The garotted corpse of a notorious antiquities thief and forger is discovered in an excavation pit at an archeological site near Colchester, on England's east coast. Despite being on parental leave to care for his four-month-old daughter, Detective Inspector Michael "Mick" Chandra is put in charge of the case, his family leave suspended by New Scotland Yard's commissioner.
The victim is identified as Stanislaw Janus, a former curator of pre-Roman British artifacts at the British Museum, who turned to crime by fencing his forgeries on the international antiquities black market. Prior to the murder, Janus had engineered the theft of the priceless Ravenhoe Cauldron from the Colchester Museum,. The nearly 2,000-year-old solid gold vessel had been unearthed by archeologists in the very pit where Janus' corpse was later dumped.
Mick must find Janus' murderer as well as locate the missing cauldron, but his task will not be easy. Interpol reveals that Janus assumed multiple identities and remained out of reach of law enforcement agencies. Nathaniel Wyatt, his former colleague at the British Museum, descricribes Janus as the "Steppenwolf" -- charming one minute, vicious the next. Mick calls upon he Yard's Arts and Antiquities Unit for help in this complex case.
As it turns out, he will need all the help he can get, as the case becomes increasingly fraught with danger and risk.
A diverse cast of characters illuminates and obscures Stanislaw Janus' past: Dr. Cassandra Palmer, Chief Curator of the Colchester Museum, who had known Janus for more than a decade; Dr. Gil Matcalf, director of the archeological dig, who openly disdains Janus; Alissa Woo, Metcalf's beautiful graduate assistant, who originally discovered the caludron at the Colchester sitre; Nathaniel Wyatt, Janus' former collesgue; and Anderson Peale III, noted wealthy collector of Celtic artifacts, who may not be as reputable as he seems.
Familiar faces from the two previous Mick Chandra books return as well: Jessica Beaumont, the American-born pianist who is now Mick's wife; Mick's friend and chief informant, Jamie Geller; and Mick's no-nonsense partner, Sergeant Elizabeth Chang.
The plot of The Ravenhoe Cauldron takes many u-turns and detours, often landing Mick and Elizabeth back to square one and exposing them to danger.
And what is the meaning of the mysterious rust-encrusted key sent through Mick's home mail slot bearing a note that reads: "The key to the Ravenhoe Cauldron?"