Miranda Emmerson’s Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars slipped under my radar when it was published a few years ago, probably because it was billed as crime fiction and I get enough of that through my almost nightly Walter Presents fix, but the title of this new one caught my eye. Set in 1967, on the eve of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, A Little London Scandal explores the blight of illegality on the lives of so many through the death of a rent boy in suspicious circumstances.
What London sold was not pleasure itself but the promise of it. People came and they brought their hunger with them
Caught up in a raid at Piccadilly Circus, Charlie makes a run for it, heading towards the gardens at the back of the Hellenic, a gentleman’s club where he thinks he’ll be safe. Next morning his body is found and an investigation launched by a CID keen for a conviction. There are important people involved, not least Richard Wallis whose once promising career in Harold Wilson’s government was scuppered by his arrest for his alleged involvement in an assault on another rent boy. The evening of Charlie’s death, Wallis and his wife, Merrian, had been at the theatre where her friend was performing. Bored by it all, Richard tells Merrian he’ll call for a drink at the Hellenic before coming home, an arrangement overheard and remembered by Anna Treadway when Nik Christou is arrested. Anna knows Nik from the coffee bar she lives above. Finding it hard to believe that this quiet young man could have committed murder, she takes things into her own hands helped by Detective Sergeant Hayes whose acquaintance she made when a young American actress went missing. These two set about their own investigation, Hayes an increasing irritant to the CID and Anna determined to right what she’s convinced is an injustice. Their quest takes them through all echelons of London’s society, from the establishment to the homeless, until the mystery reaches its sad, ultimately shocking resolution.
You fall in love with being special. And it doesn’t matter what your political beliefs are. You fall in love with being special and it changes you
Despite its thread of suspense, Emmerson’s novel is much more about a society in which so many people suffered the misery of smothering their sexuality while living in fear of exposure. It’s also about exploitation – young boys forced to leave home and finding the only way to survive is by selling themselves. Emmerson explores her theme with delicacy, deftly shifting her narrative’s perspective from Anna to Nik to Merrian and back again. Anna is an immensely likeable character – brave and compassionate with her sights set on justice, you’d want her in your corner – and Nik’s backstory is sensitively handled. One of the things I most enjoyed about this atmospheric novel was its vivid sense of place which took me to a part of London I know well, long before the gentrification I’m accustomed to. Anna seems to make a habit of amateur sleuthing. Given that this is her second outing, I’m wondering if she and DS Hayes are going to set up shop together for future instalments.
Fourth Estate: London 9780008244330 336 pages Hardback read via NetGalley