WHAT WAS LOST won the 2007 Costa First Novel prize and was long-listed for the Man Booker and Orange prizes. It’s a long while since I’ve read a book so well regarded by the literary critics, as, after all, I mostly read crime fiction, a genre unloved by the mainstream award givers. WHAT WAS LOST has perhaps sneaked under the judges’ radar as the mystery is pushed to the background for the major section of the novel and is mostly the catalyst for the other elements: the social commentary and the romance. It is a compelling novel and extremely readable.
The book opens with a section told by ten-year-old Kate Meaney, a budding private investigator with her trusty stitched monkey toy as her assistant. Kate is very bright and spends a lot of time watching for crime at the Green Oaks shopping centre, a huge complex near Birmingham. She also spends time at the sweetshop next door to her home, discussing music with Adrian, the 22-year-old son of the owner. An orphan, she’s looked after (loosely speaking, it seems) by her grandmother, who wants Kate to attend a boarding school. Reluctantly Kate agrees to take the entrance exam. Adrian accompanies her to the school and that is the last anyone sees of Kate Meaney. She vanishes into thin air. Police suspicion falls on the strange relationship between Kate and Adrian and after all the gossip, Adrian leaves home, not to be seen again for 20 years.
Jump forward 20 years to the Green Oaks Centre where we meet Lisa, a duty manager at Your Music, and Kurt, a security guard on the night shift. One night, Kurt sees a little girl on one of the CCTV monitors, a girl clutching a toy monkey. He is unable to find her though, and, later crossing paths with Lisa, she agrees to help him find her. Through their developing relationship, information long suppressed comes to the fore and helps solve the mystery of Kate Meaney.
I couldn’t put WHAT WAS LOST down. As well as the Kate Meaney mystery, there’s a fascination to what goes on behind the scenes at a huge shopping mall; the poorly lit unpainted miles of corridors; what it sounds like when there’s no musak. The book also explores what Green Oaks meant to the local community, having been built on old factory sites and the men being forced to take menial (aka women’s) jobs, and also the current obsession with shopping. Green Oaks is as much a character as Lisa, Kurt and Kate, if not so likeable, and much of the action seems to take place in its gloomy depths. There’s also quite a lot of humour, unintentionally by Kate in her detective notebook and more obviously in Kurt’s dealings with his Green Oaks statistician security guard partner, and his attempts to avoid his eye and subsequent monologues.
Reminiscent of Suzanne Berne’s A CRIME IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD, I much preferred WHAT WAS LOST, not least for the fact that you do get a resolution. A bonus pleasure was the references to places I’m familiar with, e.g. Sutton Park, that I rarely come across in fiction.
An amazing debut novel. Catherine O’Flynn will be hard pushed to top the outstanding critical reception it has deservedly received. – Karen Meek
This review is republished with the kind permission of Euro Crime
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.