Aberdeen, 1841. Woodcarver John Grant has an unusual new commission - creating a figurehead to feature onstage in the melodramas of a newly-arrived theatre group. Simultaneously, he’s also trying to unravel the mystery of the death of a young woman, whose body has been found in the filth behind the harbour’s fish sheds. His loving relationship with Helen Anderson, which began in The Figurehead, has grown stronger but, despite the fact that they both want to be together, she rejects the restrictions of conventional marriage, in which the woman is effectively the property of the husband. As John works on the figurehead, Helen persuades her father, a rich merchant, to let her get involved in his business, allowing her to challenge yet more conventions of a male-dominated society. The story weaves parallels between the stage fictions, Helen’s business dealings, a sea voyage, stage rehearsals, and John’s investigations. In the end, the mystery death and the romantic dilemma are both resolved, but in unexpected ways.