London, early 1950s. Marcia Beasley of St John's Wood is discovered dead in her home, naked and covered with a coal scuttle. Detective Sergeant Greenleaf is tasked with solving the crime and bringing meaning to her gruesome death. It is a discomfiting matter, not only for the victim's niece Rosy Gilchrist eager to distance herself from her aunt's fate and raffish reputation but to all members of the deceased's social circle. The floral Felix and acidic Cedric, awful Vera, self-enamoured artist Clovis Thistlehyde, the amiably inane Fawcett family all, it seems, have secrets to hide and grudges to bear.
Reluctantly Rosy is drawn into a mesh of intrigue, encountering those she would prefer to avoid and uncovering facts she would rather not know. Dragged from her ordered world, she is thrust into one of mad uncertainty. Who, for example, is the limping midnight visitor? Is the bibulous priest as ingenious as he seems? And will Mrs Burkiss ever yield her keys to the broom cupboard? A host of colourful and comic characters leap from the pages in their hurry to identify the murderer, unravel the mystery of Marcia's life, and discover the importance of all that coal.