A deceptive mystery set in London’s “Swinging Sixties” (October 30, 1965 – November 18, 1965): On the surface, this is a mystery about a moody actress gone missing in a moody city. Like all crafty deceptions, it turns deeper than that. Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars is a heady mix of historical fiction when “the world had decided it would make no more sense.” A novel more serious than the lighthearted title suggests.
Moods move upbeat and downbeat. Lively backdrops transport the “baroque loveliness” of the “largest theatre district in the world” along with the sultry, Caribbean-influenced jazz scene. Biting social/cultural commentary on racism and prejudices towards people of color, immigrants, the gay community, and others not “English as toast” presents a tumultuous city of dramatic contrasts amidst a “great wave of malevolence.” London is multi-layered, like the novel.
Since this is a novel tied to a London play (Field of Stars) penned by a British author who is also a playwright it caught my attention, believing if you write what you know it’s likely to feel authentic and be crafted in atmospheric prose. That it is. Miranda Emmerson knows London’s “Theatreland” (Soho, West End). She also knows the faces of other London neighborhoods as the search for the vanished starlet Ionathe Green – Lanny – traces and races through London like a street map.
The actress’ costume dresser-turned-gumshoe Anna (Miss Treadway) was the last to see Lanny leave the Galaxy Theatre, described in glimmering prose:
“A world of angel faces, ribbons and masks; opera glasses in their little cages, pill-box hatted ice-cream girls in sharply starched black and white. It was a world seemingly unchanged in the past fifty years, a place suspended in time.”
Emmerson’s prose is also historically accurate. Be forewarned it’s populated with the same offensive language denigrating people by the color of their skin as you’d find in an historical novel set in America’s Deep South. The ugly “c” word was apparently “common parlance in the sixties” of Britain, particularly fervent as an influx of immigrants flooded into the country from the Caribbean and Africa. The anti-immigrant movement was not restricted to blacks. Sentiments against the Irish were fierce too. Trying to understand this disturbing history, I learned that in 1962 Britain passed its first Commonwealth Immigrants Act, eerily reminiscent of the anti-Muslim ban the Trump administration proposes. This London is an equal opportunity discriminator against all persons differing.
At least we can take heart that the author has created a shining character from Jamaica: Aloysius, a proud accountant. His elegance, gentleness, compassion, and handsomeness inside and out leap off the pages. You’ll fall in love with him. He joins Anna on her consuming hunt for Lanny, for she, unlike the police, feels an urgency to find or find out what happened to the leading lady. He’s attracted to her and protective, realizes she can’t do this alone. The two meet at a rocking jazz club, a client of his, after Anna learns Lanny was spotted at the Roaring Twenties (out of sync with her go-it-alone persona). It’s one of a number of legendary nightspots depicted in the novel, where the music of Jamaica – Ska – pulsates.
Mini-skirts were also the rage. So conservative, bookish Anna stuck out with her oxfords and “librarian’s clothes.” Yet Aloysius (also a literature lover) sees her as “beautiful,” as she sees him. After four unkind years in London (except for his landlady who treats him like her own) adjusting to the “white person nod,” Aloysius confides he’s only “had the pleasure of an honest conversation about twice a year.” Anna, who shies away from intimacy for a reason that becomes clear at the ending, isn’t sure if Aloysius manifests “beauty from his features” or the “kindliness he exuded.” It’s both, which is why she admires and respects him. This gentle-man begs us to be better than we are. “Why do we need to refer to the color of people’s skin?” he implores.
Like an interesting play, the novel delivers an ensemble of diverse characters. Some represent goodness; others definitely not. All seem to share a deep desire to reinvent themselves. Of course it’s the good ones who make the novel hum.
Here’s a glimpse into some characters without giving anything away:
- LANNY: Forty-year-old Irish American diva “charming the Home Counties.” Hasn’t forgotten her tenement-Boston early years. Not much is known about her when she disappears.
- ANNA: Despite top billing, probably the fuzziest. Twenty-some and reserved, we know there’s something in her past she wishes forgiveness for. As her search with Aloysius intensifies, so does their relationship.
- ALOYSIUS: “Genteel voice,” even when he’d be justified to act otherwise.
- OTTMAR: Owner of a Turkish café that’s a “little slice of Istanbul,” where Anna used to waitress. Worried sick over one of his daughters, rebellious Samira. Can’t understand “why the love he had to offer seemed to cure nothing at all.” We feel his pain.
- LEONARD: Owner of the Galaxy Theatre and an apartment close to Ottmar’s café. His profanity flashes “manic grief” and resentment over the discrimination he endures as a gay man.
- BARNABY/BRENNAN: Irish detective on the West End police force who has changed more than his name. Wants to succeed so badly he’s let his marriage and fatherhood go adrift.
- JAMES: Reporter who broke the story, “Disappearance of a West End Star.”
- INSPECTOR KNIGHT: Barnaby’s cynical, foul-mouthed boss in no hurry to investigate a missing, aging actress.
- SAMIRA: Perhaps the most outside of them all, reflective of the novel’s unflinching treatment of the immigrant experience. “No one is like us,” she cries. “No one’s Turkish. No one’s Muslim” … “at school I’m this thing. This thing that doesn’t fit. I feel like dirt.” This may not be the novel we’re expecting, but it’s exemplary.
- ORLA: Brennan’s Irish wife, another goodhearted soul leading an awfully lonely existence. She “had a light that shone on the people around her,” making her despair even more egregious. Lives in a “bubble” with her baby girl, Gracie.
As the plot drives headlong looking for Lanny, these characters call out for a more mindful, accepting society. Ottmar asks: “After all the thousands of years and all that philosophy and religion and books and poetry, after the millions of elections and debates, that’s as good as we get?” Similarly, Aloysius wonders: “Maybe we all have to look out for each other?” Questions that will linger long after the mystery is solved.
So grab your Columbo trench coat, Aloysius’ fedora hat, Anna’s ticking-clock determination, and Barnaby’s notebook to crack the case. Don’t get too distracted by the “little Versailles” theatre district, marketplace hustle of Covent Garden, jazzy rhythms, Turkish delights, Soho hippies, Georgian residences, moonlight over the Thames, and all the mayhem. A lot to take in.
London’s shifting “Swinging Sixties” may have “seemed romantic” to the dreamers in the novel, but it reveals a darker underbelly. Along the way, many characters also reveal they’re hiding something. They’re not – we’re not – as different as others would like us to believe.