In the woods downriver from Carlyle College, botanist Liz Nash discovers a corpse that has been ritually buried with a watch inscribed in Latin and a cross fashioned from sticks. The murder victim, Oxford English professor Murray Hawes, was known around the university as a harmless eccentric obsessed with Lewis Carroll's cryptic poem The Hunting of the Snark. This legendary theological and philosophical work, Hathaway elucidates, presents an impossible quest in which the hunters don't know what they're looking for, yet the danger is in finding it. Scholars and monomaniacs alike have devoted their lives to cracking The Snark's unfathomable code.
And so Lewis and Hathaway embark on an impossible quest of their own, from the Oxford botanical gardens, where Hawes regularly foraged for meaning, to the office of Carlyle's Reverend Dr. Conor Hawes, Murray's estranged brother. Conor makes no secret of his bitter rivalry with Murray, but he is somehow connected to a secret society at Carlyle College, an exclusive club whose coveted membership two goth students, Vincent and Mia, are desperately trying to secure.
In a case already mired in layers of mystery, Lewis contends with another obstacle, the maddening amateur sleuth Michelle Marber. This self-styled Miss Marple attempts to redirect suspicions to a local medical researcher, Dr. Alex Falconer, but Michelle too harbors secrets. Hathaway, equally enamored of the philosophical text and botanist Liv Nash, is restless. But when a second death brings the inscrutable into terrifying clarity, Lewis and Hathaway move to catch the killer and put the soul of genius to rest.
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
While trying to uproot an invasive shrub, Oxford botanist Liv Nash unearths the corpse of Professor Murray Hawes. Murray was a troubled genius, obsessed with solving the literary puzzle posed by Lewis Carroll in his baffling poem The Hunting of the Snark.
Lewis and Hathaway soon find that Murray had a jealous brother, Conor, a tutor and chaplain at Oxford's Carlyle College. An insecure intellectual bully, Conor took pleasure in subverting Murray in petty ways — an approach he also pursued with another deceased genius, Stevie Marber, a young scientist earlier found dead of an apparent drug overdose.
Conor's current victims of mental torture are two undergraduates: Vincent and Mia, self-styled postmodernists who have adopted pseudonyms from the film Pulp Fiction. As he did with Stevie, Conor baits them with anonymous invitations to join the Wednesday Club, a mythical Oxford club for geniuses.
Meanwhile, Lewis and Hathaway are not alone in pursuing the investigation. Stevie's mother, Michelle, is also on the case, convinced that Stevie's former mentor, Dr. Alex Falconer, is behind the deaths of both Stevie and Murray.
Alex is a gentleman scientist, living with his wife, Thea, in Gold Cheyne (pronounced "chain") Hall, a venerable estate with beautiful gardens. Professionally, he is head of the Davy Institute of Clinical Medicine, where Stevie was a research assistant and Murray was a frequent paid participant in clinical drug trials.
Alex has another connection to the case: he is having an affair with Professor Helena Wright, head of the Oxford Botanic Garden, where forensic tests show that Murray was murdered before his body was buried elsewhere. Liv, who found the body, is one of Helena's assistants.
Then another body turns up that was also dispatched near Helena's workplace: Conor, the torturing tutor, is found downstream, bludgeoned to death, with mud in his shoes that traces to the riverbank next to the Oxford Botanic Garden.
The missing link in the case is "Lab H," the only laboratory at Oxford with a letter instead of a number. Apparently, there is no such place, but both Murray's notes and Stevie's refer to the facility.
In a conversation with Liv, Hathaway suddenly realizes that Lab H stands for "Laburnum Hall," another name for Gold Cheyne Hall. Liv has just pointed out that the laburnum tree is also known as "golden chain" and that laburnum trees once flourished around the hall.
Hastening to Gold Cheyne Hall, the detectives confront Helena, who is there to see her lover, Alex. She reveals the location of the secret lab where Alex is engaged in research on cytosine, a toxic extract from laburnum. Alex is desperately trying to find a cure for the skin cancer that has doomed Thea, whom he still loves. Alex admits that he accidentally killed Murray when he gave him too large a test dose in a trial of the cancer cure.
As for Conor, his death occurred when he confronted Alex, since he knew that Murray and Stevie were involved in Alex's research. Conor feared that he himself was the prime suspect in Murray's death and demanded answers. Instead, he got a blow to the skull from Helena.
The final piece of the puzzle is Stevie's death, which can't be pinned on anyone but himself. It appears that the inquest was correct: he was a genius whose own reckless lifestyle did him in.