Dispatched by spymaster Allen Pinkerton behind Confederate lines to gather information about “the Monster”—the rumored refitting of the captured Union ship Merrimack into an ironclad warship invulnerable to enemy fire—Virginia scion Harrison Raines, arriving in Richmond just in time for President Jefferson Davis’s inaugural, stumbles on a bit of luck: his former romantic rival Palmer Mills, now the husband of Harry’s first love, Arabella Armstrong, is a key supplier of iron sheathing who’s bound to know more about the fearsome new vessel. But Harry’s unexpected reunion with Arabella goes inauspiciously when she turns up at his hotel, throws herself into his arms, and intimates a lively interest in going much further. Their second meeting is even more awkward: Harry returns from dinner with Davis and General Lee to find Arabella’s naked corpse hanging from his chandelier and his servant Caesar Augustus, the boyhood companion freed from slavery who’s accompanied him on his dangerous mission, about to be whisked off to jail and impending execution without trial. Putting his intelligence-gathering mission on hold, Harry dashes about in a frenzied effort to get Caesar Augustus freed, but succeeds only in provoking a duel and antagonizing most of the town’s citizens before another twist of fate gives him a much closer look at the ironclad Monster than he’d planned.
As in Anne Perry, characters are congratulated for embracing enlightened 21st-century moral ideals. Although the mystery is generously plotted, Harry (A Killing at Ball’s Bluff, 2000, etc.), a most timely witness to history, isn’t much of a spy.