When I'm acting I can be someone else. And somehow, you know, acting's domesticated and sweetened the pain of the gift, so that I can be fully a part of the human world, as well as slip into other skins, and cast other shadows on the stage. (p.155)Toby's Uncle Theo, director and manager of the Trentham Troupe of Players, is determined to revive his faded West End hit Malvolio's Revenge. But as night falls on New Year's Eve, 1909, in rainy Louisiana, they're still on the road, an arrangement fallen through and no particular destination ahead.
Then a house looms out of the darkness, and they're welcomed in by Isabelle de Castelon, "last owner of Illyria", and her devoted nurse Marie Laroche. Through Toby's eyes we see Isabelle's excitement as the troupe perform highlights from Uncle Theo's play, a sequel to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in which fortunes are reversed and cross-gartered Malvolio thrives as advisor to the king of a neighbouring country. Once the performance is over, Isabelle declares her intention to join the troupe. But she's not driven by art alone: she's determined to find the man who murdered her father and broke her mother's heart.
In New Orleans, the somewhat infatuated Toby helps Isabelle locate half-blood crimelords Tombstone and Klondike, and makes some discoveries of his own; Gabriel Harvey, the leading man; Tom Nashe, the mysterious fiddler; the troupe's millionaire benefactor Mr Wilson; Wilson's dodgy-looking secretary Follett; and Marie Laroche, Isabelle's nurse and confidante, who's more than she seems.
Underlying and structuring the Gothic romance and the murder mystery is an exploration of racism, both the institutional variety (the 'Jim Crow' laws that segregate whites and coloured in New Orleans' bars and theatres) and the insidious prejudices that affect every character. Sophie Masson writes clearly and evocatively, and presents a cast of intriguing and (mostly) likeable characters. Toby, the viewpoint character, is especially well-drawn: he's an English teenager in a culture and country that's completely alien to him, and he has some hard lessons to learn.