The Disappearing Act by Catherine Steadman

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Catherine Steadman’s book has been touted as a psychological thriller of a very scary persuasion. When I began reading, I discovered that I was just plain bored. The story seemed to have no direction, the heroine appeared to me insipid, and a great lot of nothing was supposed to capture and hold my interest.

It seemed that Mia Eliot was flying to Los Angeles to audition for an acting position in one of the big media productions that the Americans do so well. Also auditioning is a woman named Emily who insists that Mia precede her in the now short queue. Mia does not accept the offer but, seeing that Emily is restless, she ascertains that the other woman is worrying that her parking permit is about to expire. Mia pays the parking but when she returns to casting, Emily is nowhere to be seen. After sixty-five pages the story is no further advanced.

A woman, calling herself Emily, turns up at Mia’s flat, to collect her things. This is a spot where suspension of disbelief must be practised. Why someone could believe that Mia would not recognise an impostor is beyond my ken, as is Mia’s action in handing over Emily’s property. Belatedly, Mia goes looking for answers – and this is where the tension begins to grow.

It’s a little tricky, trying to ascertain how the tension is built. The characters never quite become human. Their actions seem unconnected, as though they are following a script. Nick owns a business near a car-park, the very one where Emily leaves her car. He has enough time to know that Emily’s car has not been removed. A complete stranger, he feeds her meter to stop it being towed away. Mia keeps the plot moving but often through actions that strain credibility.

Yet the tension keeps building, the reader unable to put the book down. From a shabby seventy-odd pages grows a masterpiece of suspense. What is remarkable is that, perched on the edge of your seat, transfixed as events unfold, yet you do not lose that feeling that the scenes are artificial, that surely there is no character in fiction that makes as many silly decisions as Mia. The desire to sell the idea that Mia is someone extraordinary because she is capable of such acting skill as leaves everybody else in her wake, does not work for me.

While I can understand the choice of LA as the venue for most of the action in the story, I believe that it was a poor choice. Correctly or otherwise, those who live in this city are seen as grasping, certainly not the sort of people to feed a meter because some stranger is likely to be towed.

To say that Catherine Steadman should hang up her laptop and try some other profession is wrong. She is a very good writer, even though she can be developing a plot so slowly that one is inclined to want to give up. When the plot begins to move, the reader responds with gathering interest. I know that she would bloom like the healthiest of Spring flowers if a hardnosed editor were to give her direction.

Frustrated or not, scared as the tension rises, I would recommend this writer and suggest she will become a voice in the future.

The Disappearing Act

(2021)

by Catherine Steadman

Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 9781398506350

$32.99; 352 pp

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