Florence Tod, a young woman of wealth, spends her summer as a guest of Isabel Stewart Gardner, known later as patroness of Bostons famous museum. On a visit to Isabels rival collector friend J. P. Morgan, the two ladies sneak a peak at a recently acquired manuscript desired by Isabel, the exquisitely illustrated manuscript of Hildegard von Bingens Ordo virtutum choir book. Shockingly, the body of Morgans librarian is found lying beside the manuscript. Next to the work is a mysterious gold tablet which Isabel takes, setting off a chain of events that involve Florence in a dangerous conspiracy. Her attraction to a handsome Pinkerton detective and tenuous friendship with the writer Edith Wharton add to the plots complexities.
Readers learn about this age which was gilded for some and not for others. Well described are the lives and mansions of the new industrial barons, contrasted to the deep poverty of immigrant ghettos like Hester Street. The grime choices for women with limited means are well told too. But the historically known principle characters and numerous references to other places and personalities, such as Jack the Ripper, Tamaney Hall, and Madam Boverys for a start, seem to be used more as a way to capture the interest of todays readers than illuminate the plot. And if the story is set in 1890, as the book notes claim, some idea of the sources used would help. For example, one for the workers march for suffrage and against corruption. Back references to Florences involvement in an earlier murder are also confusing.