Far From the Shore, a Happy Couple Takes a Turn for the Worse

Posted June 11, 2018 3:45 p.m. EDT

A woman is digging a grave. This is harder than you might think — it takes forever and you have to displace more than a ton of soil, about the weight of an average hippopotamus, to produce a barely serviceable 3-foot-deep hole.

But that effort is not the most arresting thing about the opening of “Something in the Water.” The real question is: Who is being buried in this do-it-yourself pit? (Don’t look at me. You’ll have to find out for yourself.)

A further surprise comes when you clock that the author of this deftly paced, elegantly chilly thriller, Catherine Steadman, appeared on our television screens not so long ago. “Downton Abbey” fans might remember her as Mabel Lane Fox, the drolly acerbic heiress who vied with Lady Mary for the attentions of the less-sexy-than-Matthew-Crawley aristocrat Lord Gillingham.

Among a coterie of tiresome single women and their Bechdel Test-failing dialogue, Mabel stood out for her feisty lack of sentimentality. Steadman brings similar qualities of wit, timing and intelligence to this novel, which has already been optioned by 20th Century Fox (Reese Witherspoon is attached to produce).

It’s annoying to those of us who are qualified to do basically one thing when good actors turn out also to be good writers. “Something in the Water” is a proper page-turner, not just a novel produced by a celebrity to whom some wine-weakened publisher said at a cocktail party, “You should write a book!”

Nor is it about the challenges of auditioning for parts or the high jinks surrounding a botched provincial production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It has nothing to do with acting. It’s about a young British couple, Erin and Mark, whose lives take a sudden lurch in the wrong direction when they are scuba diving and chance upon — yes, you guessed it — something in the water.

If they had any sense, they would swim swiftly in the other direction, where there are some pretty fish to admire. But what would be the fun in that?

Low-key menace pervades the narrative, even before anything overtly weird (leaving aside the grave-digging scene) takes place. The writing has the muscular urgency of the present tense, throwing us off-kilter in real time.

The story begins when Erin and Mark, a lovely couple who fancy each other like crazy, are planning their wedding. Mark is a great guy, but he has lost his job because of Britain’s Brexit-induced economic downturn. The stress makes him ill-tempered. “My world is not like it is in the arts or your film school or whatever,” he says condescendingly to Erin, who is working on a documentary about how convicts make the transition to the outside after serving time.

“All I am qualified to do is price and sell bonds,” Mark whinges. “Unless you’re suggesting I work in a bar?”

Clearly they will have to rethink their wedding. Out goes the asparagus appetizer with quail egg, beetroot and celeriac rémoulade for 22 1/2 pounds a head. “Can we just decide now that we’ll go for the cheapest options on food and drink?” Mark asks. (Uh-oh, the reader thinks.)

But they manage to survive the indignities of an un-asparagused wedding. They successfully travel first class to Bora Bora for a weeklong honeymoon, a final splurge before returning to their life of financial ruin. The air is warm and the water crystal clear, perfect for an idyllic interlude of diving far from the cares of the shore. Uh-oh again.

The sharks are creepy enough. But what about the reams of white paper blanketing the water’s surface, sheets covered in ink dissolved into illegibility, forming a 10-meter-wide circle around them?

As in a horror movie, you want to shout at the characters. Don’t open that thing you are about to open! Don’t turn on that suspicious phone! Even fictional characters should know by now that pretty much anyone — Facebook, North Korea, Seamless, random teenage hackers in a basement in Vladivostok, not to mention criminal masterminds — knows where you are via your electronic devices.

Steadman keeps the suspense ratcheted up so that everyone is potentially sinister: old family friends; a gangster named Eddie Bishop who is one of Erin’s documentary interviewees and far too conversant in the details of her personal life; some sketchy guy named Patrick who hangs around where he is not meant to be; even Mark and Erin themselves, who start keeping secrets from one another. Alongside Erin, who makes a wry and amusing narrator, we learn an array of new skills, including how to open a Swiss bank account with wads of cash, how to destroy hotel surveillance footage, how to alter electronic records, and how to understand the crucial legal difference between flotsam and jetsam.

Will Mark and Erin solve their financial problems? Is the denouement of the book as satisfying as its opening? What is on that mysterious USB stick everyone is so exercised about? And didn’t Erin learn, from Britain’s phone-hacking scandal, that you don’t need to have a phone in your hand to listen to its voicemail messages?

We don’t find out the answer to all these questions. But there’s a nasty jolt at the end when we learn why the dead body from the opening scene deserves such an unpleasant fate. As Eddie Bishop tells Erin: “If you’ve signed up for the game, then you can’t complain when you lose.”

Publication Notes:

“Something in the Water"By Catherine Steadman342 pages. Ballantine Books. $27.