, who turned to a life of faith after making a career of crime, attempted to kill Oxford celebrity atheist Tom Rattenbury while driving drunk. Instead, Rattenbury's daughter Jessica was injured, leaving her in a wheelchair. Mullan had been recently released from prison.
Lewis and Hathaway uncover little about Mullan's current life, and instead turn to his past. At Rattenbury's home, Lewis and Hathaway meet wife Cecile, children Daniel and Jessica, and Daniel's American student girlfriend Hope Ransome, the daughter of a prominent U.S. politician. The family seems shocked by Mullan's death.
"What that man did to us was evil and wicked but, at the risk of sounding trite, it brought us closer together as a family," Cecile explains as Lewis and Hathaway take their leave.
Lewis soon learns that Rattenbury isn't the only colorful character in this case. After an Oxford debate between Rattenbury and his longstanding intellectual rival, and Hope's art history tutor, Manfred Canter, Lewis witnesses Daniel throwing wine at Canter. Is something inappropriate occurring between Hope and her tutor?
But before Lewis has an opportunity to further develop or test his theories, pathologist Laura Hobson drops a bombshell that suggests everything in the case so far has been little more than a dream.