From the Publisher
“What Was Lost is a terrific, wonderful book and I loved every page of it.” Douglas Coupland, author of The Gum Thief
“An off-beat quirky little mystery which punches way above its weight. Set in Birmingham in the mid-eighties, adolescent loner Kate aspires to be a great detective, spending days on stake-out at her local shopping centre. The narrative then jumps 20 years, when the ghost of a little girl starts appearing in service corridors. The author's achingly astute observations on consumerism make this far more than a generic mystery and the icing on the cake is a twist in the tail which I really didn't see coming.” Marian Keyes, author of Anybody Out There? and Angels
“What Was Lost is a delight to read--poignant, suspenseful, funny and smart. . . . [It] is a moving novel, bespeaking not only the energy and inventiveness of its author but also the power of good old realism.” Jane Smiley, LA Times Sunday Book Review
“The bravest and most appealing adolescent this side of The Lovely Bones, aspiring detective Kate Meaney vanishes partway through Catherine O'Flynn's mesmerizing debut novel, What Was Lost. . . There are many ways to feel invisible, we learn from this gentle, sharp-sighted tale of love and loneliness. And there are many ways to be found.” O, The Oprah Magazine
“Engrossing. . . With a sure hand for both suspense and satire, O'Flynn is a masterful writer, and her book a delicious mash-up of Nancy Drew and High Fidelity--teary and tart in the right proportions.” Marie Claire
“At once moving and wickedly funny, [What Was Lost] is one dazzling debut.” People (four stars)
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"Saturday, 1 September.
Green Oaks: two hours outside the banks today. Nothing to note except short man walking about unaware of 4-foot length of toilet paper stuck to his shoe."
Kate Meaney, a precocious 10-year-old, is no ordinary sleuth. Notebook in hand, Kate is always on the lookout for suspicious characters and their dodgy doings. And when spunky little Kate disappears, suspicion is cast on an acquaintance of hers: 22-year-old Adrian Palmer. Though never officially charged, the shadow of doubt drives Adrian out of town, and the mystery of the missing Kate remains unsolved.
Twenty years later, Adrian's younger sister Lisa, who works at a music shop in a local mall, continues to receive the occasional missive from Adrian. And things continue apace until the image of a young girl appears on the mall's security camera. In short order, the weight of keeping secrets is too much to bear: Adrian returns to town, and a childhood friend of Kate's reveals a long-held clue to her last known hours.
Prepare to be tickled by Kate, but don't expect a wholesome detective story suitable for younger readers. For while the fate of the endearing Kate drives this tale, O'Flynn's narrative also exposes the dark underbelly of the British underclass.
(Fall 2008 Selection)
Stirring and beautifully crafted, this debut novel recounts how the repercussions of a girl's disappearance can last for decades. In 1984, Kate Meaney is a 10-year-old loner who solves imaginary mysteries and guesses the dark secrets of the shoppers she observes at the Green Oaks mall. Kate's unlikely circle includes her always-present stuffed monkey; 22-year-old Adrian, who works at the candy shop next door; and Kate's classmate, Teresa Stanton, who hides her intelligence behind disruptive behavior. Kate's grandmother has plans for Kate: send her to boarding school. But Kate doesn't want to go. Fast forward to 2003, where it's revealed through Lisa, Adrian's sister, that Kate disappeared nearly 20 years ago, and Adrian, blamed in her disappearance, also vanished. Lisa works at a record store in Green Oaks and is drawn to Kurt, a security guard whose surveillance-camera sightings of a little girl clutching a stuffed monkey hint that he might have ties to Kate's disappearance. Teresa, meanwhile, now a detective, has her own reasons for being haunted by Kate's disappearance. Gripping to the end, the book is both a chilling mystery and a poignant examination of the effects of loss and loneliness. (July)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
O'Flynn's debut begins with self-made detective and ten-year-old orphan Kate Meaney as she buses her way to the Green Oaks Shopping Mall, where she'll surveil the various customers who may want to commit crimes: "Crime was out there. Undetected, unseen." With notebook and stuffed monkey in tow, Kate spends her days when not in school either outside the mall looking to catch a thief or at a neighborhood store sharing her observations with the shop owner's son, 22-year-old Adrian Palmer. When Kate disappears one day, never to be seen again, suspicion falls on Adrian, and the two-decade-spanning, unsolved case wreaks destruction on the lives of those who had touched Kate's life in one way or another. This seamlessly written, character-driven novel offers up well-appreciated humor along with its darker material, and readers who enjoy sideswiping surprises will not be disappointed. Recommended for public libraries.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School- In 1984, Birmingham, England, is home to Kate Meaney, 10 years old, bright, self-possessed, and so obsessively engaged in the art of detection that she puts Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet to shame. Twenty years later, Kate is just a memory in a very few people's minds-and an obsession to a security guard at a Birmingham "shopping and leisure center." A peer but a stranger to Kate, he knows he saw her the day she disappeared, but, a child himself at the time, he hadn't reported his sighting. Now he sees her on the security cameras in the mall, and his new friend who works at the music store-and who has her own past with Kate-finds the little girl's toy monkey in the employees-only area of the complex. O'Flynn has created an ensemble cast of fully developed and engaging characters-children, adults, and adolescents-and placed them in a plot that twists and turns more than the underground and locked stretches of the mall. And she creates sentences and verbal images that are both finely honed and flawlessly flowing. This is a book with high appeal to mystery and suspense fans, and also to anyone who appreciates fine writing or mesmerizing storytelling.-Francisca Goldsmith, Halifax Public Libraries, Nova Scotia
This debut novel, nominated for the Man Booker Prize, is part mystery, part ghost story, and altogether wonderful. The story begins in O'Flynn's hometown, Birmingham, England, in 1984. The heroine is Kate Meaney, ten-year-old private eye. Kate's interest in detective work is rooted in a fondness for film noir she shares with her father. When he dies, her amateur sleuthing helps her remain connected to his memory. Kate is a shy, serious, singular child, and her only friends are eccentrics and outcasts. There's Adrian, the adult son of a local shopkeeper; Teresa, the girl who sets new standards for naughtiness when she transfers to Kate's school; and Mickey, the plush monkey who accompanies her on stakeouts at the local mall. Kate's grandmother-who becomes her guardian when her father dies-wants Kate to go to boarding school, but Kate has other ideas. The narrative shifts to 2003. The mall where Kate followed suspects is still there, but now the action revolves around Kurt, a security guard, and Lisa, an assistant manager at a record store. Neither is happy at work, but these dead-end jobs are just symptoms of a more general malaise and paralysis. Both Kurt and Lisa are immobilized by tragedy, and both become obsessed with a little girl Kurt sees on a security camera one night-a little girl with a plush monkey peeking out of her backpack. This is, ultimately, the story of Kate's disappearance and the people transformed by it. It's also a mordantly funny depiction of the contemporary retail workplace. And it's a romance. These pieces should not fit together, but they do. O'Flynn is able to capture a character or a scene with a few perfect details, and she seems to possess an uncanny,ennobling sympathy for her characters. Heartbreaking, hilarious and immensely rewarding. Agent: Lucy Luck/Rogers, Coleridge & White
Read an Excerpt
Crime was out there. Undetected, unseen. She hoped she wouldn’t be too late. The bus driver was keeping the bus at a steady 15 m.p.h., braking at every approaching green light until it turned red. She closed her eyes and continued the journey in her head as slowly as she could. She opened them, but still the bus lagged far behind her worst projection. Pedestrians overtook them, the driver whistled.
She looked at the other passengers and tried to deduce their activities for the day. Most were pensioners and she counted four instances of the same huge, blue checked shopping bag. She made a note of the occurrence in her pad; she knew better than to believe in coincidences.
She read the adverts on the bus. Most were adverts for adverts: ‘If you’re reading this, then so could your customers.’ She wondered if any of the passengers ever took out advertising space on the bus, and what they would advertise if they did.
‘Come and enjoy my big, blue, checked shopping bag, it is filled with catfood.’
‘I will talk to anyone about anything. I also eat biscuits.’
‘Mr and Mrs Roberts, officially recognized brewers of the world’s strongest tea. “We squeeze the bag.”’
‘I smell strange, but not unpleasantly.’
Kate thought she would like to take out an advert for the agency. The image would be a silhouette of her and Mickey within the lens of a magnifying glass. Below, it would say:
Clues found. Suspects trailed.
Visit our office equipped with the latest surveillance equipment.
She made another note in her pad of the phone number on the advert, to be rung at some later date when the office was fully operational.
Eventually the bus reached the landscaped lawns and forlorn, fluttering flags of the light industrial estates that surrounded the newly opened Green Oaks Shopping Centre. She paid particular attention to unit 15 on the Langsdale Estate, where she had once witnessed what seemed to be an argument between two men. One man had a large moustache, the other wore sunglasses and no jacket on what had been a cold day — she’d thought they both looked of criminal character. After some deliberation and subsequent sightings of a large white van outside the unit, she had come to the conclusion that the two men were trafficking diamonds. Today all was quiet at the unit.
She opened her pad at a page with ‘Unit 15 Surveillance’ written at the top. Next to that day’s date she wrote in the slightly jerky bus writing that dominated the page: ‘No sighting. Collecting another shipment from Holland?’
Fifteen minutes later Kate was walking through the processed air of the Market Place of Green Oaks. Market Place wasn’t a market place. It was the subterranean part of the shopping centre, next to the bus terminals, reserved for the non-prestige, low-end stores: fancy goods stores, cheap chemists, fake perfume sellers, stinking butchers, flammable-clothes vendors. Their smells mingled with the smell of burnt dust from the over-door heaters and made her feel sick. This was as far as most of Kate’s fellow passengers ventured into the centre. It was the closest approximation of the tatty old High Street, which had suffered a rapid decline since the centre had opened. Now when the bus drove up the High Street no one liked to look at the reproachful boarded up doorways filled with fast-food debris and leaves.
She realized that it was Wednesday and that she’d forgotten to buy that week’s copy of the Beano from her usual newsagent. She had no choice but to go to the dingy kiosk in the centre to get it. Afterwards she stood and looked again at the True Detective magazines on the shelf. The woman on the front didn’t look like a detective. She was wearing a trilby and raincoat . . . but nothing else. She looked like someone from a Two Ronnies sketch. Kate didn’t like it.
She rode the escalator up to the ground floor, where the proper shops, the fountains and plastic palms began. It was the school holidays, but too early to be busy. None of her classmates was allowed to go to the centre without their parents. Sometimes she’d bump into a family group with one of her peers in tow and would exchange awkward greetings. She had picked up a sense that adults tended to be uncomfortable with her solo trips out and about, so now whenever questioned by shop assistant, security guard or parent she would always imply that an unspecified adult relative was just off in another store. Largely, though, no one questioned her, in fact no one ever really seemed to see her at all. Sometimes Kate thought she was invisible.
It was 9.30 a.m. She retrieved her laboriously typewritten agenda from her back pocket:
09.30—10.45 Tandy: research walkie talkies and microphones
10.45—12.00 general centre surveillance
12.00—12.45 lunch at Vanezi’s
12.45—13.30 Midland Educational: look at ink pads for fingerprinting
13.30—15.30 surveillance by banks
15.30 bus home
Kate hurried on to Tandy.
She was flustered to arrive at Vanezi’s restaurant a good twenty minutes past noon. This was not the way a professional operated. This was sloppy. She waited by the door to be seated, though she could see her table was still free. The same lady as usual took her to the same table as usual and Kate slid into the orange plastic booth which offered a view out over the main atrium of the centre.
‘Do you need to see the menu today?’ asked the waitress.
‘No thanks. Can I have the Children’s Special please with a banana float? And can I not have any cucumber on the beefburger, please?’
‘It’s not cucumber, it’s gherkin, love.’
Kate made a note of this in her pad: ‘Gherkins/cucumbers — not same thing: research difference.’ She’d hate to blow her cover on a Stateside mission with a stupid error like that.
Kate looked at the big plastic tomato-shaped tomato-sauce dispenser on her table. They were one of her favourite things — they made total sense.
At school last term, Paul Roberts had read out his essay, ‘The best birthday ever’, which culminated in his grandparents and parents taking him out to Vanezi’s for dinner. He spoke of eating spaghetti with meatballs, which for some reason he and everyone else in the class had found funny. He was still excited as he rushed through his story of drinking ice-cream floats and ordering a Knickerbocker Glory. He said it was brilliant.
Kate couldn’t understand why he didn’t just take himself there on a Saturday lunchtime if he liked it so much. She could even take him the first time and tell him the best place to sit. She could show him the little panel on the wall that you could slide back to reveal all the dirty plates passing by on a conveyor belt. She could tell him how one day she hoped to place some kind of auto-shutter action camera on the belt, which could travel around the entire restaurant taking surveillance shots unseen, before returning to Kate. She could point out the washing-up man who she thought might be murderous, and perhaps Paul could help her stake him out. She could maybe invite him to join the agency (if Mickey approved). But she didn’t say anything. She just wondered.
She glanced around to check that no one could see, then she reached into her bag and pulled out Mickey. She sat him next to her by the window, so that the waitress wouldn’t notice, and where he had a good view of the people below. She was training Mickey up to be her partner in the agency. Generally Mickey just did surveillance work. He was small enough to be unobtrusive despite his rather outlandish get-up. Kate liked Mickey’s outfit even though it meant he didn’t blend in as well as he might. He wore a pin-striped gangster suit with spats. The spats slightly spoiled the Sam Spade effect, but Kate liked them anyway; in fact she wanted a pair herself.
Mickey had been made from a craft kit called ‘Sew your own Charlie Chimp the Gangster’ given to Kate by an auntie. Charlie had languished along with all of Kate’s other soft toys throughout most of her childhood, but when she’d started up the detective agency last year she thought he looked the part. Charlie Chimp was no good though. Instead he became Mickey the Monkey. Kate would run through their agenda with him each morning and he always travelled with her in the canvas army surplus bag.
The waitress brought the order. Kate ate the burger and perused the first Beano of the new year, while Mickey kept a steady eye on some suspicious teenagers below.
Kate lived a bus journey away from Green Oaks. Her home was in the only Victorian block of houses left in the area, a red-brick three-storey outcrop which looked uncomfortable amidst the grey and white council-built cuboids. Kate’s house was sandwiched between a newsagent’s shop on one side, and a butcher and greengrocer on the other. Her house had clearly also been a shop once, but now a net curtain hung across the front window and what had been the shop was a sitting room where Kate’s grandmother spent her long afternoons watching quiz shows.
The house was the only one in the block not to function as a business (aside from Kate’s putative agency operation), and it was also the only one used as a home. None of her shopkeeper neighbours lived above their shops; at around six o’clock each evening they would shut up and depart for their semis in the suburbs, leaving silence and emptiness on all sides of Kate’s room.
Kate knew and liked the shopkeepers well. The greengrocer’s was run by Eric and his wife Mavis. They had no children, but they were always kind to Kate and bought her a surprisingly well-judged Christmas present each year. Last year it had been a Spirograph, which Kate had used to make a professional-looking logo on her business cards. Now her time was taken up with the agency and constant surveillance activity, Kate had less time to visit the couple, but still once a week she would pop in for a cup of tea and, swinging her legs from the stool behind the counter, she would listen to Radio 2 and watch the customers buy vast quantities of potatoes.
Next to Eric and Mavis was Mr Watkin the butcher. Mr Watkin was an old man, Kate estimated probably seventy-eight. He was a nice man with a nice wife, but very few people bought their meat from him any more. Kate thought this possibly had something to do with the way Mr Watkin stood in his shop window swatting flies against the sides of meat with a large palette knife. It was also perhaps a self-perpetuating situation, in that the fewer customers Mr Watkin had, the less meat he stocked, and the less meat he had, the less he looked like a butcher, and the more he looked like a crazy old man who collected and displayed bits of flesh in his front window. The previous week Kate had passed the window to see it contained only a single rabbit (and Kate was sure the only person alive who still ate rabbit was in fact Mr Watkin himself), some kidneys, a chicken, a side of pork and a string of sausages. This in itself was nothing too remarkable for Mr Watkin, but what caused Kate to stop and stare was an apparent new marketing initiative by the butcher. Evidently he had become a little embarrassed by the minimal nature of his window displays and so perhaps in order to make them seem less odd (and this is where Kate felt he’d really miscalculated), he had arranged the items in a jaunty tableau. Thus it appeared that the chicken was taking the rabbit for a walk by its lead of sausages, over a hillock of pork under a dark red kidney sun. Kate looked up from the grisly scene to see Mr Watkin nodding at her in amazement from inside the shop, thumbs aloft, as if taken aback by his own flair.
On the other side of Kate’s house was Mr Palmer the newsagent. Mr Palmer worked alongside his son Adrian, who was the closest Kate had to a best friend, and was also the first and so far only client of Falcon Investigations. Adrian was twenty-two and had been to university. Mr Palmer had wanted Adrian to get a ‘proper career’ after graduation, but Adrian had no such ambitions, and was happy to spend his days reading behind the counter and helping to run the small business. The Palmer family lived in a modern semi on the outskirts of town, but the mother and sister rarely visited the shop — sweet selling was left to the men of the family. Adrian treated Kate like an adult, but then Adrian treated everyone the same. He wasn’t capable of putting on a different face for different customers as his father did. Mr Palmer could switch from an avuncular ‘Now then, young man’, to an utterly sincere ‘Such a shocking headline, isn’t it, Mrs Stevens?’ in seconds.
But, whatever Adrian’s enthusiasms were, he tended to assume they were shared by all, or at least would be if he spread the word. He spent his afternoons buried in the NME or reading books about musicians. He would earnestly recommend albums to his customers, seemingly blind to the improbability of Mrs Docherty suddenly switching from Foster and Allen to the MC5, or Debbie Casey and her giggling teenage pals ever finding much of significance in Leonard Cohen. As soon as Mr Palmer left him alone in the shop, Jimmy Young’s radio show would be switched off and Adrian would slip a tape into the tinny radio cassette player. He thought that the reason no one ever asked him what was playing was because they were a little shy, so he would always put a scrawled sign on the counter: ‘Now Playing: Captain Beefheart, Lick My Decals Off, Baby. For more information just ask a member of staff’.