Nathaniel Steepleton--Thaniel, to his friends--is a telegrapher in the British Home Office in the 1880s. He's very good at it, but he was a talented pianist, before his brother-in-law died and left him responsible for the support of his sister and two nephews. Supporting a sister and nephews in Scotland requires a reliable income, so he's sold the piano, become a telegraphy clerk, and is living a much quieter, more circumscribed life, so he can send half his salary to his sister.
Then one day in May he comes home to find that his flat has apparently been burgled--except that nothing is missing. In fact, a watch has been left--a very good watch. The maker's paper inside indicates it was made by a Mr. Mori of Filigree Street. It's strange and unaccountable, but beyond talking to his friend Dolly Williams at Scotland Yard, there's not much else to be done. And it's a good watch. Besides, the far more interesting information is that Irish nationalists have announced that government buildings will be blown up in November--six months off.
Six months later, an alarm on the watch goes off, drawing him out of a bar near Scotland Yard and the Home Office, which is badly damaged when Scotland Yard blows up. The strange watch that just turned up has saved his life.
Grace Carrow, a young lady pursuing the unfashionable (for ladies) study of physics at Oxford, also receives a watch. In her case it's a gift.from her brother. It's also the work of Mr. Mori of Filigree Street. Grace is determined to prove the existence of ether and measure the speed at which light moves through it.
Checking out Mr. Mori and his clockwork draws Thaniel into some strange experiences. Mr. Mori seems quiet, friendly, and harmless, yet strange things happen around him. One of them is that within days he's been poached by the Foreign Office because they are short on skilled telegraphers, and he knows Japanese. Thaniel doesn't know Japanese, but he's just taken a room at Mr. Mori's because Williams at Scotland Yard wants him to keep an eye on Mori, and Mr. Mori is happy to teach him...
Meanwhile, Grace's studies are temporarily at an end because she didn't get her ether experiment successfully included in time to win a fellowship before she had to go back to her parents' home in London. Lord and Lady Carrow are determined to marry her off to a now-widowed old friend, a senior official at the Foreign Office--in fact, the very one who poached Thaniel. (This official's name is pronounced Fanshaw. Since I listened to the audiobook, I can't swear to the spelling referenced in the dialog, but I'm guessing "Fetherstonhaugh.)
They meet at the Foreign Office ball, and things continue to get weirder and weirder. It's an understatement, really, to say strange things happen around Mr. Mori. He answers the question you were thinking of, rather than the one you asked. He remembers things you haven't told him yet, and things you haven't done yet.
And he makes the best clockwork in London, well able to act as timers for bombs set to go off days or weeks after they're placed. He's such an obvious suspect, as the bomb maker for the Irish nationalists.
This is a complex and winding plot, that starts slowly but builds toward a great climax. Thaniel, Grace, Mori, Williams, Fetherstonhaugh, and other characters around them are portrayed with sensitivity and intelligence.
It's a great read, a great listen, and really drew me in completely.
I received a free copy of the audiobook from Audible.com in exchange for an honest review