At the center of “The Disappearing Act” is an impetuous British actress named Mia Eliot, who flies to Los Angeles for high-stakes auditions. She’s been nominated for a BAFTA for her starring role in “Eyre,” a series based on the Charlotte Brontë novel. Mia hopes the publicity will pay off in Hollywood. Mia is indeed this novel’s Jane Eyre, as she is forced to draw on all her strengths when she’s pulled into a twisty mystery. It involves the disappearance of Emily Bryant, a woman she meets at an audition. What happened to Emily and why her fate is somehow linked to Mia are the two prongs of this gripping tale. When Mia unearths evidence that Emily may have been raped by a studio executive, the story gets darker still.
In any good noir novel, an atmospheric locale is vital, and Steadman richly evokes Los Angeles “in all its monstrous glory.” Mia, looking down on the city from a hilltop terrace, sees Los Angeles as “a fading ingenue with just the right lighting once the harsh light of day has passed, its gray arterial freeways, bald-patch car parks, and low sun-bleached buildings all melted from sight, leaving behind only the winsome sparkle in Hollywood’s eyes.”
Looming over this masquerading city is the iconic Hollywood sign, and Steadman gives the landmark a sense of foreboding — describing it as “the world’s biggest tombstones jutting up into the night sky.” It’s on and near these “nine white letters writ forty-five feet high” that some of the novel’s best scenes take place. Steadman delves into the sign’s provocative history, recounting the sensationalized story of a young woman who jumped off it after losing a breakout role to another, at the time, unknown actress named Katharine Hepburn.
Reading “The Disappearing Act” is much like watching a suspenseful film, and its intentional, camera-ready sensibilities might make it a better movie than book. It shares this quality with “Something in the Water,” which has been optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company. Steadman’s knack for telling stories easily adaptable for the screen also earned her a new gig last year: She’s writing the series treatment for Jess Ryder’s “The Ex-Wife,” another female-centric psychological thriller.
“The Disappearing Act” has some minor flaws that don’t line up with Mia’s “what would Jane Eyre do” attitude. Mia is fierce like Jane, but she’s also unbelievably foolish and naive. She rushes off to meet a stranger in the middle of the night, purposely crashes her car when she needs an alibi, remains in an apartment that’s been broken into several times and places herself in danger as she searches for a woman she knew for only a few minutes. Somehow, the novel’s twists and turns make some of these unrealistic scenes forgivable.
Still, Steadman’s flair for storytelling makes this novel a welcome escape. It employs a plot like the one in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” I won’t reveal, and stellar scenes set at high elevations bring to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s use of heights in “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest.”
Carol Memmott is a writer in Austin.
THE DISAPPEARING ACT
By Catherine Steadman
Ballantine. 320 pp. $28