‘What Was Lost’

A dark, thrilling debut novel about a girl detective who goes missing.

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I was 11 when Kathy Dole, the shyest, smartest girl in my sixth-grade math class, lent me her copy of “Harriet the Spy.” I turned the first page and lightning struck. Kathy and I bonded intensely and soon were developing elaborate spy routes.

At least there were two of us. In What Was Lost, a dark, enthralling thriller by Catherine O’Flynn, the young girl detective is all on her own – heartbreakingly so. Kate Meaney, the plucky, earnest, touching protagonist of “What Was Lost,” may only be a child, but she’s already a very solitary girl.

“The dull ache of loneliness in her stomach,” O’Flynn tells us, “was old news.”

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It’s 1984 and Kate lives in Birmingham, England, with her not-too-terribly maternal grandmother.
But young Kate has a mission in life. Just before he died, her beloved father gave her a book called, “How to Be a Detective.” The idea of finding out the truth about things and people – and possibly becoming a heroine in the process – is very appealing to Kate. So she has some stationery printed up and becomes the founder of Falcon (from “The Maltese Falcon,” of course) Investigations.

Kate isn’t the kind of girl who makes many friends in school. (“I’m not sure they like me very much,” she says of her classmates. “I’m not very fast at running and I think maybe some of them think I’m strange.”)

But she does have a partner. His name is Mickey and he’s a stuffed monkey, resplendent in a pinstriped suit and spats. He has the kind of professional air that Kate thinks will lend some class to Falcon Investigations. (He was “a dapper fellow,” O’Flynn tells us, “a monkey who wouldn’t show you up in public, a monkey you could take anywhere.”) So Kate does carry him everywhere (although most often he is seen sticking up out of her bag, along with her “Top Secret” notebook).

Kate’s other friend and confidant is a grown-up named Adrian. He works at his father’s shop in Kate’s blighted neighborhood and seems a gentle, kindred spirit. It’s not much but it’s the life Kate has made for herself and in its way it seems to work.

One day, however, Kate’s grandmother upsets the applecart by announcing that Kate – top student that she is – must take an exam to try to win a scholarship to an elite boarding school. Kate is horrified by the idea and the day of the exam she simply disappears.

Police are called in and Adrian – the last person seen with Kate – seems a likely suspect. He is hounded by all around him until he, too, disappears.

Fast forward to 2003. Adrian’s little sister Lisa is grown up and leading an aimless life as the assistant manager of a music store in Green Oaks Shopping Center (the mall where Kate centered her investigations). Lisa loathes her job, misses her brother, and just barely endures her live-in boyfriend, Ed. (Ed’s the kind of guy who, on a Saturday, suggests, “We could get some videos in if you want, lie on the sofa, and eat toast all day.”)

Then one day Lisa finds a stuffed monkey shoved behind a pipe in one of the 12 miles of service passageways under Green Oaks. At the same time, one of the mall’s security guards, an equally lost soul named Kurt, spies an image of a young girl carrying a bag and a toy monkey on one of the mall’s surveillance cameras. (Oddly, only he can see the image.)

Finally Kurt and Lisa come together and, suddenly, after 19 years of silence, the search for Kate is on again.

I’m not going to say too much more because from here on in you really should be reading the book. O’Flynn is a deft and darkly satiric writer. “What Was Lost” is the kind of book you won’t want to put down until you reach the final page. And even once you’re there, you still won’t be quite ready to let go.

“What Was Lost” is O’Flynn’s first novel and it made a splash when it was released in Europe last year. The book won the 2007 Costa First Novel award; was short-listed for The Guardian First Book Award; and was longlisted for both the Booker and the Orange prizes.

Not everything about the book works. O’Flynn’s intense social commentary grates at times. Yes, I have no problem agreeing that today’s consumer society is unfulfilling for many, that most shopping malls are less appealing than the urban centers they replaced, and that glitzy packaging and products cannot fill the empty spaces in our hearts. I simply didn’t need to have such themes telegraphed to me quite so relentlessly.

However, that is not to say that anything came between me and my desire to find out what happened to Kate Meaney. She’s as odd and endearing a girl as you’ll meet in literature and the memory of her will linger long after you read the end of her story.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor. Send comments to kehem@csps.com.

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