In the summer of 1601, Nick Revill leaves his beloved London for the country, where his acting company will perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Instede House as part of the nuptial festivities for Lord Elcombe’s son. (Some historians believe Shakespeare’s comedy was written for a similar performance.) The trip ought to be a vacation of sorts, but it doesn’t start out well. When Nick’s professional interest takes him to a Cain and Abel morality play by the Paradise Brothers in Salisbury, an ill-conceived heckle turns the rowdy crowd against him. Kate, the beautiful daughter of magistrate Adam Fielding, tends to Nick’s bruises while the biblically named magistrate makes deductions from dust on Nick’s trousers. As Nick’s recuperating, Gooden scatters allusions, including Shakespearean references, willy-nilly. Once at Instede House, Nick finds that Harry, the would-be groom, doesn’t want to get married and that Cuthbert, the younger son, wants to be an actor, but Lord Elcombe’s authoritarian plans for them prevail. Then an eccentric man living in the woods hangs himself from a tree. Nick, who knew the man, shares his knowledge with the investigating magistrate—Adam Fielding. When Lord Elcombe himself is murdered, Nick once again has firsthand knowledge for the magistrate, who turns out to have a personal as well as a professional interest in the proceedings.
As in previous adventures (The Death of Kings, not reviewed, etc.), a pretentious stream of allusions, puns, and literary sallies provides endless in-jokes for the enlightened while muffling Nick’s otherwise pleasant chatter for everybody else.