This highly elliptical novel, set in England after World War II, deals with a sedate, bored lower-class couple—Michael and Margaret Banks—who are lured into fronting a racehorse scheme. Michael Banks is befriended by William Hencher, a well-meaning but lost soul who fell into association with a ruthless gang during the war.
After his mother's death, Hencher wants to repay the Bankses for their allowing him to rent a room in their home, where he lived with his mother twenty years prior. Knowing Michael likes horses, Hencher invites him to the heist of the racehorse Rock Castle—which goes awry, leading to Hencher's death. The gang members then keep Michael under wraps.
Realizing that Margaret is becoming suspicious of Michael's absence, they force Michael to call and tell her to meet him at a party. In order to ensure that Michael will front as the owner of the stolen stallion, they kidnap Margaret while distracting Michael with two women, both sexual predators. The heavy of the gang, Thick, beats Margaret mercilessly with a truncheon after she attempts to escape; then, Larry, the seemingly invincible kingpin of the gang who orchestrates the novel's events, slashes and rapes her.
Meanwhile, in a brutally ironic contrast, Michael finds delirious pleasure in a femme fatale, Sybilline, the mistress of Larry—and two other women, as well. Having been badly beaten in a street fight with a constable, Michael attempts to redeem himself from both criminal activity and infidelity by thwarting the race, which has been set up in order to allow Larry to retire to America in comfort.
Plot, though, is decidedly subordinate in Hawkes' fiction to intense imagery and a nightmarish, hallucinatory atmosphere. Many details of the plot can only be inferred, and many narrative questions cannot easily be answered. The narrative parodies detective thrillers, particularly through the final presentation of two baffled detectives in bowler hats who, having discovered Hencher's corpse during a heavy rain, set out "separately on vacant streets to uncover the particulars of this crime."
In some sense, these figures may be taken as representatives of the reader, who is left to make coherent sense out of the novel's fragments. Some readers have found the novel's events highly disturbing, but the ultimate meaning and value of the work are irreducible to incident; instead, they inhere in the vividly impressionistic style through which these sordid events are both presented and transfigured.