In the first chapters of this strangely shaped novel, veteran Snow does wonders while introducing an intriguing clutch of characters, most of whom live in a vividly evoked square in the gracious Belgravia section of London. The primary focus is on retired spymaster Humphrey Leigh, kind and thoughtful and just slightly bored--but we quickly also become fond of the neighbors whom he visits, especially hospital administrator Kate Lefroy (married to a selfish, monastic, utterly dependent philosopher) and witty grande dame Lady Ashbrook, who is bravely, tetchily awaiting the results of tests for cancer. But soon after Lady A. hears good news--all the neighbors gather to celebrate--she is brutally murdered, and the novel then loses much of its tone and sense of direction. Most of the subsequent space is devoted to a police procedural: an explicit autospy and extensive inquiries/grillings by Detective Chief Supt. Frank Briers (a chum of Humphrey's); those with motives include the victim's flighty bisexual grandson, his troubled girlfriend (daughter of a shady politician), and. . . the old lady's embezzling doctor-confidant. But the investigation is just flatly competent, the apparent solution is thin, and Snow's real interest seems to be vested in a few personal crises, like Humphrey's deepening liaison with marriage-bound Kate or the dilemma of Supt. Briers' valiant, tragically diseased wife. And unfortunately, though Snow may have intended to unify all these strands through the theme of brutality bustling just beneath the surface of society's manners (our ""coat of varnish""), it never happens--and the passable murder mystery merely steals space from the gentler stories, which seem undernourished. Readable throughout, of course, and the glow of those opening chapters does linger on ironically during the tough crime stuff--but this is truly successful neither as murder tale nor as novel-of-character, an uneasy hybrid with only intermittent pleasures.