Sunday, 15 January 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson

 
published 2017

 

LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES




Miss Treadway

[Iolanthe, an actress, and Anna, her dresser, are in her West End theatre dressing room between performances.]

‘Look out into the darkness,’ Iolanthe had told her. ‘Look out into the darkness and you’ll see them.’…

‘What are they thinking about?’ Anna asked.

‘All the stuff that’s going wrong. The stuff they can’t fix. What they’re always thinking about.’

Anna paused in the action of pinning Iolanthe’s hair and caught her eye in the mirror. The older woman was sitting in her underwear, quite still and unselfconscious as if Anna were a lover or a sister.

Anna moved Lanny’s hand to hold a roll of curls while she picked through a bowl of oddments for more hairpins. ‘It must be very strange,’ she said. ‘Everyone looking and seeing something different. As if you were a funhouse mirror.’

 
commentary: The first thing to say about this book is that it has a very misleading title. Miss T and the F of S sounds like one of those novels. You know, the ones with titles like that. And then the description of the plot makes it sound as though it will be a crime novel – but it isn’t that either. To be perfectly honest, it seems like an act of complete madness on the part of writer/publisher to give it this so very twee title. But that’s their business.

The book is set in 1965 in London.

The actress, Iolanthe Green, goes missing soon after the conversation above. Her dresser, Anna, decides that the police aren’t doing enough about it, and sets off on her own investigation. She meets a young black man, Aloysius, and gets involved with the Cypriot family who live downstairs from her. She also has several encounters with the policeman investigating the case, Barnaby Hayes. The reader is given the thoughts and backstories of her entourage, and also of Barnaby’s wife Orla. I found this to be a problem: too much information, too many characters, too many unfinished stories. And I found the policeman particularly unlikeable, and rather dim.

The thing is, I really wanted to like the book: I had high hopes, and the first third was good – intriguing and nicely put together, and Emmerson is a very good writer. But then it started going wrong: it didn’t hold my interest, and I was restless with all the details and stories leading to nothing.

The 1960s research felt very carefully inserted (and occasionally wrong – you didn’t cross the road with a green man in 1965, and the Beatles song hadn’t been released) but not real enough.

This is the policeman talking:
‘The thing about truth, Miss Treadway, is that it’s not always the friend of narrative. My job is to figure out your friend, Miss Green, and to construct a likely narrative that will help us to determine if she left of her own free will or was taken. And there are two ways I can go about this. I can invent plausible narratives and try and hold them up against the fact until I find one that fits. Or I can listen to all the facts – with no particular narrative in mind – and then assemble the known knowns in such a way that they reveal the basic truth of the matter.’
Now, this is nicely written and has a certain rhythm and conviction about it (there’s quite a lot more of this speech). But - nobody talked like that in the 1960s, certainly not an Irish policeman in Soho, because the word (or concept of) ‘narrative’ simply was not used like that. It is also not remotely in line with the way Hayes talks in the rest of the book, nor with the plot of the book, nor with what actually happens in the investigation, nor with the outcomes.

I think Emmerson needs a really good editor. The ending of this book is abrupt and annoying, and is ‘about’ two different characters who have been absent from 99.9% of the action. I am guessing this means there is going to be a series, or at least a sequel. Maybe they will be better.

And I should say – many early reviewers absolutely loved this book, and I can understand that others would not at all share my impatience with it.

The picture is Laura Knight’s The Dressing Room.


















10 comments:

  1. I know what you mean, Moira, about a sense of place and time. That's something that's very important to me, too. I get pulled right out of a story if I don't have an authentic sense of place and time. It's a shame there wasn't more to keep drawn in, because it sounds as though it could have been a good 'un.

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    1. Yes, she IS a good writer. As you know, I don't particularly like being negative about living writers, especially new ones, but I hope I will like her next book better.

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  2. Oh dear. Has ANY policeman ever spoken like this? It is so important, too, to get the feel of a period right - and not easy at all.

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    1. I don't at all think people shouldn't write about a period they didn't experience, but I think they should bear in mind that readers WILL remember the era. They should get someone to check!

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  3. Maybe the best audience for this book is those who don't remember the 60s, won't notice the errors. The premise sounds interesting, strange about indicating it was a crime novel. As you say, possibly later books will be better.

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    1. It's difficult: as I said to Margot, I don't like to be negative. And there was some good stuff in there...

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    2. Well, you know the saying? If you remember the sixties, you didn't really experience them?

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    3. Indeed. I was a bit young for that... but I remember hoping that the excitements wouldn't have gone away by the time I was old enough to take part.

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  4. Replies
    1. Yes, I try to make some allowances, but it does trip up your belief in the setting.

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