London, summer of 1584: Radical philosopher, ex-monk, and spy Giordano Bruno suspects he is being followed by an old enemy. He is shocked to discover that his pursuer is in fact Sophia Underhill, a young woman with whom he was once in love. When Bruno learns that Sophia has been accused of murdering her husband, a prominent magistrate in Canterbury, he agrees to do anything he can to help clear her name.
In the city that was once England's greatest center of pilgrimage, Bruno begins to uncover unsuspected secrets that point to the dead man being part of a larger and more dangerous plot in the making. He must turn his detective's eye on history,on Saint Thomas Becket, the twelfth-century archbishop murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, and on the legend surrounding the disappearance of his body, in order to solve the crime.
As Bruno's feelings for Sophia grow more intense, so does his fear that another murder is about to take place; perhaps his own. But more than Bruno's life is at stake in this vividly rendered, impeccably researched, and addictively page-turning whodunit;the stability of the kingdom hangs in the balance as Bruno hunts down a brutal murderer in the shadows of England's most ancient cathedral.
The backbone of the story was derived from the actual transcripts of the Senate hearings that took place to investigate the tragedy. Alcott's novel humanizes the tragedy, fictionalizing what happened to the real survivors of lifeboat #1 after the ship sank. Why were there only 12 people in that lifeboat, when it could have held 50-60? Lady Lucille Duff Gordon, who in the early years of the twentieth century was the one of the top names in the fashion world, was actually in lifeboat #1, along with her husband Cosmo. In real life, Lady Duff, as she was commonly referred to, was a driven, nasty, tough woman. Alcott gives her this persona in The Dressmaker, but with a hidden softer side as well. She hires Tess Collins as her apprentice seamstress just before they board the Titanic. In the aftermath, Tess stands firm against Madame Lucille's pressure, manipulations and lies about what actually happened, determined to be a success in the U.S. and make it on her own talent. With the Senate hearings conducted by Senator William Alden Smith as a backdrop, The Dressmaker examines the choices people make when faced with a life-threatening situation and how they live with those choices afterward. The impressive caste of characters also makes this believable and intriguing history - the "Unsinkable Molly Brown;" Pinky Wade, the indominable New York Times reporter; Tess's two suitors, Jim and Jack, who also survived the disaster; and Elinor Glyn, Lady Duff's sister, a real-life famous actress and author.