Louise Poitier, a French tutor in the spa city of Buxton, plays the Early Modern Mata Hari, assiduously confirming everything the English suspect about the French, except of course that she isn’t really French, and not much of a tutor either.
When Madame Poitier drowns in the heretofore healing waters of St. Anne’s Well, Lady Susanna Appleton (Face Down Below the Banqueting House, 2005, etc.), foster mother of Poitier’s 12-year-old tutee Rosamond Appleton, investigates. Susanna, herbalist, housewife and detective (a real Renaissance woman, since she lives in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I) discovers intrigue everywhere at Bawkenstanes Manor, home of Lady Bridget and Sir Richard Hawley, who care for and educate Rosamond and other girls, including their own daughter, Penelope. Rosamond is impetuously convinced that Madame Poitier was murdered. Her natural mother, Lady Pendennis, is busy matching her with Will Hawley, heir to the manor and unfortunately to his father’s dissipations as well. Then Susanna recognizes the substitute French tutor as Annabel MacReynolds, a spy for Catherine de Medici and Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned only a few miles away. Annabel claims, like Susanna, to be merely investigating Louise’s death, but the possibility of sedition only adds to the danger lurking in the waters of the “spaw.”
Susanna’s ninth investigation is slowed by more speculation than actual intrigue among the sprawling cast.