In What Was Lost, British novelist What Was Lost Catherine O’Flynn provides a tween Nancy Drew, though the novel’s designed for much older readers. Long-listed for the Booker Prize, short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award, and winner of the Costa First Novel prize, What Was Lost concerns Kate Meaney, a Birmingham, England, girl who styles herself an amateur detective—but who eventually goes missing.
When first introduced, Kate, like Ms. Drew, has a doting father, an absent mother, and an avid interest in crime fighting. Kate doesn’t tool around in a sporty auto, though—she must rely on scummy public transportation. And where Nancy relies on the help of bosom friends and a handsome admirer, Kate’s colleague is a stuffed toy named Mickey the Monkey, a natty dresser sporting a striped suit and spats. The novel opens in 1984, as Kate makes the rounds of a Birmingham shopping mall, searching out crime. The book then fast-forwards to 2003, when Kate has long since vanished. Two mall employees—Lisa, a record-store worker, and Kurt, a security guard—have eerie sightings of the girl. Though the trail’s long cold, they begin to probe her disappearance.
O’Flynn daubs a portrait of a singular child, precocious, suspicious, and likely rather annoying. (She’s much more genial, however, than that other young sleuth, Harriet the spy.) Kate spends her days dreaming of her future business cards (“Falcon Investigations. Clues found. Suspects trailed. Crimes detected”). She also keeps a notebook in which she jots immoderate observations, such as this description of a man in a restaurant: “Think he is American, looks like bad men in Columbo. Suspect he is a hired assassin. . . .” O’Flynn also efficiently depicts the lives of Kurt, in thrall to his dead girlfriend and failing father, and Lisa, miserable at her job and living with a man who utters such inspirational koans as: “That’s the point of life, isn’t it? To waste time until you die.”
Certainly O’Flynn’s talents lie in creation of character. But her plot shambles and digresses, occasionally stopping entirely to jump into the heads of anonymous denizens of the mall where Lisa and Kurt work. Attempts at figurative language or extended allegory are frankly embarrassing—as when she likens the mall to a living creature or compares service-industry workers’ lives to those of panda bears. With luck, O’Flynn’s subsequent novels will simplify plot, leave metaphor alone, and draw on her ability to render distinct personalities in pen and ink, granting her characters detailed lives. She may have quite a career as a mystery novelist if one believes, as Henry James intimated, that the human heart is the greatest mystery of all.