In this third novel, Palmer (Plucking the Apple, 1994; Scarlet Angel, 1993) returns to her field and purpose of choice: exposing the cold-hearted passions and hot-blooded avarice of the British upper crust. The less-than-compelling mystery here is revealed with the opening line, ``Did she fall or was she pushed?'' Slipping back in time, we find the ``she'' in question was Chloe Post Steer, a vapid American newspaper heiress and the pregnant wife of Morgan Steer, idle heir to the fortune held by his tightfisted grandmother. Ninety-year-old Leonora Steer rules her quivering dynasty with an iron rod, forcing her three spinster daughters (Morgan's mother was married just long enough to conceive him) to wait on her every whim as she changes her will according to the quality of service she receives on a given day. The three sisters, with secret lives of their own, eagerly await Leonora's death so their inheritance can finally set them free of their cold Northumberland servitude. Meanwhile, under Leonora's watchful eye, a series of melodramatic subplots plays out: Though--in flashback--Morgan is courting Chloe, he's still in love with his childhood companion Caroline, who's unhappily married to an out-of-work actor. Caroline's sister Emily is attached to a verbose social worker, while Morgan's best friend, Tom, has his sights set on an heiress of his own. Throughout, the steely Leonora, who in her extravagant youth was mistress to many and wife to few, continues to manipulate those within her grasp. The author's satiric approach to these demonstrated pitfalls of greed, however, ultimately fails: Palmer paints amusing portraits, but her characters are so overblown, the plot so convoluted, and the surprise twists so apparent that the result is more soap opera than satire. A conversational tone keeps the reading swift, but that does nothing to make it substantial. A disappointing effort.