What Was Lost could have been two different novels: a delightful children’s story about a girl sleuth, or a gothic tale of urban despair.
Catherine O’Flynn chooses the darker path, but only after making us fall in love with Kate Meaney, a ten-year-old aspiring detective who hangs around a shopping mall making notes on suspicious-looking characters.
“Tuesday, 24 April
Nothing to report today. Man seen eating orange peel from brown paper bag. Followed him for 40 minutes but no further deviance observed.”
“Thursday, 26 April
Tall white male seen today hiding in tropical shrubbery area in central atrium. Appeared to be talking to a leaf. No criminal motive apparent so Mickey and I moved away quickly.”
Mickey is Kate’s assistant, a toy chimp that Kate removes from her tote bag to monitor suspects while she’s having lunch. Outside school hours, Kate is the founder, owner and principal operative of Falcon Investigations, named after a Humphrey Bogart film she admires. She dreams of distributing business cards to clients and fingerprinting criminals, though as yet she owns neither cards nor an ink pad.
Kate inhabits a world of disillusioned adults, and the shoppers she trails are not criminals, but denizens of Green Oaks Shopping Center, a glass-and-concrete monolith that has sucked the economic life and character from Kate’s community. The mall is a vast haunted house populated by disturbed customers harboring frightening thoughts.
One day Kate mysteriously disappears. Nineteen years later, a Green Oaks security guard spies her on a surveillance camera. But personal grief, sleep disorder and his sinister environment have so distorted his sense of reality that he cannot trust his vision. His only confidant is a music store supervisor whose brother was once a suspect in Kate’s disappearance.
This novel lifted my spirits and broke my heart at the same time. Rare and precious is the author who can do that. Thus, I regret that I must downgrade my rating to three stars due to her excessive use of profanity and foul language. Otherwise, What Was Lost is a cut above conventional mystery novels.