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After leaving his wife, children and job as funeral director of his wife's family's mortuary, Chester Arthur King, an Englishman known as "Mickey," moves to Rome. There he writes seedy pulp novels under pen names, such as Guy Strange, Susan Eager and S. Odomy, which he dictates onto a recording that is transcribed by the typists at a secretarial agency. When he realizes that a man has been following him for two weeks, Mickey at first assumes that his wife hired a private detective. Then one day, while meeting with his publisher Milos Marcovic, a gangster, Ben Dinuccio, enters, claiming that he handles public relations for a celebrity who temporarily wishes to remain anonymous. Dinuccio offers Mickey a large amount of money to ghostwrite the celebrity's memoirs and promises Marcovic it will be a bestseller. Two days later, Mickey is traveling on a bus tour, at Dinuccio's instructions, waiting for someone to make contact with him. When fellow tourist Jack Miller sits beside him, holding a copy of one of his books, Mickey assumes he is the contact man. However, Miller claims not to have realized that Mickey is the book's author and begins to critique the book. Impatient for Miller to connect him with the mysterious celebrity, Mickey tells Miller that he knows "all about" him. To Mickey's surprise, this perturbs Miller, who moves to another seat. At the hotel, Miller, presumably by accident, settles into the room assigned to Mickey, who then takes another room. Mickey is dining with fellow tourists when he receives a message from Miller to meet him in his room. Expecting that Miller will finally reveal the name of the celebrity, Mickey instead finds that Miller appears to be stabbed to death in his bathtub. By looking through his wallet, Mickey learns that Miller had been lecturer in English at Berkeley University. From his luggage, which contains the wardrobe of a transvestite, Mickey learns why the man was upset by their conversation on the bus. After concluding that Miller was not his contact person, Mickey then recalls that their rooms were switched and wonders if he, not Miller, was the killer's intended target. The following morning is election day and one candidate, Prince Cippola, is vigorously campaigning on a law and order platform for the New Front party. Surprised that police are not investigating Miller's death, Mickey questions the hotel clerk, who says that he personally checked out Miller early in the morning. Mickey then confronts the maid cleaning Miller's room, but she seems oblivious of any misdeed and cannot speak English. At an ancient site Mickey's tour group visits that day, Liz Adams, a young woman taking shots with a small movie camera, introduces herself as his contact. She explains that the man who wants to hire him is her "sugar daddy," actor Preston Gilbert, who portrayed gangsters onscreen and had Mafia connections in real life. Liz and Mickey are met by Dinuccio, who now explains that he is Gilbert's business partner. They proceed to Gilbert's villa on a small exclusive island, where the former actor lives with his deaf mother. Upon learning from Mickey about Miller's death, Gilbert is pleased, as he claims the man might have been trying to kill him. Over several days, Gilbert, who has recently learned that he is dying from cancer, discusses his life with Mickey, but never again mentions Miller. Later, he takes his entourage to the mainland to honor the anniversary of his father's death. There, amidst the feasting and singing of Italian songs, Betty, Gilbert's flirtatious, third ex-wife who has since married Cippola, introduces herself to Mickey. To entertain the crowd, Gilbert, a boorish prankster, performs his "routine," in which he pretends to be a waiter and spills spaghetti and wine on a dining couple. Because of his reputation as a practical joker, when a man dressed as a priest draws near and shoots at Gilbert and two musicians, everyone at first assumes it is another one of his tricks, until they discover that Gilbert has been killed. Mickey then realizes that one of the bullets was aimed at him. Later, Mickey is at the local police station looking at a lineup, where he is made uncomfortable by the presence of an authoritative American, who he presumes is an employee of the FBI. The next day, Mickey and Liz return to the villa to question Dinuccio about who might be trying to kill him, when Liz recalls that Gilbert and another man had been involved in an old scandal. She and Dinuccio remember hearing that when Gilbert announced he would write his life story, the man was uncomfortable about it. Neither of them knows who the man is, but they had both assumed that Gilbert told Mickey about the scandal when he dictated his memoirs and conclude that Gilbert's killer also believes that Mickey knows about him. During the night, unable to sleep, Mickey sees the doorknob turn slowly and prepares to defend himself, but discovers it is Liz, who then joins him in bed. In the morning, Mickey meets with the clairvoyant, De Duce, who had been previously hired by Gilbert. For a sum of money, the psychic gives Mickey a small packet containing a picture of a young woman, a man's address and a ten-year-old picture of Gilbert and other men at a shooting party. According to the De Duce, Gilbert believed that one of the men wanted to kill him and hired the psychic to determine which one. At Gilbert's funeral, Mickey realizes that Cippola is one of the men in the photograph and that several other people from that event are in attendance. What Mickey cannot understand is why any of them would be concerned about Gilbert's memoirs. While the mourners ceremoniously accompany Gilbert's coffin to its final resting place, Mickey proceeds to the address on the piece of paper to a desolate, coastal village. When he asks for the person named on the paper, a one-armed man eventually strikes up a conversation and then takes him to a lonely grave on a vacant beach. The man explains that the grave belongs to the girl in the picture and that she died when her heart gave out from the strain of being used sexually abused by several men in the hunting party. After Mickey recalls reading about orgies held at a hunting lodge, the man tells Mickey that the girl's father, the man he is seeking, was ashamed of his daughter and was paid to keep quiet. With the money, he moved north and never revealed to the police what happened. Suddenly, gunshots send them running to the man's truck. Mickey is shot in the leg, but, dodging bullets, drives the truck toward the gunman, who is dressed like a priest, and runs him down. Afterward, Mickey sees that the dead gunman is Miller. Mickey returns to Cippola's villa, prepared to accuse the prince of several murders. Instead, he faints from his wound and later finds himself lying in a gilded room at the villa with his leg in traction. Mickey is visited by the American, to whom he reveals that Cippola is behind Miller's assassination of Gilbert. Cippola, Mickey explains, feared that Gilbert would write about the girl's death in his memoirs and jeopardize the politician's ambitions. Unconcerned about the truth, the American says that Cippola is too important to allow his misdeeds to become public knowledge. After suggesting that Mickey enjoy his stay at the villa while he recuperates, the American physically threatens him to ensure his cooperation. Accepting his situation, the recovering Mickey begins writing his next book. Although the book is based on his experiences, in Mickey's version the prince dies a well-deserved death. While the real Cippola and his friends are boar hunting, Mickey ineffectually vows revenge.