Where did I leave off? Yes, we've been introduced to Ronald Leith, a married and recently-retired London clerk, living on a reduced income because his career was blighted by his covering up for an in-law who'd embezzled money and fled the country. Leith, it turns out, has a rather dashing history; as a young army officer, he was shot in Sicily after a letter of betrayal by a young Italian Contessina he loved. But he has just found enciphered annotations showing the letter was written under duress.
The scene now moves to the Hotel Magnifico in the resort of Lugano, in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. The notable guests are the aristocratic di Gagliardini family, staying incognito - the middle-aged Baronessa Beatrice (aka Bice) and her two grown-up children, the Baron Gino and Baronessina Remigia (nicknamed piccina - "little one" - a bit too close to piscina for my liking), and their annoying little yappy Pomeranian dog Biffo.
Over extensive travelogue and description of the Lugano area, we find that the di Gagliardinis are taking a break to hide from pressure by Remigia's guardian, her uncle Onofrio, to get her to marry a man she hates, Ettorino Malorio. She is in fact sharing her love of music in secret meetings with Mario Melata, a young composer.
Meanwhile the Baronessa, shadowed for her protection by Gino, is on a pilgrimage to do penance for some wrong in her own past. Further complication arrives in the form of gossip from Sicilian guests, the Caluzzi family, to the effect that Onofrio and Malorio are actually Mafiosa; and finally the unwelcome arrival at the hotel of the suave and sinister Onofrio and Malorio themselves. We know they're up to no good because Biffo doesn't like them, and of course dogs can detect evil.
Meanwhile, in London, the Leith family are out of penury in one bound through a bequest from cousin Stanley, the relative Leith bailed out decades ago. He buys a new house and a grand piano for his daughter, and, evidently hoping to unravel the past, books a family tour to Switzerland ...
Maxwell Gray is getting weird. At the end of the 19th century, she was becoming increasingly touchy and peeve-ridden about what she saw as encroaching modernism and decline of traditional values.- see "A plea for the silence of the novelist" - and this increasingly leaked into her novels. In this one, expounded via a rumination of the lead character, there's a characteristic peeve about typewriters.
Typewriting, he observed, tossing it aside to make room for a cup of coffee, was part of the colorless, characterless monotony of a democratic age; it gave one no hint of the writer, or the nature of the letter. It might be anything, from an announcement of the highest promotion to that of the death of a dearest friend; there was nothing to blunt the shock or temper the violence of the communication; it was a rude and mannerless device, only fit for savages. But, as people were paid for typewriting, one might learn the craft one's self, and turn an honest penny by it. That was worth thinking of though, by the time he had acquired the art, he was afraid it would be superseded by some newer and still more deadly device—thought-photography, perhaps —one's ideas might be snap-shotted in a train, in the street, even in church; people would have to take out copyright in their own souls, and these would, no doubt, be heavily taxed.She'd have loved mobile phones and the Internet!