Exposition (Initial Situation)
Just Sit Right Back And You'll Hear A Tale
The book opens on January 27, 1866. A man named Walter Moody has come to Hokitika, a New Zealand town in the throes of gold mining-mania, to try his hand at digging. He's pretty traumatized from the boat ride, during which he saw something pretty weird and possibly supernatural, though we don't find out what that is immediately. Upon landing, he heads to the Crown Hotel to get a room and chill out. When he goes down to the smoking room, however, he discovers twelve men who were definitely in the middle of something and hoping to be alone. Awkward.
Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)
No—It's Really Complicated
When everyone present at the meeting figures out that they can trust Moody, they decide to take him into their confidence and tell him about some very strange goings-on in town that all appear somehow related, including stolen treasure, drug use, mistaken/stolen identities, fraud, a possible murder, a missing man (i.e., another possible murder), gunshots, and a prostitute who had (apparently?) tried to commit suicide. Yeah, this is definitely no Nancy Drew mystery—the stakes are high.
After everyone has weighed in with their part of the story, the men (or at least, the men who understand English well—two of those present do not) seem to conclude that a) the missing man, Emery Staines, is likely dead and b) Crosbie Wells was likely murdered by Francis Carver. Since Carver captained the ship Moody came in on, the plan is to have Moody do some investigating when he picks up his trunk the next day. However, just as the meeting is winding down, the lookout for the meeting runs in with the news that the Godspeed is wrecked. How's that for timing?
Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)
Mayhem, Muddle, and Misunderstanding
The book then picks up about three weeks later. Lydia Wells, Crosbie's widow (and Frank Carver's girlfriend/conspirator) has started her own entertainment palace, and she's holding a séance that evening with Anna Wetherell, the local prostitute who had quit the profession after her suicide "attempt," serving as her assistant. The purpose will be to summon Emery Staines's spirit. In case you're wondering, this is like the nineteenth century equivalent of Sylvia Browne—that washed up "psychic" from the Montel Williams show.
Early in the day, Sook, owner of the local opium den and Anna's old friend/dealer, goes to visit Anna at Lydia's hotel (where Anna is now living). Sook is shocked to see Lydia there, since he knew her from Sydney. He knows she's a "friend" of Francis Carver, whom he wants to kill for driving his father to suicide, but he thinks Carver is out of town.
Lydia recognizes Sook as well and—far from shunning him—insists that he come to the séance that night. Sook agrees and brings Quee.
The séance doesn't end up summoning Staines, but Lydia channels Carver, repeating some words in Cantonese that Ah Sook himself had said to Carver when he vowed to kill him. Also, through some trickery, Lydia arranges for the lamp to mysteriously fall over on its own and set the table on fire. Poor table.
Whatever nonsense Lydia was trying to pull by channeling Carver's "spirit" (perhaps she was trying to pass him off as already dead?), Ah Sook quickly finds out from the others present that Carver is alive and in town right at that moment. Oops. He resolves to go save up for a gun and kill Carver at his earliest convenience. If that doesn't spell premeditated murder, then we don't know what does.
Bodies and Revenge Galore
Unfortunately for Sook, there's someone around who wants revenge on him: George Shepard, the brother of the man who ended up getting shot the last time Sook tried to kill Carver (long story—see the full step-by-step plot summary for those details). He ends up shooting and killing Sook before Sook can carry out his revenge.
While all that was going on, Te Rau discovered Emery Haines in Crosbie Wells's house, injured and apparently delirious. He arranges to for Staines to get medicine and transport into town, where he ends up holing up in the jail. Why, you ask? Well, his beloved, Anna, is there on charges of intoxication after she mysteriously fainted while talking to a solicitor about a fortune she might possibly be owed.
(Pretty Much) Everyone Gets What They Deserve
A month later, Anna and Emery end up on trial for various crimes related to the hijinks/mysterious happenings we've been hearing about for the whole book. During the trial, the bad behavior of Frank and Lydia Carver (yup, they got married) comes to light, and the court takes Frank into custody. While he's being transported to jail, however, someone (probably Te Rau) breaks into the carriage and bashes his head in. Ouch.
Anna is ultimately acquitted, and Staines (who had pled guilty) gets nine months of hard labor. However, he is able to make financial arrangements to ensure Anna is comfortable and safe during his absence—a real Prince Charming.
With the trial over, Moody leaves Hokitika for a dig, apparently unaware that his father has rolled into town looking for him. He makes a new friend named Paddy Ryan on his way out, and they are set to trade stories on the journey. And boy, what a story Walter has to tell…