A young man cannot escape his past no matter how far he runs.
The carnival in Venice just before Lent of 1358 provides entertainment but no peace for Oswald de Lacy, Lord Somershill, whose trip to the Holy Land has stranded him and his mother in Venice because a war has halted all ships. They’re staying at the home of John Bearpark, an old family friend. Bearpark’s beautiful, much younger, and heavily pregnant wife, Filomena, is also there, along with two other pilgrims awaiting passage. Bearpark’s grandson, Enrico, has been showing Oswald around Venice, and Oswald’s gambling has put him deeply in debt to one of Enrico’s friends, who demands payment within a week. After Oswald finds Enrico murdered, his mother brags about his past successes solving crimes (The Butcher Bird, 2016, etc.), and Bearpark engages him to find the killer, a task Oswald accepts only because he’s desperate for money. Bearpark refuses to notify the authorities, and Oswald, who’s already been questioned by them, agrees. Enrico’s homosexuality was punishable by death in Venice, and Bearpark thinks his unknown lover killed him. With the help of Bearpark’s clerk, Giovanni, Oswald travels around Venice searching for Filomena’s vanished brother. Suffering from a deep melancholy, Oswald constantly feels that he’s being watched, perhaps by the ghost of a depressed monkey he tried to rescue in London, but he can never bring himself to face what he fears. As he continues his investigation, he’s once again detained and tortured by the authorities, who think he’s a spy. Although he seems to be getting nowhere, he refuses to give up, and in the end, finding the truth sets him free from his despair.
A Venice whose ancient glories still survive today provides the background for an investigation whose solution is secondary to identifying the cause of Oswald’s angst.