Iris Murdoch's twenty-third novel begins at a midsummer ball at Oxford, where a group of men and women - friends since university days - have gathered. Dancing under the stars are the charismatic Gerard Hernshaw, Rose Curtland, who has loved Gerard in silence for years, Duncan Cambus and his restless wife Jean, Jenkin Roderhood, the saintly schoolmaster who is the group's moral centre, Gerard's tormented niece Tamar Hernshaw, and David Crimond, the monomaniacal Marxist genius.
Years ago the friends banded together to finance a political and philosophical book to be written by Crimond. On this summer's evening, Crimond's actions touch off a crisis and by the night's end the vindictive ghosts of the past have invaded the present.
Passion, hatred, a duel, a murder and a suicide pact all disturb the old world of academic reflection and weekend parties. Partners change, the book is completed, somebody has to die.