Few women of the mid-16th century exercise the independence of Lady Susanna, educated wife of Sir Robert Appleton, as she supervises affairs at Leigh Abbey, the couple's home in Kent, and works steadily at a compendium of herbs while Robert spends much time abroad as emissary of newly crowned Queen Elizabeth. Sir Robert is on just such a mission to France when a letter informs him that Appleton Manor, his ancestral home, has lost its longtime steward John Bexwith--found dead while eating a marrow-bone pie amid rumors of sightings of a ghostly figure. Susanna, taking advantage of Robert's absence, organizes her maid Jennet and headgroom Mark, then makes the trip north to the Manor. She finds the servants have fled, leaving house and lands neglected and in disarray. Susanna immediately sets about provisioning, making repairs, and finding a new staff. She also meets her neighbors at Denholm Hall--loquacious Effie, her husband Randall, and their teen-aged daughter Catherine. As the days pass, Susanna becomes convinced Bexwith was poisoned. She learns a lot, too, about her husband's late, much hated father George and the old man's connections to the Denholms. In the background hover echoes of the Catholic reign of Queen Mary and the New Religion of Elizabeth's court. Susanna won't rest until she has her answers, even at risk to her life, but it's others who die as the labyrinthine secrets are revealed. The effects of a lucid style are often obscured by the murky plot, heavily laden with subplots, much local color, and more about poisonous plants than you ever wanted to know. History buffs will stand a better chance of finding this debut mystery more than tepidly entertaining.