The novel opens in 1866 with Walter Moody, an English lawyer, arriving in Hokitika to try his luck at being a gold-digger in New Zealand. No, not a Kevin Federline type of gold-digger, more like the miner-forty-niner type of gold-digger. Moody has had a harrowing journey by sea, so he's looking to relax when he arrives at the Crown Hotel.
However, when he enters the smoking room that night, he finds he's interrupted a powwow of sorts. As he soon learns, the twelve men in the room have come together to pool their collective knowledge about some weird events and happenings that have been going on in Hokitika lately.
The men include Thomas Balfour, Aubert Gascoigne, Dick Mannering, Sook Yongsheng, Quee Long, Harald Nilssen, Joseph Pritchard, Charles Frost, Cowell Devlin, Edgar Clinch, Ben Löwenthal, and Te Rau Tauwhare. This laundry list of strange things—all of which seem somehow related and surprisingly similar to The Hangover—includes stolen treasure, drug use, mistaken/stolen identities, fraud, a possible murder, a missing man (i.e., another possible murder), gunshots that resulted in no visible damage, and a prostitute who had (apparently?) tried to commit suicide.
Strangely enough, Moody came into Hokitika on a ship captained by the man at the heart of all these strange occurrences (Francis Carver), and he had an encounter on the boat that might be related to them: He thinks he might have seen the ghost of the missing man, Emery Staines.
Their council ends up being interrupted with the news that the Godspeed has wrecked, which puts a damper on any plans to investigate the ship for evidence of Staines's presence. So much for that.
The novel then jumps ahead three weeks to February, to the day the Godspeed is finally pulled up on shore. Moody finally gets his trunk back (which he had left aboard the Godspeed when he disembarked), but only after mistakenly getting Alistair Lauderback's first. And not so mistakenly going through it. During his snooping, Moody finds some letters indicating that Lauderback is actually Crosbie Wells's half-brother. We smell a Jerry Springer episode brewing.
In other news: Crosbie Wells's widow, Lydia (who is also Frank Carver's girlfriend), is holding a séance this evening. Lydia blew into town recently to collect the fortune found in Crosbie Wells's house, and while she was waiting, she started up a business doing fortunes, séances, and the like. On the agenda tonight? The summoning Emery Staines' ghost. Dun-dun-dun.
Also, it's important to know that Lydia has hired Anna, who until recently was a prostitute, to help her in her new venture. Far from being delighted with her change in circumstances, though, Anna appears unhappy and seems to be wasting away. Lydia, who claims to be Anna's old friend from back in Dunedin, keeps her under very tight watch.
Ah Sook, Anna's old opium dealer, misses her very much, so he goes to visit her early on the day of the séance. Much to everyone's surprise, he recognizes Anna's new boss; it seems he knew her—and Frank Carver—prior to coming to Hokitika. In fact, he had sworn to kill Frank Carver to avenge his father's death. Great.
Lydia tries not to let on to Anna that she knows Ah Sook (although Anna can tell they recognize each other), but she invites him to the séance that night. At that event, instead of channeling Staines, she (supposedly) channels Carver, repeating the oath to kill Carver that Sook had uttered many years before.
Perhaps the intention behind these theatrics was to make Sook think Carver was already dead and get him to drop the scent, but Sook quickly finds out that Carver is not only alive, but in town—which, because of a language barrier, he hadn't picked up on from the conversation at the Crown in January.
Sook starts plotting to kill Carver now that they're back in the same city and disappears so no one will interfere with him in the meantime (since he knows Lydia will warn Carver). When he finally goes to do the deed in March, however, another old acquaintance, George Shepard, kills him before he can get off a shot at Carver. Right in the knick of time. Shepard claims he was just doing his duty as a lawman, but it seems an awful lot like revenge—you see, Shepard believes that Sook killed his brother back in Sydney. Disney got it right—it really is a small world after all.
On the same night that Sook is killed, Emery Staines turns up gravely wounded in Crosbie Wells's cabin. Wait—isn't this guy supposed to be dead?!
Te Rau and some others get him back to town to receive medical attention, and there Emery is reunited with Anna—apparently, they had fallen in love before he disappeared.
They end up standing trial together for a variety of crimes, quite a few of which are related to bizarre occurrences that Anna and Emery aren't quite able to explain. For example, Anna had fainted in the Magistrate's office, and everyone thought it was from opium—however, her mouth showed no signs of opium use. Curiouser and curiouser.
Similarly, Staines was found with a bullet wound in his chest—one that shoddy nineteenth century forensic evidence indicates came from Anna's gun—but he is never really able to adequately explain how that happened. He comes up with a story to explain it, but that tale appears to be fabricated, cooked up to try to explain a whole series of odd events and facts that don't actually appear to have a coherent, non-supernatural explanation. Are you thinking what we're thinking? This sounds like a job for the Ghost Hunters; they'd probably get to the bottom of it all.
Anyway, Staines is sentenced to nine months of hard labor, and Anna is acquitted. Despite the fact that he is going to jail, Emery is optimistic about his future prospects, and he makes sure that Anna will have some cash while he was away. They appear to be fairly happy overall, now that they are together, despite all the stuff that's happened and the difficulties they've been through.
Meanwhile, Walter Moody finally leaves Hokitika to go mining. His father rolls into town looking for him just as he leaves.