Catherine Steadman — whom “Downton Abbey” fans may know as the actress who played Lady Mary’s rival, the Honorable Mabel Lane Fox — returns to the page with a twisty new psychological thriller, “Mr. Nobody.” Steadman’s 2018 debut novel, “Something in the Water” — a page-turning tale of a couple’s life-changing discovery while on honeymoon — caught the attention of Reese Witherspoon, who chose it for her book club and is set to produce it for film.
“Mr. Nobody” is equally fit for the big screen. The novel’s cinematic opening begins with a half-frozen man floundering on an English beach in winter, his memory gone. The story line draws from a real-life event: In 2005, a man dressed in sopping wet formal wear was found wandering on the Isle of Sheppey, in Kent, England, claiming that he had no idea who he was. He sparked a media frenzy and was later dubbed the Piano Man after witnesses heard him play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” from memory.
“Mr. Nobody” is not the fictionalized retelling of the Piano Man (who was later found to be a hoaxer) but a highly imaginative tale tinged with Hitchcockian tension and kinetic pacing. Dr. Emma Lewis, a 30-year-old neuropsychiatrist specializing in memory loss, takes on the difficult task of determining whether Mr. Nobody is a fake or is suffering from a rarely diagnosed dissociative fugue — memory loss brought on by psychological trauma. The man, who cannot speak, has the media, the police and medical experts in his thrall. Could he be a traumatized refugee washed up on shore, a veteran suffering from PTSD or the victim of a vicious attack?
It’s immediately clear that something weird, even unworldly, is going on with him. He seems to know things about strangers he meets and, most perplexedly, Lewis believes he knows the terrible secrets she has been hiding. And how is it that Lewis, who has spent 14 years avoiding the Norfolk area where he was found, has been chosen to handle his case?
More questions bubble up. Why does the unidentified man, though just 10 years older than her, remind her of her father, who killed himself 14 years ago — or did he? When Lewis meets Mr. Nobody for the first time, he calls her by a name she hasn’t used since she was 16. Why did he then fall into an unconscious state?
Steadman’s deliciously provocative novel dishes up enough questions to fill the entire space devoted to this review. She cleverly cloaks them in more mysteries, turns and shocking revelations. Much like “Something in the Water,” “Mr. Nobody” (which publishes Jan. 7) pits fascinating characters against each other and allows them to act on their worst impulses.
Steadman began her acting career before she became a published novelist, and there’s a good chance her intelligently descriptive, written-for-TV-and-film writing style grew out of her experiences in front of a camera. Her literary instincts are spot on, and the protagonists she creates feel as alive as some of the characters she’s inhabited on film.
Her author photo, for example, shows a lithe, modern-looking blonde nothing like the dark-haired Lane Fox, the heiress she played on “Downton Abbey.” Thanks to costume designers, makeup artists and Steadman’s knack for transformation, she “becomes” the aristocratic Lane Fox, a visitor to Downton who spars with Lady Mary. This talent for inhabiting characters carries over into her writing: Mr. Nobody and Emma Lewis, though invented, seem so real. “Mr. Nobody” turns out to be somebody, and his unmasking makes for a delightfully compelling story.
Carol Memmott is a writer in Austin.
By Catherine Steadman
Ballantine. 368 pp. $27
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