Henry Pulling is a retired bank manager content with his quiet life of tending dahlias at home in Southwood, England. This peaceful seclusion ends at his mother’s cremation, where he encounters his aunt, Augusta Bertram, for the first time in over hal f a century. Shocked by the frank manner of this septuagenarian relation, Henry nonetheless accompanies her home for a visit. There he finds waiting her companion Wordsworth, an African gentleman under investigation for smuggling cannabis–an intrigue i n which Henry unwittingly involves himself when he momentarily loses track of his mother’s ashes. Back at home, Henry is interrupted when the police unexpectedly arrive to examine his urn of ashes where, they rightly suspect, Wordsworth has hidden his st ash of marijuana. Aunt Augusta informs Henry that Wordsworth has caught a ferry to Paris and that she could use ‘a little sea air’ herself.
So, Henry neglects his garden and joins his Aunt on a day trip to Brighton, quite an adventure for the stay-at-home retiree. There an old friend and colleague of Augusta’s reads in a cup of tea that Henry will be traveling much in the near future. ‘T hat’s not very likely,’ Henry insists. Yet Henry soon finds himself en route to Istanbul via Paris, accompanied by Augusta and a suitcase full of smuggled cash. On the Orient Express, Henry’s encounter with an American girl named Tooley expands his view of the world while demonstrating how very small it is. Arriving in Istanbul, Henry finds himself the focus of unwanted police attentions and is soon asked to leave the country.
Now more accustomed to travel, Henry asks his aunt to join him in visiting for the first time his father’s grave in Boulogne, France. There, Henry gains insight into his father’s shady past and, he might suppose, Augusta’s connection to it. Augusta d oes not return with her nephew to England, however, and with little explanation leaves him the keys to her apartment. Henry grows restless after more than eight weeks alone with dahlias and Sir Walter Scott, but another police interrogation and an author itative command from Augusta to depart immediately for Buenos Aires send him packing without a moment’s hesitation.
Arriving in Argentina, Henry finds another letter directing him upriver to Paraguay. On the slow journey he meets the only other English-speaking passenger aboard, an American named O’Toole with a peculiar hobby involving urine and a stopwatch. By a remarkable coincidence, this is Tooley’s father. Arriving in Formosa, Henry finds Wordsworth waiting for him with explicit instructions to accompany Henry to his aunt’s home in Asunci—n. There Henry is welcomed by Augusta in her large but mostly unfurni shed house: all accouterments will arrive shortly in the care of Mr. Visconti, the former Nazi collaborator with whom Augusta has been happily reunited. The couple expect to make a killing in ‘a very promising enterprise;’ they are smuggling, and trust H enry to manage the bookkeeping.
Arrested for an unfortunately timed sneezing fit before National Party Headquarters, Henry calls on Se–or O’Toole at the American Embassy. O’Toole (more than just a social researcher, it seems) arranges Henry’s release, then ushers him to Augusta. Sh e has been joined by Visconti and, thanks to Henry’s unwitting assistance, now possesses a rare Leonardo da Vinci sketch. The American purchases this drawing for $10,000 and promised immunity for Visconti while in Paraguay. No longer surprised by such developments, by the following night Henry is entertaining the notion of remaining in South America with Augusta and Visconti. At a party that evening Henry is introduced to the daughter of the Chief of Police: when she is sixteen, she will be Henry’s wife. After the soiree, Henry stumbles upon Wordsworth’s lifeless body in the garden. Did his jealous love for Augusta get the better of him? Were more nefarious forces at work? Saddened but not disturbed, Henry slowly walks back to embrace his new life and settle his new home, far from his familiar dahlias.