Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Today’s edition will be a little difficult for me; here’s why. I do as much as I can to be objective in this series. After all it’s intended to analyse books rather than review them. My purpose in the series is to take a look at what makes the novels I spotlight “tick.” But sometimes I cannot be as objective as I’d like. This is one of those times. But here goes anyway… Some crime fiction novels don’t completely fit the “typical” pattern (if there is one) in which there’s a crime (usually murder) followed by the investigation of that crime by a sleuth or group of sleuths. But that’s what part of what can make such novels unforgettable: they aren’t run-of-the-mill. Such a story is Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, so to show you what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.
The novel begins in 1984 when we meet ten-year-old Kate Meaney. Her dream is to be a detective and she’s already made a start of it. She’s got her own private investigation company Falcon Investigations. Her partner in her enterprise is Mickey the Monkey, who travels with Kate in her backpack. A new mall Green Oaks Shopping Center has just opened near the Midlands town where Kate lives and she spends quite a lot of time there observing everyone and looking for crimes to solve. She doesn’t have a lot of friends but that doesn’t really bother her.
One of Kate’s friends is twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer, son of the local newsagent. The other is her classmate Teresa Stanton. Both of Kate’s friends are nonconformists who understand why Kate isn’t interested in the things young people are “supposed to be” interested in doing.
One day Kate gets some distressing news from her grandmother Ivy, with whom she lives. Ivy thinks that it would be best for Kate to go away to school. Kate doesn’t want to do that as she likes her life as it is and she has her own plans. But Ivy doesn’t listen to Kate’s arguments and insists that she sit the entrance exams at Redspoon, an exclusive girls’ school. Adrian agrees to go with Kate to the school and she reluctantly agrees to go. The two board the bus for the school, but Kate never returns. A search is made for Kate but no evidence of her fate turns up – not even a body. The police soon pin their suspicions on Adrian Palmer. He insists he’s innocent but no-one believes him. In fact life is made so difficult for him that he leaves town, swearing never to return.
Twenty years later we meet Adrian’s younger sister Lisa, who is now Assistant Manager at Your Music, one of the stores at Green Oaks. She’s stuck in a dead-end job and a dead-end relationship and we can see how Adrian’s departure devastated her. One night Lisa happens to meet Kurt, a mall security guard who’s been having weird experiences of his own. Kurt’s been seeing a strange image on the security cameras – a young girl carrying a backpack with a stuffed monkey in it. When Lisa finds this out she’s shocked; the image reminds her of Kate Meaney, whom she met a few times although she never got to know the girl well. Lisa and Kurt begin to form an awkward kind of friendship that develops as they explore, each in a different way, what happened to Kate Meaney. In the meantime Teresa Stanton has joined the police force and is now DCI Stanton. She too has been haunted by Kate Meaney’s disappearance and when she finds out that the truth about Kate may finally come to light she takes a personal interest in the case. In the end Lisa, Kurt and Teresa get what you could call closure as we find out what really happened to Kate Meaney.
One of the strong elements in this novel is the profound sense of loss that results from Kate’s disappearance. Although Kate is fairly inconspicuous, she had a powerful effect on people mostly because she was very much alive and had such an original mind. We see the devastating effect of her disapperance on the lives of those she left behind, even those who didn’t know her well. Every one of the main characters is left with a void that’s related in some way to what happened to Kate. They fill that void with a superficial existence that you couldn’t really call living.
Loss is explored in other ways too. For instance, the coming of Green Oaks means the loss of the “village” way of life with downtown shops. For those who own and frequent those shops this change represents an almost funereal farewell to a bygone way of life.
O’Flynn also explores the “mall culture” of the eighties. Malls were optimistically designed so that shoppers could find everything they wanted under one roof – no more weather- or travel-related inconveniences. And in that sense they succeeded. And yet malls also represent loss too: a loss of original, family-owned stores, a loss of uniqueness (look at any mall’s offerings and you’ll see a real “samey-ness”) and a loss of the culture that had been built around downtown areas. And in their place malls generated large crowds, a rarefied atmosphere and what I think I can best describe as a “plastic” superficiality. As you’ve no doubt already figured out, that “mall culture” reflects some of the larger themes of the novel.
The characters in this novel are powerfully drawn too. Certainly Kate Meaney is the most scintillating “alive” character and that’s ironic since she’s the one who’s disappeared. The other characters though have fascinating depths as we learn their stories bit by bit. And although you could not call this at all a happy novel, there’s a sense of a little hope. Without giving away spoilers, we see how learning the truth about Kate’s disappearance returns to Lisa, Kurt and Teresa what you might call a piece of themselves. We follow their journeys as they face themselves and that makes them interesting characters.
There’s also the Midlands setting for this novel. It’s industrial, certainly not scenic and at some points quite bleak. And yet it has its own life and it serves as an extremely fitting background for this novel.
What Was Lost is the story of a mystery and how it’s solved. It’s also a powerful novel about loss, about going on and about an unforgettable little girl who likely had no idea of the effect she had on others. Please. Read. This. Novel. Whoops – did I say that aloud? Sorry…No, I’m not.
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 10 September/Tuesday 11 September – The Cold Dish – Craig Johnson
Monday 17 September/Tuesday 18 September – Deadly Tide – Sandy Curtis
Monday 24 September/Tuesday 25 September – Baptism – Max Kinnings