In the frigid winter of 1891, with the nation still reeling from the Barings bank crisis, Inspector Philemon Raft returns from an involuntary sabbatical and is tasked with solving the kidnapping of highly placed peer Alice Dewberry. Thrust into a sordid underworld where the upper classes indulge in disreputable overseas investments designed to fatten their pocketbooks, Raft finds himself at loose ends without his companion, Constable Freddie Crook. Far from offering their help, members of upper classes use every asset at their disposal to keep Raft from discovering the truth about hapless kidnap victim Alice Dewberry – who may not even exist.
Soon Raft discovers that his old nemesis, the workhouse master John Gallant, has returned to London. Gallant doesn’t say what he wants – but he knows enough to ruin Raft’s career and even his life. Raft tries to solve the case with his usual strange insight, but there are other, darker forces at work. This is a frightened London: the London of Whitechapel; of Jack the Ripper; the London of poverty, dirt, and despair, where a right turn down the wrong alley could earn Raft a swift trip to the morgue.