Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost muddles generic distinctions. It’s either crime fiction busy trying to pretend to be something else, or perhaps more interestingly something else trying to deny that, in the end, it contains all the elements and formulae of the detective novel, albeit rearranged and (somewhat) displaced.
I say that the formulae of crime fiction are only somewhat displaced because, in the end, the mystery that (perhaps reluctantly) drives the plot is eventually resolved. The clues all line up, the victim’s fate is discovered, the suspect falsely accused is vindicated, the true perpetrator arrested, the case is closed, and the book ends with the detective’s interior monologue:
I’ve got a signed confession. I’ve got your notebook. I’ve got your loyal partner sealed in an evidence bag. I’m driving home straight into the setting sun. [. . .] The light is all around me. (242)
This is a pity. It does, however, justify the otherwise curious omission of a question mark from the book’s title: in the end we think we know what was lost, what was missed the first time round, as the novel almost slavishly obeys the generic convention that no loose ends can be left behind.
The pity is that we become distracted by the clever touches of plotting as evocative incidents earlier in the narrative are overdetermined by their subsequent role in tying down the book’s denouement. To give just one example: a character remembers exploring the building site on which a late twentieth-century mall is being expanded to displace the mid-century factory that once stood there; he discovers a fissure within this process of erasure and remodeling, an underground cavern in which something of the place’s past is preserved, if now in almost meaningless disorder, “an old scrolling blackboard with nothing written on it, bits of machinery, an old umbrella” (106). But it turns out that this underground recess becomes the key to the detective story plot, and as such suddenly almost emptied out of its broader resonances; it’s merely a convenient place in which a body can go undiscovered.
In short, my strong recommendation is that no reader go further than page 228. This is where we find the only twist in the tale, the book’s one surprise as the name of the mostly absent detective is finally revealed.
I recognize that I am here spoiling the plot: but really, even as far as crime fiction plots go, it’s thin and quite predictable. If read as detective fiction, What Was Lost is unsatisfying.
Fortunately, the novel offers other satisfactions, most of which revolve around the book’s real mystery, the one element that survives the crime fiction gesture to clear up what had been obscure and to clarify what was hitherto muddy. This is the fantasmatic glimpse of a young girl on the shopping mall’s CCTV camera, spotted first in the early hours of the morning by a sleep-deprived and somewhat irritable security guard named Kurt.
For What Was Lost is less about loss than it is about visibility. It’s about a young girl who wants to be invisible, to blend in; she can only find this feeling of comfortable anonymity at the mall, where “nobody knew her. She wasn’t the quiet girl from class. She wasn’t the girl with no mom and dad” (45-6). But perhaps ironically, she wants to disturb the anonymity of others, to survey them unseen as “a detective, an invisible operative gliding through the malls, seeing things that nobody else noticed” (46).
In the end, young Kate Meaney is led astray when she doesn’t realize that those surveyed can exert their own power over their surveyers. She doesn’t understand that “when someone’s watching you, you’re in charge. If you move, they move” (236). And ultimately she herself becomes the one surveyed, the ghost in the machine who exerts her own strange power upon the people who catch sight of her; and also upon the reader who glimpses her through and despite the formulaic detective fiction apparatus that surrounds her in this novel.
And it is true that in this surveillance society (and the UK, in which O’Flynn’s novel is set, is the most surveyed society in the world), sometimes we see revealed on the CCTV something that can never be resolved by reasoned analysis or even the workings of justice. There are some sights captured on the monitors that continue to haunt us now, long after the relevant cases are closed.