The year is 1820. Rider Sandman, a hero of Waterloo, returns to London to wed his fiancée. But instead of settling down to fame and glory, he finds himself penniless in a country where high unemployment and social unrest rage, and where men—innocent or guilty—are hanged for the merest of crimes.
When he's offered a job as private investigator to re-open the case of a painter due to be hanged for a murder he didn't commit, Sandman readily accepts—as much for the money as for a chance to see justice done in a country gone to ruins.
Soon, however, he's mired in a grisly murder plot that keeps thickening. Sandman makes his way through gentlemen's clubs and shady taverns, aristocratic mansions, and fashionable painters' studios determined to rescue the innocent young man from the rope. But someone doesn't want the truth revealed.
Fans of Cornwell's gallant up-from-the-ranks rifleman, Richard Sharpe, will welcome the upright Captain Rider Sandman, a veteran, like Sharpe, of Waterloo and the Peninsula campaign, in a mystery that highlights the horrors of capital punishment in Regency England. Compelled as a civilian to play cricket to earn a bare living in the wake of his disgraced father's financial ruin and suicide, Sandman can hardly refuse the Home Secretary's job offer of looking into the case of Charles Corday, a portrait painter convicted of murdering the Countess of Avebury. Since Corday's mother has the ear of Queen Charlotte, someone has to go through the motions of confirming Corday's guilt before he goes to the scaffold. Sandman, though, soon realizes that the man is innocent, and to prove it he has to locate a servant girl who was a likely witness to the countess's murder and has now disappeared. Sandman's investigation leads him to confront the corrupt and decadent members of London's Seraphim Club, but fortunately his reputation as a brave battlefield officer turns into allies any number of ex-soldier ruffians who might otherwise have given him trouble. The suspense mounts as Sandman must race the clock to prevent a miscarriage of justice at the nail-biting climax. An unresolved subplot involving our hero's ex-fianc e, who still loves him despite his fall into poverty, suggests that Sandman will be back for further crime-solving adventures. Traditional historical mystery readers should cheer.