She lives above a retired Art Deco theater in San Francisco’s Sunset District with an old long-haired cat, her harpsichord and enough yarn to fill a railroad car.
The police call her the Yarn Woman. Her specialty is the forensic study of textiles. But they ask for her help with some trepidation because they know that whatever crime she’s unraveling for them comes with a lot of knots and baggage. And ghosts. There are always the ghosts."
— Nat P.M. Fisher
A tremendous offshore storm loosens the shipwrecked remains of a nineteenth century schooner from the silt a few hundred yards off the San Francisco shore. The appearance of the Albert Townsend seemingly has nothing to do with a vicious murder that occurs only days later, or with the severe beating and animal mauling of a precocious girl in the same area directly south of the surfaced Townsend.
But when the SFPD calls in their forensic textile consultant to analyze their only clue — an old, blood-soaked wool garment — the trail leads directly, impossibly, back to the schooner. Ghosts of the Albert Townsend marks newspaper reporter Nat Fisher's first case with the brilliant and eccentric Ruth M, known to police and the FBI as "the Yarn Woman."
Human remains are discovered on a beach south of Half Moon Bay by a homeless Gulf War vet, the brother of San Mateo County Sheriff's Deputy Dennis Avila. Soon, the brothers are plagued by nigthtmares of the dead man and a strange woman — and the terrible feeling of impending catastrophe.
With little to go on in identifying the deceased, Avila realizes that the traditional knitting pattern in the dead man's sweater might lead to a clan or family, and even cast a light on the man's mysterious death. He contacts the Yarn Woman, and she begins to unlock the meaning behind the peculiar sweater, telling Avila that though he may be searching for a dead man's identity, he must, above all, find the man's imperiled wife before time runs out.
When Ruth, working again with Nat Fisher, does locate her, she's faced with much more than a survivor of terrible abuse and imprisonment — she finds herself staring directly into the eyes of an ancient myth.
Six-year-old Gabriel is one of a "family" of eight adults and children under the protection of Joey Starling. The Yarn Woman meets Gabriel on a foggy afternoon at Ocean Beach, where the scrawny, curly-haired boy seems to materialize from the sea mist, his bloody ankle and sadly crooked wrist both quite visible. Who has hurt the child? Soon, he vanishes, but they meet a second time when he silently leads Ruth to an older man whose body lies dead in a street-side gutter.
Detective William Chu, trying to make sense of the killing, recruits the Yarn Woman to help with the case. In her third outing with chronicler Nat Fisher, Ruth learns the body is that of fading San Francisco playwright Henry Berq, whose most recent work may have led to his murder. To find the killer, Ruth must link together the play, the playwright and young Gabriel, but she discovers much more — a sinister subculture of beggar-masters and their thralls in the City by the Bay.