Vienna, 1903. An operatic diva, Ida Rosenkrantz, is found dead in her luxurious villa. It appears that she has taken an overdose of morphine, but a broken rib, discovered during autopsy, suggests other and more sinister possibilities. Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt seeks the assistance of his young friend, the psychoanalyst Dr Max Liebermann, and they begin their inquiries at Vienna's majestic opera house, where its director, Gustav Mahler, is struggling to maintain a pure artistic vision while threatened on all sides by pompous bureaucrats, vainglorious singers, and a hostile press. When the demagogue Mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, becomes the prime suspect - with an election only months away - the Rosenkrantz case becomes politically explosive. The trail leads Rheinhardt and Liebermann, via a social climbing professor of psychiatry, to the Hofburg palace and the mysterious Lord Marshal's office - a shadowy bureau that deals ruthlessly with enemies of the ageing Emperor Franz Josef. As the investigation proceeds, the investigators are placed in great personal danger, as corruption is exposed at the very highest levels.
Meanwhile, Liebermann pursues two private obsessions: a coded message in a piece of piano music, and the alluring Englishwoman, Miss Amelia Lydgate. Romance and high drama coincide as the Habsburg Empire teeters on the edge of scandal and ruin.