Its the eve of the French Revolution. Fiscal crisis and social tensions brew. Anne Cartier, a headstrong young vaudeville actress at Sadler's Wells company in London hears terrible news. Her stepfather, the actor Antoine Dubois has mysteriously died in Paris. The official verdict: he killed his mistress, then himself. Anne enlists the aid of Colonel Paul de Saint-Martin and his adjutant Georges Charpentier of the royal highway patrol. But, in her search for truth, Anne befriends a deaf, illiterate seamstress with a talent for puppetry who gives Anne an entre into the Palais Royale. Her quest further confronts her with an amateur theatrical society of dissolute young noblemen; a tormented female botanist; a sadistic aesthete; a rich, well-connected financier; a professional assassin.
Unravelling the mystery tests Anne's nerve as well as her remarkable acrobatic skills. At a critical juncture in the investigation, she acts the part of an exotic queen in Indian costume at a reception. Priceless Indian jewelry disappears. Its owner, an aged count is murdered. And a venal police inspector threatens to derail Anne's project.
The story rises to a violent climax in a vast limestone caveoutside Paris where the city has begun to bury its dead. Historian O'Brien's debut novel is elegantly written as befits the times and explores borders between countries and between layers of society. Few have chosen to place a crime novel here. O'Brien makes us wonder why.