Miss Muriel Beale, the General Nursing Council’s inspector of Nurse Training Schools, arrives at Nightingale House, a forbidding red-brick Victorian edifice. She is here to observe the third-year students’ first teaching-session of the day, but instead she faces a murder. Authorities initially called the death a suicide, or a prank gone wrong.
Someone had substituted a cream-looking disinfectant for the warm milk used in a teaching session on feeding a patient by intragastric tube. Nurse Heather Pearce, the student subject, died a painful death. Sixteen days later, Josephine Fallon, the intended target of the deadly teaching session who had been excused that day because of influenza, is poisoned in her room after a quiet evening watching television. Again, the tightknit community would like to believe her death was a suicide, not a murder.
School surgeon-consultant Dr. Courtney-Briggs repeatedly troubles local police about the murders, so they call in an inspector, Adam Dalgliesh, and his team from Scotland Yard. Dalgliesh’s method is to establish a work space in situ and begin interviewing witnesses, listening for lies, discovering relationships and discrepancies, checking motives and opportunity, and paying careful attention to time. A meticulous search uncovers the bottle of disinfectant that killed Nurse Pearce; it was found in the bushes near the nurses’s apartments.
Police then discover that Sister Ethel Brumfett, present at neither death, had been called out the evening of the second death to help Courtney-Briggs with emergency surgery. When she returned, the Burt twins were talking about taking Fallon some hot chocolate because her bedside light was on; they decided not to do so.
Courtney-Briggs remains reticent and actually misleads the police, claiming he had left the building immediately after surgery and had put a white scarf on a fallen tree to warn other pedestrians. Police also find out that Sister Mavis Gearing had invited Leonard Morris, the chief pharmacist of the hospital, to dinner; they had parted ways several minutes after midnight. Morris had seen Sister Brumfett leave the building, too, but testifies that at 12:17 a.m., he injured himself after stumbling over a fallen tree in the dark. Contrary to Courtney-Briggs’s earlier claim, Morris had injured himself because the tree did not have a warning marker. A weakened pane of glass that had been blown out in the evening storm suggests an outside intruder, but the absence of other indicators turns the investigation on those who had been inside the building.
Later, a reenactment of the scene of the first murder shocks participants into recall, and Dalgliesh finds a discrepancy that narrows the window of opportunity for murder, suggesting who but not why: No one could have exchanged disinfectant for milk before a certain time. The housekeeper, Morag Smith, confesses to Dalgliesh that she had topped off the milk and added water to disguise her action. That bottle turned up in the nurses’ refrigerator. The substitute bottle of disinfectant must have been left later, but before the teaching session. The Burt twins remembered during the reenactment that the bottle cap had indeed been different from the one on the bottle they had used earlier.
The next discovery is a bottle of nicotine that is used to control insects on rose bushes, a bottle that student nurse Madeleine Goodale, heir to Fallon’s fortune, recalls joking about publicly in the past. Nicotine in a whiskey nightcap had killed Fallon, and the bottle had been hidden in the sand of a fire bucket.
The final pieces of the puzzle soon emerge. First, a patient Nurse Pearce had tended, Martin Dettinger, soon dies, but not before revealing, through feverish ramblings, that...
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someone named Irmgard Grobel had been in his room. Second, Pearce had borrowed Fallon’s library card to check out a book on war tribunals. Third, and finally, Sergeant Charles Masterson confirmed, by interviewing Dettinger’s mother, that Grobel had been prosecuted but acquitted for war crimes. She also told Masterson of her connection to a hospital sister. The investigation leads to Dalgliesh nearly being killed by someone wielding a golf club; it also leads to a confession letter from Sister Brumfett, who ends up dead—her burned body found in a charred garden shed. Dalgliesh, however, had seen through the ruse and narrowed the investigation to two killers: Brumfett, who killed two women to protect her friend (Grobel) and to protect her power over that friend, and the nursing school’s matron, Mary Taylor (also known as Irmgard Grobel), who killed her friend Brumfett to keep her own secret and win her own freedom.
With no evidence to provide a conviction for Brumfett’s murderer and with little evidence that Brumfett had killed Pearce and Fallon, Dalgliesh cannot make any arrests. However, his pursuit eventually costs Mary her position and reputation, and her life. The next summer she kills herself with the same drug she had used to kill Brumfett.