Whilst surgeons are fighting to save the life of a young woman, an archaeology student found in bed with gunshot wounds to the head, Wycliffe is approached by wealthy novelist David Cleeve. He has been the regular recipient of a single playing card, the Jack of Diamonds, and on the last occasion the card was torn in half, causing Cleeve to believe that someone is out to murder him. When a man walking on a beach is indeed killed Cleeve reckons that he was the intended victim and Wycliffe uncovers a whole series of crimes starting some years earlier.
Amateur flautist Tony Miller is found shot with his own gun on land belonging to the wealthy Bottrell family, and the first verdict is that he committed suicide. However the disappearance of one of the Bottrells' maids and the discovery of a further body leads Wycliffe to uncover some rather unpalatable family secrets.
Every Halloween a life-size effigy of a man is strapped to a blazing wheel and sent into the sea - a ritual ridding the community of evil via the use of a 'scapegoat, in lieu of a human sacrifice. When the body of local undertaker Jonathan Riddle is found washed up on the rocks, at first sight it seems that he was used as the scapegoat but Wycliffe soon finds other likely motives for his demise.
When elderly Lily Armitage goes to visit an invalid friend at her tumble-down farmstead she is understandably shocked to find the old lady's corpse locked in a freezer. At the same time, pregnant teenager Hilda Clemo runs away from home after a row with her family and is declared missing. Wycliffe attempts to find a connection between the two incidents.
When the Rev. Jordan finds the corpse of his church cleaner in front of the altar, the police surgeon thinks it posed. Village women despise her sexual immorality, but Wycliffe investigates other more practical motives for murder.
When Harry Tremaine is blown up on his boat, suspicion falls on his son and principal heir Freddie. However, there are others in the frame such as Harry's unfaithful wife who was conducting an affair with his partner and the property developer anxious to build a marina on quayside land Harry was reluctant to sell. And who is the mysterious person to whom Harry gave £500 every month? Wycliffe has a lot of loose ends to tie together.