Not many men emerged from Trafalgar without an ounce of credit to their names, but through an over-reliance on rum and his habitual bad luck, Lieutenant Martin Jerrold managed it. In February 1806 he comes to Dover with one final chance to redeem his reputation. Before he has been there a day, however, he finds himself standing over a body that is too far from the cliffs to have fallen accidentally. To his horror, Jerrold is suspected of murder. His captain despises him and the magistrate, Sir Lawrence Cunningham, wants to kill him. Only the fact that no-one can identify the body prolongs his freedom. When word reaches Jerrold's long-suffering uncle at the Admiralty, the choice is stark: he must clear his name, or be cut off without a guinea.
Somewhere in Dover's twisted streets, someone must know something. But Jerrold soon discovers that nothing is as it seems in a town where smuggling is a way of life, and where everyone from the fishermen to the colonel of dragoons drinks only the finest French brandy. And all the while, Jerrold is under suspicion, gaining sympathy only in the less-than-respectable arms of Isobel, the girl who seems - without any great effort on his part - to be becoming his mistress.