When I first caught sight of ‘Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars’ I saw so much promise, and when I started to read I found much more than I had expected. I found a mystery, a travelogue, a historical drama, and captivating human stories; and I found a colourful portrait mid-sixties London, that cleverly captured both the light and the shade of that particular time and place.
Anna Treadway was working-class and serious-minded; and she saw London as the centre of the universe, a place where it didn’t matter what her background and her history, where she could be accepted for what was and get on with living her life.
She loved the home she found in the big city, and the author made it easy for me to understand why, and she painted wonderful pictures of Anna’s London:
“Anna Treadway lived on Neal Street in a tiny two-bed flat above a Turkish café. She went to bed each night smelling cumin, lamb and lemons, listening to the jazz refrain from Ottmar’s radio below. She woke to the rumble and cry of the marketmen surging below her window and to the sharp, pungent smell of vegetables beginning to decay.
When she went to buy fruit at seven o’clock it took her past the Punjab India restaurant. Past the emerald green face of Ellen Keeley the barrow maker. Past the dirty oxblood tiles of the tube station where Neal Street ended and James Street began. Past Floral Street where the market boys drank their wages away and down, down, down to the Garden. Covent Garden: once the convent garden. Now so full of sin and earth and humanity. Still a garden really, after all these years.”
Though she hadn’t been drawn to the bright lights, Anna had found work in the theatre. She was dresser a rising star, the glamorous American actress Iolanthe Green, a rising star. A friendship grows between the two, very different young women.
Until the Monday when Lanny didn’t appear.
There could have been a simple answer but there wasn’t.
The next day all of the newspapers were abuzz with the mystery of the missing star. Theories were propounded. Concerns were raised. But it wasn’t long before there was no more news, the story slipped out of the headlines, and Anna began to worry that her friend had been forgotten.
One newspaper had asked asks why so much attention was being paid to one wealthy actress when in the past week alone seventy ordinary people have gone missing without any great fanfare at all. The police inspector in charge of the case agreed. He had more than enough work to do, why should he worry about an actress who had no ties, who had quite possibly decided to move on of her own accord?
Unimpressed with the efforts of the police, Anna sets out to discover what had happened to her friend. Detective Sergeant Barnaby Hayes, the one officer left on the case, warned her off. He was Irish, but he had made the decision to his name from Brennan to Barnaby so that he could fit into his new job and his new life in London; and he hoped that discovering whether Iolanthe has disappeared of her own accord, or whether something has happened to her, would impress his colleagues and his superiors.
Anna took no notice of his warning, she went on looking for Lanny, and she met a young man who was happy to help her. Aloysius was an accountant, a quiet and gentle man, an ardent Anglophile; and he was still coming to terms with the knowledge that his degree from the University of the West Indies wouldn’t gain him entry to exclusive gentlemen’s clubs or the city’s best restaurants, that the England he lived in had little in common with the England he had read about in books.
The mystery is cleverly constructed, and it spins around rich human stories.
Barnaby, his wife Orla and their daughter, Gracie had very different feeling about life in the big city. Turkish café owner Ottamar worked hard for his family and worried about his daughter, Samira, who was growing up and away from him. Anna’s landlord Leonard was gay in a world where that wasn’t legal. Aloysius faced appalling racism and police brutality, and yet he continued to be polite and respectful.
I was very taken with them all.
I saw that they were all outsiders, they had all come to London from somewhere else; and that some of them were carrying secrets, some of them were running away from something, and that some of them were chasing dreams and ambitions. Their different stories and characters developed nicely, they had things to say, as the mystery unravelled.
I came to realise why finding Lanny was so very important to Anna.
My only real issues were that Lanny’s backstory was muddled and left loose ends, and that while the final act of worked emotionally it was little contrived.
The time and place are very well evoked, and though some of the language and many of the attitudes shocked me I couldn’t doubt that they were authentic.
I loved the human drama, I was intrigued by the mystery; and I have to say that this is a very accomplished first novel and that I am very interested to read whatever Miranda Emmerson writes next.