Quick ... a phrase beginning with B.F.I.W. If you said "body floating in water," you're ready for Oxford's Quizaholics Weekend, where contestant Ethan Croft is eliminated — literally — before the first round even starts.
Inspector Lewis and Sergeant Hathaway are called away from their holiday jaunts — a night at the opera for Lewis, a world music bash for Hathaway — to find Ethan's corpse floating in an ornamental pool.
Putting the quiz participants under lockdown, they quickly discover that everyone involved has a motive to want Ethan dead, since he was a narcissistic, womanizing, booze-swilling jerk. He was also a brilliant linguist with ties to a hush-hush project.
Several possibilities suggest themselves. First, the quiz is being run by Marcus, a questionable character who could be branching into more serious wrongdoing. Second, Ethan's old flame, Robyn, has appeared at the quiz event, been jilted, and appears to be very angry about it; the follow-up murder of one her rivals adds credence to this theory.
Third, Ethan's wife confesses that she would have "happily killed him" over his infidelities; she wasn't on the scene, but two people trained to kill were: British Army Lieutenant Diane Baxter and Color Sergeant Brian Kaye. Fourth, even if the unlikely army contestants were not avenging Ethan's wife they might have been acting for the government.
Adding to an already vexing puzzle, something strange happened to Ethan's once-promising academic career at Oxford. But what, and who was responsible? For your sudden death question, Lewis and Hathaway, how does it all add up?
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
It's a bank holiday weekend and Inspector Lewis and Sergeant Hathaway are off for big adventures. Lewis is taking pathologist Dr. Laura Hobson to the opera, and Hathaway is traveling to a world music festival, toting his beloved Gibson guitar — which unfortunately gets stolen.
Back in Oxford, the big adventure is Quizaholics Weekend — a tournament of arcane knowledge featuring a big cash prize. Hosted by a slick quizmaster named Marcus, the event brings six teams of paying contestants to Chaucer College. The teams are:
NUTs (National Union of Teachers): Ethan, a brainy and obnoxiously flirtatious primary school teacher, and his colleague Ann.
Red Hot Mamas: Robyn, an ex-girlfriend of Ethan's whom he doesn't remember, plus Eve, Robyn's gorgeous fellow young mother.
Toxic Debt: Alfie and Sophie, poor undergraduates, seemingly desperate to win the prize money.
Grey Guardians: Professors Terry and Milner, stuffy Oxford dons.
Old Contemptibles: Diane and Brian, no-nonsense British army regulars on a lark before joining a peace-keeping mission.
Class of '89: Sebastian and Jessica, lawyers from London's high-flying financial world.
Regrettably, Lewis and Hathaway must cut short their vacations when a body is found in the ornamental pool at Chaucer. It's Ethan, deftly hit in the back of the neck and left to drown. With the college deserted except for the quiz participants, the two cops put the place under lockdown, creating the scenario for a classic country house murder investigation.
Marcus tries to keep everyone sane by continuing the competition. However, another contestant is eliminated when Eve is found strangled in her room.
Meanwhile, Lewis and Hathaway learn that Ethan was not just a schoolteacher on the make; he was a gifted linguist and a translator for international projects with the Russians. Moreover, a decade earlier he had had a promising academic career at Oxford before being dismissed, allegedly for having an affair with a student — one who later married Professor Milner. However, Mrs. Milner says the real reason for Ethan's sacking was his willingness to blow the whistle on wrongdoers.
The wrongdoing in question concerned the financing of a collaborative British-Russian engineering research center. Although Professor Milner was involved, the complicit participant was Sebastian, the corporate lawyer on the Class of '89 team. He knew about the backing of the center by Russian money-launderers; and Ethan, as a translator for the project, knew that he knew.
Ethan's attempt to blow the whistle led to his dismissal from Oxford by Sebastian's friends, purportedly for the affair. Ten years later, attending the Quizaholics Weekend, Ethan discovered that Sebastian was not only flourishing, he was about to be made a knight by the queen! Threatening his old nemesis with exposure, Ethan also blabbed about the scandal while chatting up Eve. Sebastian overheard them and later silenced both.
A tip-off to Hathaway was that the killer employed an expert karate chop on Ethan. Tellingly, one of the skills Sebastian touted in his Who's Who entry was martial arts.
As if solving a double murder is not enough, the two sleuths crack two more cases before going home. First, they uncover the true nature of Marcus's quiz business, which works as follows: he recruits two students for a small fee (Alfie and Sophie, in this case), primes them with the correct answers, and then pockets the lion's share of the proceeds when they win. Second, Lewis tracks Hathaway's stolen guitar through the internet and leads his partner in a sting operation that recovers it.
Not bad for an interrupted holiday weekend!