Jonas Applegarth is a brilliant but belligerent playwright. When his play, The Misfortunes of Marriage, is performed by Westfield's Men, it causes an uproar. All of Applegarth's enemies attack the company. Nicholas Bracewell defends the playwright loyally but Applegarth is then found hanged by the neck. It is only the first of many mysteries that Nicholas has to solve.
Westfield's Men are furious when they are satirized by a rival children's theater company at the Blackfriars playhouse. A second attack by the laughing hangman throws everything into disarray. Nicholas is under enormous pressure, not least because he is trying to rekindle his romance with Anne Hendrik by helping her to fend off an aggressive suitor. His beloved company is under threat as never before, and he has to call on all of his resources to rescue them.