Arthur Winner Jr., an attorney in a small but un-named American town in a time described as being roughly contemporary, is followed, in the novel, through 49 hours of his life. This is done with flashbacks to prior events that tell us more about Arthur, his acquaintances, and his community. Many of the more significant characters, including Arthur Winner Sr., the protagonist's father, are dead at the time of the novel and are only seen in these flashbacks.
Arthur Jr. is a partner in the small law firm which his father founded in partnership with Noah Tuttle. As a young man, Arthur married Noah's daughter, Hope Tuttle; they had three children, two sons and a daughter. Hope had died after giving birth to their daughter. Arthur is now married to a younger woman named Clarissa, who had been his daughter's tennis coach. The law practice currently consists of Arthur, Noah, and another man named Julius Penrose. It is said that Arthur had a brief but intense affair with Marjorie Penrose, Julius's wife.
Two cases preoccupy Arthur during the course of the novel. The first concerns the probate of the estate of Michael McCarthy. The second is the arrest of Ralph Detweiler for rape. He is also called on to deal with a new pastor in the Episcopal Church, who is asking him to take a role in the leadership of the parish. He also meets with one of Marjorie's friends, a woman who wants to discuss converting to Catholicism.
Many years ago, a trolley line had been built in the town, and Noah Tuttle had encouraged such of his clients as Michael McCarthy to invest in it. The trolley company went bankrupt, however, due to the rise of the automobile. Noah handled the bankruptcy case and, to the amazement of all, managed to return some money to the investors. The novel, however, begins to hint at a darker side to Noah's brilliance. He ridicules an elderly woman for wanting to move some of her funds from bonds into stocks. He bristles at the suggestion that the endowment of the parish could be transferred to management by the dioceses. During a hearing which Arthur supervises, Noah has an outburst when questioned about the assets of the McCarthy estate.
Meanwhile, Ralph Detweiler, a young man, has been accused of what would now be called“date rape," and is dealing with the pregnancy of another. He flees to New York, whereupon his distraught sister Helen commits suicide. Arthur examines the records that Helen has been maintaining and discovers that Noah has been embezzling from the trusts that he managed—this was the source of the money from the bankruptcy settlement. Noah embezzled $200,000 from the "Orcutt bequest" and has since been manipulating the money in his trusts, robbing Peter to pay Paul while attempting to replenish the funds. Arthur also learns that Julius Penrose has been aware of the embezzlement for some time. But Julius urges Arthur to keep quiet, hinting that he is aware of Arthur’s affair with his wife, and that he is grateful that he has been silent about that. Arthur contemplates his position, where there are no good choices. He says, “Life, that has unfairly served so many others, at last unfairly serves me.”